Memoir: I went from ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boy to millionaire poker champion
The ancient rabbis had a saying about gamblers. “What crime do dice-players commit?” they asked in the Mishnah. “They do not occupy themselves with the welfare of the world.” It was part of my education at the Orthodox Jewish theological school I attended near Chicago, where I spent 14 hours every day poring over the sacred texts. Every so often, I’d encounter yet another screed against gambling: that it was akin to robbery, that it was a form of usury, and that people who made it their profession were disqualified as witnesses at trial.
My father was a rabbi whose career took him to congregations around the world. I was born in Toronto, and when I was a kid, we jumped from South Africa to Australia to the States. Our family was Orthodox; I kept kosher, observed Shabbat, and wore traditional garments like a yarmulke and tzitzit. After graduating high school, I studied for a year at an advanced yeshiva near Jerusalem, where I immersed myself in the Torah and Talmud. My family expected me to enter a career in religion or medicine or finance—something stable and conventional.
I ended up at New York University, with a double major in finance and business management. Wall Street was 10 blocks away, and I hoped to get a job there. Then I met Andrew, my second-year roommate and a brash online poker buff who specialized in no-limit hold ’em. Watching Andrew play, I began to think like a real player. Gambling might be wrong, I told myself, but poker was different. It was a game of skill. Ever the conservative, I started out betting pennies. I probably made only $300 over the entire semester.
When I graduated in 2004, poker was still a hobby. Instead of Wall Street, I ended up in customer service at a software company. I was bored, underpaid and discouraged. One of the highlights of my life was a weekly hold ’em game with my friends back at NYU. The stakes were low—we had a $40 buy-in—but I was getting good. After a few months, the guys around the table started talking about Bodog, a new online poker site full of green players. I decided to give it a try, depositing $150. That first weekend, I made $15,000—half my yearly salary.
I quit my job 10 days later, planning to devote myself to poker full time. The hard part was telling my family. I was less worried about their reaction as Jews than their reaction as parents. They wanted me to be secure and settled. As a poker player, I’d be betting everything I earned, never sure if I’d have enough to pay my rent. I finally worked up the courage to tell them about my plan—and to my surprise, they were supportive. It wasn’t what they wanted, but they agreed that I should try it for six months. If I lost more than I made, I promised to get another desk job.
Reconciling my profession with my faith was a little harder. I spent hours debating the subject with scholars and friends. The ancient rabbis admonished the greed of betting high stakes, the laziness of playing instead of working, the flippancy of devoting your livelihood to luck. I argued that poker is less a game than a profession. That it was just like buying stocks or real estate: a precise calculus of smarts, aggression and risk.
For those first six months, I played exclusively online, quickly rising to the top of the Bodog leaderboards. Eventually, the site owners got in touch and asked me to represent them at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas—my first tournament. The website offered to pay all my expenses, including the $10,000 buy-in; whatever I won was mine to keep. I figured I had nothing to lose, but the tournament was a disaster. I was eliminated within three hours. When I went home, I was humiliated. I logged into Bodog, hoping to earn some money and rebuild my confidence, but my nerves were shot and my brain was cloudy—and I kept playing the wrong hands. After three days, I was $30,000 in the hole. From then on, I vowed to play smarter. I stayed conservative, slowly recovering what I’d lost by keeping the stakes small and incremental. Within a few years, I was clearing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
In 10 years, I’ve played 8,000 tournaments and won seven World Series of Poker Circuit rings. I’m ranked the 17th best poker player in the world and have grossed more than $5 million in winnings. I keep a humble one-bedroom apartment in North York, but I spend most of my time on the road, travelling to tournaments in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and St. Louis. When I’m not at home, I’m living out of my suitcase, crashing in hotels and on friends’ couches. All my income is fair game for poker: it’s my bankroll and my net worth rolled into one. I consider myself an Orthodox Jew—I still wear a yarmulke around the table—but I’ve relaxed my beliefs.
For me, poker is about the strategy as much as the money. I can quickly gauge how experienced players are based on how aggressively they handle the chips. For example, young players will often play a higher percentage of hands—and on average, the quality of their hands isn’t going to be as good. I can work with that. It’s a game of math, discipline and stamina. There’s no rush like it.
Ari Engel is a professional poker player who lives (mostly) in Toronto.
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11 thoughts on “Memoir: I went from ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boy to millionaire poker champion”
Congrats To You Sir . My Story Is Just A Little Different Than Yours .
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Poker “was just like buying stocks or real estate”: what does this say about the stock market? His point of view told him that playing the market was legitimate, therefore poker is; but playing the market is gambling. Poker of course is also. Hypocrisy has no bounds; an Orthodox Jew who studied at yeshiva can be sinful and still think that he is a righteous Orthodox Jew. This is what What’s-His-Name was talking about, with his criticism of the Pharisees!
“Math, Discipline and Stamina” … Ari is not telling us everything. Mainly because he doesn’t want to scare us away. It is a game for people with high IQs and strong analytic skills. Stamina means we don’t panic when a losing streak hits, because luck is always a factor. Discipline means we don’t try to second-guess our rules or, for example, play while watching the hockey game! You will always be a loser in a skill game if your only hope is to get lucky.
Of course he doesn’t want to scare anyone away. More newbs and suckers means more money for folks like Ari. He certainly fooled TL into publishing this advertorial, didn’t he? Which in turn helps Ari validate a “profession” he knows few people in their right minds actually respect or even care about! Mind you, if he’d just drop the imaginary fairy-man religious crap, he’d have a lot less guilt . . .
Why is it gambling? Is it because someone like you considers “playing the stock market” or being a professional poker player is impossible? Do you actually believe luck is the most important factor in success in these fields? Yes, there are a lot of horror stories of people who choose these professions but that is only because the lure of getting rich quickly with seemingly no effort is extremely strong and high. But of course Ari, and any successful person that does this for a living, would tell you that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hard work and time and effort are the only ways to success in anything in life and poker and the stock market are no different. If anything, it is more difficult as the percentage of horror stories and failures far outweigh those of success. Those failures are 99% due to the people who want an easy ride and expect results overnight.
Poker does not need validation by people like you. There is nothing wrong with being good enough at something you enjoy that also improves your lifestyle and your families. Don’t forget he was a newb when he started too, but hard work and putting in the hours led to his success. Maybe you’re the type of person that believe things to be impossible before even trying? Or maybe your IQ just isn’t high enough to understand that.
Oh, I totally understand it AND live it through a LEGITIMATE CAREER THAT I LOVE and which PROVIDES SOMETHING TO OTHERS, the kind of thing little insecure Ari is NOT the embodiment of and therefore must write self-validating advertorials to to make his guilty conscience feel better. Despite my disgust at Toronto Life for increasingly publishing first-person drivel like this (hey, it keeps costs down, I guess!), I’d love to see a followup by Ari in, say, 15 or 20 years. Of course, by then it might be nothing more than an ad in the back pages shilling some get-rich-quick gambling formula to suckers.
As a poker player and Day trader myself I can say that I feel no guilt in my chosen profession. I have changed countless of lives starting from my immediate families to charity donations, and from coaching and training new people to be successful in their own right. There are winners and there are losers no different than a professional athlete, and just like them the ones who work the hardest and put in the most hours rise to the top. Maybe you are right to say Ari has guilt, but to call an entire profession illegitimate is an insult to the people who’s lives it is has changed for the better.
If you went the conventional route and managed to get yourself a job that gives you that and the freedom too, then congratulations, nothing is a better feeling.
He probably paid TL to publish this little scam.
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