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May / June 2006:

Slaying Goliath
You say you want a revolution? Call it upstart Judaism.

Essay by Steven I. Weiss

The question is begged, not only by Stu Ungar but the litany of Jewish notables in the poker stratosphere, what the hell a bunch of Hebrew tribesmen – and women – are doing foregoing med school for the green felt?

It’s easy to forget that only a few years ago, pro poker wasn’t the classiest of professions. Before the flick Rounders gave national attention to the World Series of Poker, and before the perfectly named Chris Moneymaker turned a $39 satellite entry into a $2.5 million payday, tournaments didn’t pay seven figures and most games outside the glitz of Vegas and a handful of other casinos were played illegally in backrooms and downtown apartments.

Try telling your mama and papa you’re going to schlep to Sin City and make your living by gambling on cards. Not much enthusiasm on their part?

Nevertheless, if ever there was a world perfectly crafted for Jewish competitors, it’s high-stakes poker. Seriously. Not that plenty of members of the tribe have made their way in professional athletics, but it’d be foolish to pretend the Jewish community has rewarded athletic achievement as much as cerebral exploits. When you sit down with a stack of clay chips and a couple of hole cards, nobody’s going to make you run the hundred-yard dash, but you better have a little skill with numbers and an eye for behavioral science.

Look at chess, another sport dominated by Jewish players, where psychology and an intense mental discipline are more important than muscle mass and flexibility. In the world of high-stakes poker, lightning fast calculations and a card catalog of memorized hands are what give the big time players an edge.

None of this is to say gentile players aren’t as smart or smarter when it comes to the cards. History shows Jews are no superior gamblers, but there’s no doubt that as a community, Jews have promoted the very traits that make poker pros so good.

The real charm of poker’s professional circuit, of course, is more cultural than competitive. Nowadays, Jews can take part in just about any sport they want to, but once upon a time it was easier to pony up to a table where all you needed was a bankroll and the chops to earn other players’ respect. Anti-Semitism existed to be sure, even the innocent variety borne out of country boy banter and general ignorance. Amarillo Slim, one of the founding fathers of high-stakes poker tournaments, once caused a stir by uttering “mother f---ing Jew” while retelling a story about Jewish comic (and Rat Pack straight man) Joey Bishop on a radio show. Nevertheless, if you could pay your way and play your way, that was all most pros cared about.

Indeed, the insider club meritocracy of poker had to appeal to members of a quasi-cloistered ethnicity that found themselves largely shut out of elitist plutocracies that dominated WASP culture. Where the uninitiated see copious slang and low-class types gambling their lives away, those in the know see a language meant to sift out the genuine articles from the wannabes and well-heeled card players grinding money off the lesser tourists and millionaire thrill seekers.

And so guys like Gabe Kaplan – of Welcome Back Kotter fame – found their way to the tables alongside men like Ungar and Jack Straus, Perry Green and David Sklansky, Eric Seidel and Steve Kaufman – that’s Rabbi Steve, a scholar of ancient languages at Hebrew Union College who consulted on the Dead Sea Scrolls and made the final table of the World Series of Poker in 2000. He was immortalized in Jim McManus’ book Positively Fifth Street along with a few other Jewish players.

Like Talmudists, these players parse out the best hands and the surest odds to a profitable turn of the cards and speak as if they were advanced rabbinic sages in language mere mortals can’t fathom. Take the following: “He limped with pocket johnnies only to flop a set and crack the American Airlines I was all in with.”

Translation: “He simply called the blinds with a pair of jacks and picked up a third jack when the first three community cards were turned over, giving him a better hand than my pair of aces, with which I had bet all the chips I had.”

Not that the translation necessarily makes sense either if you’re uninitiated, just like the Hebrew transliteration in your synagogue prayer book, but that is, of course, the point. Poker is open to any and all; you just have to learn the rules of the proverbial road.

Jews have a history of doing just that, especially in America, and so many of them have plunked down their currency and uttered the immortal words: “Shuffle up and deal.”

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