Zionist Flush: Finally, the Israeli Flag Is Planted at a Poker-playing Shrine

Israeli Amir Lehavot was among nine contestants competing for the $8.3 million top prize in this month’s World Series of Poker event in Las Vegas.

Omer Shubert
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Omer Shubert

LAS VEGAS − Eight hours. Eight continuous hours of constantly weighing the possibilities. Eight hours, consisting mainly of doubt and suspicion and considering the options. There was drama aplenty, and huge sums of money at stake − even a massive panda doll that was evicted from the hall, escorted by guards. But all the excitement lasted a total of no more than a few minutes.

All the rest of the time was devoted to consideration and reconsideration. And when you think beyond all the razzle-dazzle for a moment, you understand that, in order for the $26 million to be laid down on this green felt table − there it is, just sitting there − an awful lot of people had to lose an awful lot of money, maybe even an entire life.

But now we’re in Las Vegas, a location that has been engineered to create a situation that offers no excuse to break away from the intensive atmosphere. Eight hours straight of watching people play cards? No problem; they are piping in enough oxygen-enriched air to make all of us alert and happy.

At least, as long as all of us are being dealt the right cards.

The Penn & Teller Theater, at the Rio Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, is hosting the final round of the World Series of Poker ‏(WSOP‏), and Las Vegas is all dressed up for the occasion. Dressed in an extra sweater, perhaps, because it is early November and the pools are closed, but celebration is most definitely in the air.

In parallel with the current tournament − better known as the World Poker Championship − an important moment in the history of the Zionist enterprise is taking place: the flag of Israel is making its first-ever appearance in this shrine to poker-playing.

Israel’s WSOP debut may be attributed, first and foremost, to Amir Lehavot, who left the country at age 16 and has lived in America for over 20 years, but also to regulatory changes in the world of poker in the United States. The Zionistic act is Lehavot’s small protest against the current state of affairs in his adopted country.

"I love Israel a lot, but I identify more closely with America, and when all is said and done I have chosen to live here and to pay taxes here and I intend to continue living here,” he says. “At the same time, I am very unhappy with the fact that they’ve made it illegal to play poker on the Internet in the United States. In my opinion, it is a decision made out of political motivations. In practice, it is easier to play online poker now in Israel, although there, as well, the legal situation is unclear. In the United States, you can’t play at all. So I’ve decided to represent Israel here − and because I love the country so much, it was an easy decision to make.”

Quiet war of attrition

After a brief meeting with Lehavot, one could suppose that even without the regulatory issues and his desire to voice a protest, Lehavot would have chosen to represent Israel. It is sufficient to take a quick look at his gallery of invited guests to understand why. Seated behind the Israeli flags are dozens of cheerleading friends from Israel, colleagues at the Israeli high-tech company in which Lehavot has invested, and his family, which, even after all these years in America, prefers to speak Hebrew.

“We have been here many years, but we are still Israelis,” says his proud father, Zev, who is having a hard time dealing with the tension. “I have three children and all of them are scattered around the United States. Each one went off to study something else, and their professions took them to different places. My daughter is in Portland and my other son is in North Carolina. At least Amir still lives near us, in Florida. He has a house there, where he spends a lot of time. Today we are having a family get-together; everyone has come in.”

Besides, there are already more than enough Americans here: five of the poker players in the final round − the November Nine − are from the United States. The remaining three players are from Canada, Holland and France ‏(although the latter lives in Britain‏).

The Israeli flags hold a certain attraction for the on-site director for ESPN ‏(not quite as much as the panda, but still‏), which is broadcasting the event live, and he will dwell on them more than a few times during this endless broadcast that is being watched by millions of people. ‏(In the next few months, repeats of the broadcast will be shown on an endless loop and be watched by tens of millions of viewers around the world.‏)

Lehavot sits down at the poker table with the 29.7 million chips that he has accumulated so far in the tournament, which ranks him second in “chip position” in the main event. It is an outstanding opening position.

