Meet the Holocaust Survivor and Poker Superstar Who Invented Transformers
Henry Orenstein has lived multiple lives, all of them unbelievable. He is a Holocaust survivor, creator of the toy Transformers, and a poker superstar whose invention is arguably responsible for the game’s explosion in popularity. Now in his 90s, no other human being has beaten the odds so many times.
It is a miracle this native of Poland even made it out of his 20s. Abigail Jones looked back at his life in Newsweek:
“He and his siblings (three brothers and a sister) were prisoners at Budzyn, a German labor camp near Krasnik, Poland, and he’d kept himself alive in the years leading up to the war by making insane, desperate bets on the kindness of strangers—sleeping in fields, hiding in empty oil drums—and trusting his sharp instincts. Once, Henry had been caught by the Nazis and was being marched toward an execution pit when he shoved his watch and all his cash into the hands of a Ukrainian police officer, then sprinted down a side street, wondering with every stride if that officer was going to shoot him in the back.”
While imprisoned, he responded to a Nazi request for scientists and mathematicians by pretending this applied to everyone in his family. (Technically, it applied to none of them.) Incredibly, they weren’t found out and his bold decision saved his life.
He eventually emigrated to the United States and entered the toy industry. In 1958, his “Betty the Beautiful Doll” made him his first million. Of course, his toy career reached its peak with Transformers. Stumbling upon a small Japanese toy car that turned into a plane, he connected Japan’s Takara with America’s Hasbro. Soon a franchise began that continues to make terrifying amounts of money today. (The film series is approaching $4 billion at the global box office.)
The final and still ongoing chapter of his life is poker. Orenstein created a poker table equipped with hole-card cameras. Suddenly, poker could be engaging viewing on TV. (The audience at home could now see what players had in their hands and watch as the suspense unfolded before their eyes.) Of course, Orenstein also became a great player in his own right. He won the 1996 World Series of Poker Seven Card Stud tournament. He also defeated the legendary Chip Reese, the high-stakes cards champion. (Jones calls this a “feat that’s like beating Michael Jordan in a game of horse.”)
To read more about a truly remarkable man and the many, many absurd twists his life took, click here. See a little more of Orenstein below; and at the bottom, revisit the first time Transformers reached the big screen, featuring the voices of Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles.