It's Illegal, but Poker’s Still a Big Deal in Israel

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Joe McKeehen of Philadelphia poses with stacks of cash after winning the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, November 2015.
Joe McKeehen of Philadelphia poses with stacks of cash after winning the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, November 2015. Was it all a matter of luck?Credit: AP

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has his way, Israelis could one day be transfixed in front of slot machines, roulette wheels or bluffing their way to poker victories at home and with the blessing of the law. This week, the Tourism Ministry (with the prime minister’s backing) proposed to develop as many as four casinos in the southern resort city of Eilat. But there’s one game of chance that is already a popular pastime in Israel – and for many, a livelihood. Even if it’s illegal and operating in the shadows, poker is thriving in the Holy Land.

Poker enthusiasts can play online or travel to countries where gambling is legal, such as Malta, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Israeli poker championships are held on ships outside territorial waters, with hundreds of players onboard. Texas Hold’em – the most popular version of the card game – is a big underground business, with events held in private clubs and homes far from the gaze of the law.

“There are two main ways of attending a Texas Hold’em evening,” says D., an amateur player in his 20s who works at a startup company and asked not to be identified by name. “Groups of friends organize it, or there are ‘clubs’ – also called ‘parties’ – where the games are actually arranged on a fixed schedule. The clubs are apartments given over to poker games; no one really lives in them. The clubs take a percentage, a kind of tax, on the winnings. That’s how they make their money.”

The clientele is quite varied, recounts D. “You can find ultra-Orthodox Jews, doctors and army officers,” he says. “Anyone who comes to an evening like this needs to be aware of the fact he’s going to gamble at least several thousand shekels. I spend a lot of time at places like this fairly often, and I have only happened to encounter signs of violence a few times.”

“There are people whose entire income is from organizing poker games,” says G., who also asked not to be identified by name. “There is also competition. Some of the tournament organizers have lofts, [where] there are fancy parties. The lofts are selective about their clientele – they don’t accept just anyone. At the regular parties, people lose their shirts and poker gets a bad name because of them.”

Poker is illegal in Israel. However, if the game is being played for its entertainment value alone, is not held at a prohibited location and is limited to a fixed circle of individuals, it will not be treated as criminal activity. Still, the organizers run the risk of three years in prison, while their clients are liable to face as much as a year in jail.

“I made a mistake and agreed to run an illegal tournament for someone,” recalls G. “There was a police raid and that’s how I found myself at a police station one night. The raids aren’t routine – it depends on which police district you’re in. There’s a sense that, in the Tel Aviv area, the police really dislike poker.”

Poker’s origins are believed to lie in late 19th-century America, while Texas Hold’em developed in the early 20th century. Texas Hold’em was introduced into Las Vegas casinos in the 1960s, and tournaments have even received airtime on U.S. television.

The person most responsible for the popularity of Texas Hold’em today is probably Chris Moneymaker. An anonymous accounting student at the University of Tennessee and an amateur player, Moneymaker (he insists it’s his real name) won the World Series of Poker in 2003. Until then, the championship was a closed club of professional players, but the young man’s victory brought the game to the world’s attention and turned Moneymaker into a card-playing legend, encouraging other amateurs to get in on the act.

The main dispute over the legality of the game involves whether players can affect their chances of winning, or whether it is purely a game of luck. Under the law, a game is illegal if the result is due to chance rather than ability – an issue that was front and center eight years ago when Eran Rok was convicted of organizing a poker tournament.

Rok, a leading figure in the world of Israeli poker, appealed the verdict and called in Prof. Zvi Gilula of the Hebrew University’s statistics department as an expert witness. Texas Hold’em, Gilula told the court, requires a substantial measure of skill and strategic judgment, and on that basis should be legal. Ability is far more important than luck, he asserted. In any event, he noted, the government itself has two gambling monopolies – Mifal Hapayis, the lottery game, and the Toto sports lottery, neither of which requires much skill.