The tournament began back in July with 6,352 players − including 298 women − from 83 countries. Each participant purchased chips at $10,000. It isn’t only professional poker players who come here. Players include ordinary people with money who want to try their luck, and also quite a few celebrities.

This year’s contestants included “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander and the Barcelona soccer player Gerard Pique.

The top 648 received a handsome return on investment, ranging from $19,000 for 648th place to $500,000 for tenth place ‏(the average prize is $93,000 per player‏). The remaining 5,704 players ‏(including Alexander, of course‏) went home with $10,000 less in their bank accounts. But that is small potatoes compared to the $26.6 million that will be divvied up between the nine finalists in a very unequal split, ranging from $733,000 for a ninth-place finish to $8.3 million for the first-place champion.

The players enter the dazzling theater escorted by young women in bikinis, amid the roar of a crowd that numbers about 1,200 people. Not a single American motif is not covered in this event, from the over-enthusiastic announcer to the overpriced merchandise being hawked to the noisy supporters of the various camps of supporters, who have come outfitted in matching T-shirts and original costumes. Aside from Lehavot’s supporters. Among them you will not find T-shirts with original designs, horse-head masks or colossal panda dolls. All you will find is one unassuming sign ‏(“Fear Amir”‏) and four Israeli flags.

They also happen to be the smallest cadre of supporters, comprising fewer than 50 people. The gang mainly includes friends and family, but also Moshe, a locksmith from Las Vegas ‏(“There is a lot of money in this city, particularly when it comes to locks. I am a poker nut, so I came to cheer him on”‏). And then there are the kiosk kids who sell Dead Sea products at the hotel at inflated prices ‏(“There are a lot of kiosks owned by Israelis and competition is fierce, but we have a good location”‏).

Lehavot’s small and well-behaved audience, which is not taking part in the very vocal wars that develop between the other camps, does not inhibit Lehavot from opening his game in a dynamic fashion. After an hour and a half of play and a few successful bets, he moves into first place. “Dynamic” is a description that belies reality in the context of this tournament. Most of the time, nothing is happening. The players end most hands without showing their own cards, and without the dealer flipping over the cards that remain on the table. It is a war of attrition that goes on, hour after hour: showing one’s hand, or betting large amounts of money, occur only rarely. At least there is a huge panda in the room.

Works for fun, plays for money

Lehavot, 38, is married to an American and is the father of a year-old son. He has a home in Weston, Florida, and a home in San Francisco, dividing his time between them. Lehavot is the oldest contestant among the November Nine ‏(there is a 36-year-old American, but everyone else is under 30‏). Lehavot has a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, and until 2008 worked as an engineer and lived a thoroughly routine life.

Now he is a full-time poker player. “I was sure that he had gone crazy,” recalls his father. “Suddenly he tells me he is leaving everything behind and taking a year off, to think. At first, he didn’t tell us what exactly he was going to do. I am an engineer, too, and we worked in the same field, and I knew how hard it had been for him to get to where he was. He was already serving as a director, and was earning a huge amount of money. I didn’t understand what he was thinking.”

Lehavot had played poker on the Internet as a hobby for years, but did not think it would become a profession. He left his job in order to set up PokerWit, a professional poker-players’ site. At the time, he was certain it would be a moneymaker. “I had found that most of the sites providing information for poker players are simply forum sites, and there was nothing professional out there that was dedicated solely to poker,” he says.

“I attempted to do something more focused, which would be designed specifically for poker players − but, commercially speaking, the site never took off. I still maintain it for the fun of it. I meet players there from all over the world and enjoy talking with them. I am no longer trying to make money from it. I realized it was more worthwhile to spend my time and money playing poker.”

