Raising the stakes: Jewish poker tourney on Christmas

Hanukkah has already come and gone, and that means you’ll have to wait another year to snag the coveted title in your family’s dreidel tournament. Fortunately, if you’re willing to pack your bags for Las Vegas, you may still win a handful of gelt this holiday season.

Last year’s winner, Terry Fleischer of Las Vegas

Registration is currently open for the second annual Jewish Poker Championships, a two-day tournament on Dec. 24 and 25 at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. The buy-in for the no-limit, Texas Hold ’em tournament is only $550 per player. Oy, such a deal.

“When you’re Jewish, you have two options on Christmas: Sit at home and watch 24 hours of ‘A Christmas Story’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ or order some Chinese food,” says Michael Balaban, a former Salinas resident who runs the tournament along with a high school friend, Andrew Rothbart. “We wanted to create an alternative.”

A retired Army sergeant who used to run Shabbat services on his base in Afghanistan, Balaban isn’t a professional poker player himself. But he grew up playing poker with his family and later with fellow soldiers.

“It was a family tradition to play poker instead of watching the Sunday [football] games,” says Balaban. “As far as playing with the pros, I know I would get eaten alive every time.”

Last year’s tournament attracted 18 players, including several big-name pros, such as four-time World Series of Poker champion Michael “The Mouth” Matusow ($8.6 million in career winnings), 2013 World Poker Tour Championship winner David “Chino” Rheem ($6.9 million), Mark Newhouse ($3 million) and San Francisco native Darren Rabinowitz ($500,000).

“Funny story,” says last year’s third-place finisher, Brad Wolf, a Bay Area resident at the time. “Chino is actually Asian, but somehow spoke more Hebrew than anyone at the tournament.”

Although fewer than half of last year’s players were actually Jewish, Wolf, who is Jewish as well as a former adviser for the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi at U.C. Berkeley, says the tournament has an inherently Jewish feel.

Last year, for example, the event kicked off with a performance by a Jewish comedian and included Jewish nuances like blue and white M&Ms and chocolate gelt for all. The subtitle of this year’s tournament is “When mazel tov is just not enough.”

“I had a blast,” says Wolf, who, at the time, worked at Wildfire, a division of Google, but has since embarked on a yearlong trip around the world. “I heard about it through a friend in the poker community and thought, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing better to do. Sounds like fun.’ It was a bunch of good people enjoying each others’ company on Christmas Eve.”

Poker is a popular pastime as well as a profession in the Jewish community. While Jews are less than 2 percent of the U.S. population and less than 1 percent of the world population, Balaban says they represent roughly 8 percent of the poker community.

He says three of the Top 10 professional poker earners around the world are Jewish: Erik Seidel, 26 titles and $18.5 million in career winnings; Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi, 23 titles and $14 million; and Jamie Gold, two titles and $12 million.

In addition, Balaban adds, three of the five top female earners are Jewish: Vanessa Selbst, 12 titles and $8 million in career winnings; Kathy Liebert, 22 titles and $6 million; and Vanessa Rousso, five titles and $3.5 million. (Note: All of the career statistics cited in this article are from www.carplayer.com).

Whether Jewish or not, not everyone has family to get together with on Christmas, Balaban says.

“This is a chance to get together with not only the Jewish community, but also the poker community,” he explains.

Balaban says he expects at least 50 players this year, with $500 of each player’s buy-in going into the prize pool.

In addition to the cash prize, this year’s winner will take home a handmade oil painting of the Jewish Poker Championships logo by Las Vegas artist Erik Greene. And won’t that look awesome next to the menorah next December?