Samuel Goldwyn’s
Rags to Riches Story

By Seth Shafer

The life of Samuel Goldwyn reads very much like a movie that one of America’s greatest film pioneers would have produced; he immigrated to the US penniless and armed only with a smattering of English but would rise to become one of the icons of the film industry. His willingness to take big risks and gamble it all not only served him well in the new fledgling film industry but also at the high-limit poker games he was so fond of. Long before online casinos and poker games became popular Goldwyn and friends played in a weekly poker widely known as the richest in Hollywood, with $20,000 chips and millions of dollars exchanging hands over the course of the games.
Goldwyn began life living in Jewish ghetto in Warsaw as Schmuel Gelbfisz, leaving his family at age 15 to strike out for America. He eventually made his way to Canada and crossed over illegally to the US on foot, finding work in New York garment factories. He changed his name to Samuel Goldfish and legally became a US citizen in 1905. He quickly was promoted and eventually moved into sales, where his marketing skills and business-savvy served him well. A visit to a nickelodeon in New York convinced him to take another big gamble and venture into the film industry, which was just taking root in the US.
His newly formed company had a hit right out of the gates with “The Squaw Man” in 1913, which was the first feature-length movie produced in Hollywood, not only serving as a foundation for Goldwyn’s success in the film industry but also establishing Hollywood as ground zero for all things film related. He would legally change his name again in 1918 -- this time to Samuel Goldwyn -- and would remain a titan of the film industry for decades to come, producing hits such as Arrowsmith, Wuthering Heights, and with The Best Years of Our Lives (which won the Academy Award for Best Picture).
Many of the stars he discovered as well as studio heads would join him for his famous weekly poker games held each Sunday at his house, with Darryl Zanuck, Jack Warner, David O. Selznick, and Cecille B. DeMill among the regulars. Long before Texas Hold’em and video poker became popular, the weekly game was largely recognized as the biggest in Hollywood, with hundreds of thousands of dollars won and lost each week -- a staggering sum for the time. The poker game actually had some impact on the film industry as well, as one rumor was that Goldwyn managed to pry actress Bette Davis away from Jack Warner for one of Goldwyn’s film by offering to forgive a $425,000 poker debt.

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About The Author

Seth ShafferSeth Shafer has spent the last five years covering live poker tournaments around the world and writing for a variety of websites including CasinoGuide.
Before catching the gambling bug he received his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Texas, studying screenwriting and fiction writing; publications have included Zoetrope All-Story, The Texas Review, the Mississippi Review, and StorySouth.


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Samuel Goldwyn’s Rags to Riches Story