His work on the site induced him to play more, mainly in Internet tournaments. “Until then, I used to play poker occasionally, but the work I did on the site exposed me to the opportunity to play online, and I liked it. Back in 2008, I was already making a decent amount of money from it, and I also liked the lifestyle − you play when you feel like it, at a time of day when you want to play. At first, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it full-time. The problem with it is that you can play 24 hours a day, and when it is something that you love to do, that isn’t exactly a recipe for a balanced life. Over time, I learned to deal with it, and I was pretty happy. If you are a successful poker player, you have more opportunities to run your life around it.”

In 2011, after the poker sites became illegal in the United States, he began to focus on taking part in professional poker tournaments. Lehavot played for three months in Europe, and at times travels outside the United States to continue playing online. In 2011, he took first place in a tournament that is smaller than the WSOP and won $570,000, the largest prize he’s won to date. In 2012, he barely played due to the birth of his first child ‏(“That is the most positive thing about poker − you are so flexible”‏), and now he is here in the round of nine finalists, which − no matter what happens − will bestow on him a cash prize that will exceed anything he has won until now.

Following two hours of play, something is finally happening. Mark Newhouse, the American who made it to the final round with only seven million chips, bets everything he has ‏(“all in”‏) and loses, ending his run in the tournament. A quarter of an hour later, the Dutch player, who is eating a banana while he plays, is also out. Now there are seven players left at the table, and Lehavot tries to play a more aggressive game. But his king and jack cannot beat a king and ace, and his 35 million chips are whittled down to 24 million. He is starting to lose altitude.

Four hours and hundreds of poker hands later, he again bets on half the chips in his stack, and the cards once again go against him. Now he drops to last place, and with only 12,000 chips in his stack it will be hard for him to survive. “He’s already come back from more difficult situations, but now it really is a matter of luck, and he needs a lot of luck,” comments his father, who is showing more signs of pressure than his son; it seems as if every hand here is taking years off his life. “This is simply nerve-racking,” he groans.

Lehavot seems to know precisely what needs to be done, even in such situations. And the truth is that he doesn’t have to do that much. From here on, he will not play a very active game; instead, he folds in nearly every hand. Lehavot will patiently wait until he is dealt two very good cards on which he will bet everything he has. “I played very cautiously because every advance in my ranking was very important for me. There is a $500,000 difference or more between each ranking,” he later explained. “My style is much more aggressive, but here I had to adapt my strategy because I had the fewest chips. I play a lot, so I am familiar with these situations. I know it is the nature of the game to have one’s ups and downs. I’m used to it. I didn’t feel any tension or pressure. I love playing poker and here, too, I managed to enjoy it. My family and friends in the stands were much more on edge than I was, that’s for sure.”

Sitting in the first row in Lehavot’s gallery were four fellow card players, professional poker players who came here to help Lehavot. They are equipped with iPads, with which they are tracking online blogs that are analyzing the competition in real time, as well as the TV broadcast itself. ESPN is showing the cards each player has been dealt, with a 15-minute delay, and this helps them to analyze rivals’ playing styles: who is bluffing, who is anxious, and who is just having bad luck. A few days earlier, Lehavot and his buddies conducted a simulation of the final round. “We played for two days, and everyone was assigned the attributes of one of the players in the final round, and played according to his style. The truth is that the result surprised me. It definitely helped me.”

In addition, his preparation for the tournament included a lot of watching videos of his rivals, and a great deal of rest. “I am no longer a beginner, meaning that in any event I play my style of play, on the basis of the things I know. A good part of the preparation is simply resting. It is important to walk into a tournament like this with energy, because you play for hours on end. There are different areas of the game that I am still learning in greater depth, all sorts of statistics about various poker situations, and I am doing that, too.”

From the Web to gambling halls

Courts around the world are still periodically asked to rule on the question of whether poker is a game based on luck or skill. In other words, is it a game that should be classified as a sport or as unlawful gambling? In Israel, the courts have ruled that it is an unlawful game of chance, whereas in Denmark and France − and Pennsylvania − the courts have ruled that poker is a game relying mainly on skill and ability.

