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Holocaust Survivor Henry Orenstein is Toy-maker, Poker Player and Giver

April 6, 2005
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Henry Orenstein has nearly 100 toy patents to his name, and television sports insiders say he’s responsible for the TV poker boom that has hit the United States over the last several years. And though life for the 81-year-old Polish-born Orenstein certainly is good these days, getting to this point hasn’t been all fun and games.

Orenstein, who brought Transformers to the playrooms of millions of American kids and is now considered by some to be among the top poker players in America, spent the better part of World War II living in a succession of Nazi concentration camps, staying alive by dint of a spot in a special “kommando” of Jewish “mathematicians” — though he was no whiz at arithmetic.

“I was very lucky,” Orenstein says, an expansive view of Manhattan’s Central Park unfolding beneath the large windows of his New York apartment. “At one point, the runners were running around calling out for Jewish scientists, mathematicians, etc. to register.

“At that time, we’d heard that days before they killed off all 17,000 Jewish inmates in Majdanek, so I thought our turn is coming,” he continues. “And to play for time, I registered myself and my three brothers as scientists and mathematicians, even though we were not. Just gambling for time. It turned out to be a good gamble.”

It was one in a series of good gambles Orenstein — who was liberated from Sachsenhausen 60 years ago — would come to make.

Though he says the kommando was probably a sham, the creation of German scientists who supervised the group to avoid military service, it was deemed important to the German war effort. Participating in the kommando also helped Orenstein and his three brothers survive. That’s despite the fact, Orenstein says, that “any 8- or 9-year-old” could have done the arithmetic he was asked to perform while working for the squad.

After surviving the camps, one of Orenstein’s brothers was shot in the leg when Allied fighter planes strafed the train in which he was riding. The injury left him unable to walk. He was shot by Nazis and died about two days before liberation.

Decades later, in 1983, Orenstein convinced the Hasbro toy company to begin manufacturing Transformers — action figures that morph from wheeled vehicles into robots. Today, he says, they are among the two or three best-selling boys’ items of all time.

He also created Dolly Surprise, a doll whose hair grows when her arm is moved up and down, along with dozens of other toys.

Then, in 1996, Orenstein gambled his way to victory at the Horseshoe Hotel and Casino World Championship in seven-card stud, a form of poker, raking in $130,000 on a $5,000 entrance fee. Now, he spends 35 to 40 weekends each year playing cards at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J. — and this year, he says, he’s “slightly ahead.”

“Poker is a very fascinating game. You have many elements that go into making a good poker player,” he says. “You have to be able to calculate odds, you have to read other players’ faces and movements to see whether you can get what they call ‘tells’ — that tell you what kind of a hand they have — and also you have to have a good memory to remember cards.”

Twelve or thirteen years ago, Orenstein recalls, he was watching a poker tournament on the ESPN sports network and found the whole affair less than enthralling. The cameras picked up only the game’s open cards; the players’ hands and the hidden cards could not be seen.

“It was very, very boring to watch. And in fact, I checked on the audiences and they were very, very small,” says Orenstein, who has been married to his second wife, Susie, for 27 years and is the father of two grown children. “It was easy to understand why. If you don’t see the hand, how can you be interested? A thought struck me: If I could have an arrangement made where the audience on TV could see all the cards, closed as well as open, then it would be far more interesting.”

So he hired a team of engineers to work on a prototype of a card table with internal cameras that would make the previously unseen cards visible to television audiences. Within about five months, he said, the table was ready.

“He, more than any other person, is the sole reason for the explosion of poker in this country,” Jon Miller, senior vice president of NBC Sports, tells JTA. “He created the camera. Everybody who shows poker on television now uses his technology.

“Poker would be like blackjack if it weren’t for Henry Orenstein,” Miller adds, referring to a card game he says is less popular. “It would not be the event it is now.”

Still, when it comes to philanthropy, Orenstein is not willing to gamble. “I want to be sure that every dollar works,” he says. That’s why he takes a hands-on approach to giving away his money.

Jackie Ebron, director of crisis intervention at the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in New York, says that as a younger man, Orenstein himself went on “site visits” to see the people he had helped financially. Today, she says, though he can no longer “go to six-story walk-ups to check in on people,” he still personally OKs each allotment of funds he makes to needy people.

Recently, for example, he learned of a 21-year-old woman suffering from an eye disease who could not afford the $1,500 her specialized glasses cost and had not had a new pair since high school. Moved by her story, Orenstein bought her the new glasses.

“He has never, in the 29 years I’ve worked for him, turned down a case,” Ebron says.

William Rapfogel, the Met Council’s CEO and executive director, calls Orenstein “an extraordinary, extraordinary man.”

“Henry Orenstein has been our longest-running and most generous contributor. He is hands-on in his philanthropy and he has just been a phenomenal human being,” Rapfogel says. “He inspires others. We have other generous people who have come to Met Council who want to emulate him. That’s the best form of flattery you can imagine.”

Orenstein’s involvement in two poker telecasts is also, quite literally, hands on. He created and owns the Poker Superstars Invitational, which pits the world’s top card players against one another in a competition culminating in a televised final table, to be aired Super Bowl Sunday on NBC next year.

“I thought that if we just get the best professional poker players in the world, not only will it be exciting for the audience to watch it, but also they could learn from it,” he says.

And on May 1 — which happens to be one day shy of the 60th anniversary of the day he was released from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp — NBC will air the first of six episodes of the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, a 64-man, one-on-one, single-elimination Texas hold ’em competition, in which Orenstein is competing. The series has already been filmed, but NBC execs aren’t saying how Orenstein fared.

But win or lose, it seemed appropriate that on the anniversary of his personal liberation, Henry Orenstein would be making his latest gamble.

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