No matter, Rok’s conviction was upheld. The court believed that the quality of the player’s hand is what determines their chances of winning. As far as the law is concerned, the only relevant evidence is how the game is actually played, not how an expert sees it.

Around the world, the law’s attitude toward poker varies. In Denmark, France and Pennsylvania, for example, the courts have ruled that Texas Hold’em is a game based mostly on skill. The game is legal in places such as Australia, Germany and Switzerland. Nevertheless, in most of the United States, online poker is illegal. A 2006 federal law against Internet gambling drove most of the U.S. gambling websites overseas.

Poker enthusiasts might like to see the law changed, but they aren’t making much of an effort at doing it. The Israeli Poker Union was formed to promote poker as a sport, but only about 120 people became fee-paying members and the group is now inactive.

Netanyahu’s new casino initiative would at last give players a handful of legal venues to play, albeit all of them in distant Eilat.

MK Oren Hazan (Likud) managed a casino in Bulgaria before getting elected to the Knesset last year. His name often comes up as a natural political ally to get poker on the right side of the law, but Hazan says he won’t get involved.

“I oppose gambling in Israel, oppose opening a casino, and I would be happy if they closed the lottery and Toto,” he says, noting that when he played, it was only in places where it was legal. “Israel is a small country. The first to be harmed by such things are the disadvantaged. If we educate the younger generation to be wary of the dangers of addiction and the negative sides of these games, maybe over the years some of these things can be legalized,” he adds.

As part of efforts to legalize Texas Hold’em in Israel, or at least decriminalize its players, poker enthusiasts are trying to enlist the support of high-profile advocates to their cause. One such advocate is Shimon Yaffe, a reserve Israel Air Force pilot who became enamored by the game several years ago and is a judge at Israel Poker Championship competitions in Europe.

“Since it’s not legal, we started by playing in private homes,” Yaffe recounts. “Then we began organizing social poker events, legal ones, that people can play in pubs instead of clandestinely. We played poker in social settings and spent small sums – the amount people would spend at a pub in any case. In return for the money, the players also got food and drink.”

Israeli poker has a bad reputation, Yaffe believes, because it is associated with organized crime and attracts dubious types. “Bridge, for example, is played by the elderly, so its image is different,” he notes. “Poker is a game of ability, particularly when we’re talking about a round of games and not just one hand. In a tournament there are a lot of hands, so the element of luck is reduced and strategy is critical. Evaluating poker based on one hand is absurd.”

To improve their playing skills, enthusiasts attend courses like the one run by the Israeli Poker Academy, which counts 600 graduates since it opened about a year and a half ago.

“Our goal is to give amateur poker players a professional’s perspective,” says Stas Tishkevich, one of the founders. “We expose the participants to the element of skill in the game, and show them how critical it is to their success.”

It’s an uphill battle, because it’s not just appeal court judges who think the game is all luck. “Just a minority believe that skill has an influence, and even fewer come to study,” says Tishkevich. “Most Israelis believe that luck is the decisive factor because most of them simply lose at poker, so it’s convenient for them to blame luck rather than skill.”

Luck or skill, poker’s problem remains that it involves gambling for money – and that inevitably brings with it a host of inseparable social ills, many of which are not recognized by the people suffering from them because, after all, poker and other gambling is “just a game.” One example is the 2011 murders of Jerusalem couple Nurit and Noah Maoz. Their son, Daniel – who was sentenced to two life terms – had been trying to get his hands on his inheritance money from his parents after his addiction to Texas Hold’em left him with huge debts.

“We also deal with shopping addiction, but very few people contact us with the problem because people perceive it as something natural and accepted,” says Nahum Michaeli, a social worker who manages the treatment unit for victims of alcohol and gambling for the Efshar nonprofit. “That’s also the problem with poker,” he adds. “Compared to problems like drug addiction, where people come for treatment at an early stage, those who come to us because of cards are usually at the more difficult end point .... Some do so after major complications – because if they still have money, they usually continue to gamble. There are some who have economically ruined their families,” says Michaeli.

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