In spite of his high rate of success and the abundant time he devotes to memorizing statistical data, Lehavot believes that the element of luck plays a greater role. “If all you look at is a single tournament, then it’s all luck and that is definitely gambling. If you look at a sampling of many competitions, then you will see that I am in fact pretty successful. I can also lose in competitions, but over time there is definitely an element of skill. Nevertheless, I think it is more a matter of luck, because in one tournament everything can happen, and if you are not sufficiently cautious you will use all the money and you won’t have anything to play with in the next tournament.”

Then maybe poker shouldn’t be legal?

“I think poker should be legal, and that has nothing to do with it being a game of luck or not. Even if it is considered gambling, an adult should definitely be able to choose on his own whether to take part in it or not; the government should not decide for him.”

You could look at it as a social law, the objective of which is to minimize damages. Maybe that would cause fewer people to lose everything they own.

“By the same token, you could argue that investing in stocks is gambling, too. If you buy a stock for the short-term, there, too, are elements of luck − if it rains on the corn in which you’ve invested, or if the CEO wakes up in the morning with a headache and doesn’t function well. Luck also plays a role in the outside world. Only if you invest in a lot of stocks and for the long-term is there less of an element of luck.”

Recognition of the fact that the element of luck plays a significant role causes Lehavot − notwithstanding the tidy sums he has banked − to continue to conduct his career cautiously and reduce risks. He is scrupulous about selling a portion of his future profits to several investors, who underwrite his participation in tournaments. He has even offered for sale a portion of profit futures from the November Nine round, but in this particular instance, the amount he asked for was too high.

“I almost always sell 20 percent of the profit, and then the investors share with me in the initial amount that I have to put up. This helps me to advance and it reduces my risk. I have regular investors who always buy from me. This time, I wanted to sell an additional 30 percent, which would have left me only 50 percent of the winnings, but the amount I asked for was too high; I asked for $29,000 a point. It attracted a lot of publicity, but nobody bought in. It is pretty rare to sell percentages at this kind of stage. Neither does it pay for everyone to buy in, due to tax issues. Mainly, it is worthwhile for poker players who can balance it out with the money they lose elsewhere.”

How much do you pay in taxes?

“I’m at the high end of the tax rate. So far this year, even before this tournament, I’ve earned over $700,000. Forty percent of it went on taxes.”

Legitimate sports discipline

The WSOP tournament came into being in 1970 in downtown Las Vegas. It began as a social summit conference of the 25 greatest poker players of that era, most of whom are no longer alive. At the end of the meet, a vote was held to choose the greatest player in the world. Poker legend Johnny Moss received most of the votes. The following year, it was decided to abandon the voting and to hold a tournament whose victor would be crowned as the champion. Moss won that year, too. Over the years, the tournament has gained popularity and reputation, eventually reaching its peak in 2003, when it was first carried on a live broadcast by ESPN. That year, millions of viewers worldwide watched Chris Moneymaker take in $2.5 million, and poker became a legitimate sports discipline in the eyes of many.

Nolan Dalla is considered one of the more significant figures in the poker world. He is responsible for promoting the WSOP tournament, but his main occupation is writing books and articles on poker. “There are few sports that have the history and the stories you find in poker. Chess has an incredible history and I think that it is very similar. Fifty years from now, people will talk about the nine finalists sitting here around the table the way that people now talk about great chess players from 50 years ago,” he believes.

Do you think it is tenable to call it a sport?

“Yes. Sport is not only physical. Every athlete will tell you that sports are first and foremost a mental strain. After all, everyone can play golf − I can also pick up a club and hit a ball. Why is that a sport and poker isn’t? It requires a not-insignificant amount of effort to sit in a chair for so many hours under this pressure. Aside from that, professional players who play for the big teams − AC Milan, Real Madrid − all of them receive money without any connection to what is happening on the field. Here the players don’t get salaries, and if they don’t win, they lose money. So where is the pressure greater?”

Last January, Dalla mounted a well-publicized challenge to Sheldon Adelson, after the latter began to actively work against legalization of online poker games, having asserted that they are games of luck. In response, Dalla spearheaded a boycott of the casino at the Venetian − the Las Vegas hotel owned by Adelson − and called on other members of the poker community not to play there. The struggle led by Dalla and his counterparts in the community led to a specific change in the legislation. “The legal status of online poker is changing in some states; Nevada and New Jersey have already legalized it. They see that poker is a good thing,” says Dalla.

Nevertheless, due to federal law, the state laws only permit playing online with other players from the same state. This significantly reduces the number of participants and, accordingly, also the size of the pot.

Do you really believe poker is a good thing? A lot of people lose an awful lot of money.

“I think poker can be a good thing. In any case, it is something people enjoy doing, so there is no reason to ban it. Taxes should be levied on it, a fair and healthy environment should be fostered − one without cheating and deception. The poker world has changed a lot. Today’s players are no longer the drinkers and gamblers that were associated with poker in the early days. Today you see people who relate to it as a profession. There was a time when all the players were older, and a 30-year-old was considered very young, but online has changed everything. You can now learn poker very quickly, and you no longer have to go to Las Vegas to bet.”

I’m not so sure that is such a positive thing.

“This game represents all the good and the bad in American culture. The big victories, the big losses, the difficulties along the way. That is why so long as there is a Las Vegas and so long as there is an America, this tournament will continue to run. Personally, I do not like seeing people whose lives are ruined, but that is evolution. In the end, it is a game of survival, and survival over time. It is not a matter of loving it or not loving it. I simply cannot change it − that’s life. There is here both the good and the bad, and that’s what it is, that is America.”

Betting it all

It is 1 A.M. They’ve been playing for eight hours straight without a break. The defensive playing style is proving itself and Lehavot is still alive, having managed to survive and to surprise even the commentators. Now he is among the final five, after Marc McLaughlin − the annoying 25-year-old Canadian who runs over to his fans after every winning hand as if he’s scored a goal − is also dropped. Lehavot is still ranked last, with only 12,000 chips.

The time has come for him to bet his entire stake. He is holding a pair of jacks. Ryan Riess, the 23-year-old American with the amiable smile who is confidently leading, is betting on the hand as well. He holds an ace and a six. The Israelis in the stands are having a hard time dealing with the tension. The cards are opened. “Just not an ace, just not an ace,” everyone is praying. There is no ace.

The crowd is in heaven. Lehavot doubles his stake and is now ranked fourth.
The Israelis in the audience are starting to fantasize about the final. The ESPN director wants to have the Israelis moved to the adjacent gallery so that their flags will be visible in the center of the frame. Everyone happily moves over. The auditorium is now half empty, without a trace of the colorful fans of the players who have been dropped.

Gilad Zirkel ‏(an Internet company owner‏), Kfir Gov ‏(singer in the rock band Seek Irony‏) and Liron Langer ‏(a video editor at Keshet‏) declare that they will be prepared for the final and have creative shirts printed up for the entire gallery. They are old army buddies who set out on a trip to America. Lehavot was one of the first investors in Zirkel’s company, so when they heard he was playing here, they immediately headed to Vegas. In the morning, they play poker at the hotel ‏(“We try to play in Amir’s style”‏), and in the evening they are the die-hard fans in the gallery.

Langer ‏(“When you work at Keshet, you amass a lot of unusual knowledge”‏) spots in the nearby gallery Eshed Esh, whose 2009 audition on the Israeli reality show “A Star is Born” − in which he was dressed as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav − became a cult hit. Esh, as his T-shirt ‏(“Riess the Beast”‏) testifies, is now part of the Ryan Riess camp. “I am torn up inside, I already told Amir,” he apologizes, “but I am a friend of Ryan’s. We met each other through a common friend. I am also a poker player now, playing in smaller tournaments, and I am still a musician. But the truth is that I don’t earn a living from either. I work in the Internet. Which is why I don’t have a home and I travel around the world. I can work from anywhere.”

A huge stuffed panda − the good luck charm of American contestant Jay Farber, who has just now taken over first place − bursts onto the stage. Three guards charge at it and it is summarily expelled from the hall. The crowd doesn’t like it and begins to chant “Free the Panda.” This chant will be repeated every few minutes, and will also overflow the tournament’s official Twitter account. The director of the TV broadcast decides to pixelate the panda, due to the extra-large logo of 888, the Israeli gambling colossus, which is embossed on the doll. 888 is sponsoring two of the American contestants here.

Lehavot chose to go without sponsorship, and the shirt he is wearing promotes only the site that he himself owns. “I looked into it, but I did not receive any offers that seemed attractive enough to me, and neither did I want to represent a company with which I don’t feel comfortable. In the poker world, there are a lot of companies around which are question marks. Nor is it that much money. They are offering about $25,000 for every patch that you wear and that is viewed on air. You can wear three or four patches, but relative to the money of the competition, it really isn’t that much.”

Sylvain Loosli, the Frenchman, bets his entire stake, and is dropped. Lehavot is now among the three finalists, and the Israelis in the crowd are ecstatic, already celebrating his advance to the final that will be held the following day. But because it is only 1:10 A.M. and they haven’t yet played nine hours straight, the organizers decide that the game will go ahead. Either until 2 a.m. or until only two players are left.

Lehavot is dealt a pair of sevens and decides to go all in, but that is not enough to beat Ryan Riess’s pair of tens. Amir Lehavot’s run is over. Having finished in third place, Lehavot goes off to celebrate with his friends in the gallery. The panda and Eshed Esh’s 23-year-old friend will be playing tomorrow for the big money. “Relative to the amount of chips I had, betting my entire stake on a pair of sevens is considered pretty standard. I have no regrets about it; I’d do it all over again the same way,” he says. “I hoped for a higher place, but considering how things went, I am very pleased and content. I have never earned this much, not even close.”

The morning after, I come across Lehavot as he is leaving a room off to the side of the hotel. “I picked up the money,” he says, flashing an embarrassed grin, and shows me three envelopes. One envelope contains the check with the big money ‏(exactly $3,727,823‏), a second envelope that has the tax forms he must file, and a third envelope with a check for the interest the money has accumulated since the organizers received it three months ago ‏(“It came out to a ludicrous amount. All of the interest comes to $800”‏). Here there is no net-plus-30, no net-plus-I-forgot. The money is counted here in the lobby, near the slot machines.

What will you do with all this money?

“I don’t know. I’ll think about it, but for sure that will not be a problem. I am comfortable managing money and investments, and I invest a little in high-tech companies. I am sure I will not waste the money or put it into a risky investment.”

What do you have to do to become a professional poker player? From this view it looks tempting.

“My advice to 99.9 percent of people is not to get into it, and to keep it as a hobby. I think it is a sector in which it is quite hard to succeed, when compared to other sectors. In most economic sectors, it is sufficient to be average in order to receive a salary and hold a job. In poker, the average player loses money, and you can go for months on end without any income. People hear about the big winnings, but they don’t hear the thousands of stories of people who have tried and for whom it didn’t work out, people who lose lots of money. I do not recommend it.”

Nevertheless, what attributes does one need to succeed?

“The most important things are intelligence, both general and emotional, and a capacity for risk management. Nowadays, poker is not what it was 10 years ago, and the level of the players has gone up a great deal because everyone is playing online, and is exposed to a great deal of information and is amassing a lot of experience. On the Internet, you can now improve your game very rapidly.”

Will you take part in this tournament next year?

“I am certain I will be here next year, too. Even if I hadn’t earned any profit I would be back. It is a very good tournament. Aside from that, I am not going to become some rich, stuck-up, condescending person. You can still Skype me.”

Amir Lehavot ‏(center‏) at the World Series of Poker on November 5. Credit: Reuters
Amir Lehavot.