Poker in Tel Aviv


(For reasons that will become obvious, I chose to keep this entry separate and not to link to it from my regular blog about my year in Israel.)

I love playing poker, especially Texas Hold 'em. Back in the States, I play quite often. There's the Friday night cash game at PJ's, the Monday night tourney at Gochnauer's followed by the lucrative cash game, and Gottlieb's on Thursdays when I don't have soccer. There are monthly tournaments in Pennsylvania, and occasional games at my house. Also, Delaware Park Casino has live poker games and is 90 minutes from my home, and I went to Atlantic City twice and Las Vegas once the last year. I get to play plenty, and as all poker players will typically claim, I'm slightly ahead for the year (and paradoxically most players are well above average).

I arrived in Israel almost two months ago, and I tried very hard to find a live poker game, but to no avail. I asked virtually everyone I came in contact with professionally and personally if they played poker or knew anyone who did, and in the few instances where someone knew someone, my attempts to follow up and get invited to the game failed. In desperation, I played a little online, but it's not the same experience, and I don't really like it. Having exhausted my entire network in Israel and the States and still finding myself unable to satisfy my urge to play live poker, I decided to take a step that in hindsight seems pretty stupid and yet something that I'm surprised took me that long to think of. Searching the Internet for "home poker games Tel Aviv" and "live poker Israel", I came across a site that lists home games in cities around the world. As an expert specializing in Internet security, I have some training in identifying sites that are less than wholesome, and this one definitely rubbed me the wrong way. There were invitations to log in with Facebook, clearly a phishing tactic, flashing lights near the top of the page resembling the less than savory establishments that used to inhabit Times Square before it was cleaned up, and several other telling signs that this was not the most reputable site on the Internet.

But, this was the closest I had come to finding a live poker game, so I started following links, telling myself all the while that I would never enter any personal information on this site, nor trust anything that I read there. There were listings of poker games in and around Tel Aviv, but no phone numbers or email addresses. To get further information, you had to register a username and password with the site, or just enter your gmail or Facebook credentials. I had seen enough. Still, I noticed that one of the listings mentioned a regular game several times a week, tournaments, free food, drinks, and yes, there was a phone number there. Interestingly, the exchange part of the phone number, the three digits before the last four digits, was 555, just like phone numbers in the movies designed to fool the audience into thinking that in make believe land, all numbers contain that exchange. Was this some kind of joke? I decided not to waste my time with it.

But, I couldn't get it out of my mind, and a couple of days later, I searched for and found that site again. This time, I summoned up some nerve and called the number. A rough male voice answered, and I said, in the most authentic sounding Hebrew that I could muster, that I was calling to get details about the poker game. There was a pause on the other end of the line for what seemed like an awkward interval. I said, "Hello?" And he said, yes, well, uh, so, let me give you a number to call. This guy will take care of you. And he gives me the name Yaniv and a phone number. I asked him if he could give me his name so that I could tell Yaniv he sent me. I was a bit concerned that I had just made contact with the Israeli mob and that Yaniv was going to set me up to rob me, kidnap me and sell me into slavery, or perhaps a worse fate. My first test was that if he won't give me his name, I will just drop the whole thing. But the guy give me his name, Ronen.

Okay, so I have a new lead for a live poker game in Tel Aviv. This is good, but also nerve racking. Am I really going to show up with money in my pocket to presumably play poker based on a connection that I made through a random unhealthy looking Internet site? Probably not. But what harm is there in calling Yaniv? So, I dialed the number, and someone who sounded very busy, like he was in the middle of something, answered, "Halo". I said that Ronen suggested that I call you about getting into a poker game. He said, we play tomorrow. Call me in the morning, and I'll give you details, and he hung up, just like that. I imagined that he needed a day to arrange the trap, hire some thugs, get the body bag, etc.

The next day, Tuesday I had a conference call scheduled in the evening, so I couldn't play poker, but I called Yaniv anyway, and I got his voicemail. I left a message saying I was the one who called yesterday, and I can't play tonight, but let me know when there is another game. Yaniv didn't call back which wasn't that surprising. So, I sent a text message to his number, and he texted back (in Hebrew) that there was a game Thursday at 9:30 pm. On Thursday, understanding Yaniv's favorite mode of communication, I texted him asking for the address. He texted back an address right away and repeated that the game is at 9:30 pm, and that the buy-in was 400 shekels (approx. $114) with rebuys for the first two rounds.

Now what?

If I told Ann exactly what happened and how I got into this game, she might not endorse the idea whole heartedly. I was thinking that if a friend came to me with this proposition, I would tell him he was crazy. But, if I just told Ann that I was playing poker and left out the other details, it wouldn't feel right. So, I printed out directions to the game that night and made a copy for Ann. I told her the story and wrote down Ronen's and Yaniv's names and numbers, and told Ann that if something happened to me, she should give these to the police to help locate me. Looking back, this was not the best approach. But, I promised Ann I would be careful, and that I would go early and stake out the house and not go in if the people resembled those at the Thursday night game at Gottlieb's in any way.

About an hour before I was going to leave home, we got a call from the States telling us that our dog Mendl, who was with us for 14 years, had died. Ann took it very hard and was in tears as soon as she got off the phone. He was terminally sick when we left for Israel, and we knew he didn't have a lot of time left, but all the same, it was very sad. It may seem heartless and insensitive, but one thought that jumped into my mind was that I probably wasn't going to get to play poker that night. But, about 20 minutes later, Ann was much more composed, and I offered to stay home if she wanted some support, but she said that she was okay and that I could play. This reinforce my opinion that I have the absolute best wife in the world (Although I couldn't help but think that if she really loved me, she would never let me go to play a game that attracts degenerates, and that I found on the Internet in a foreign country.)

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous driving downtown Thursday night with fifteen hundred shekels ($429) in my pocket. I brought extra money to allow for a rebuy and to play in a cash game after I was eliminated from the tournament. The GPS guided me to a part of town that I had never seen before, and my heart sank. It looked abandoned and seedy. Run down warehouses, not that well lit, and the kind of place where in the US, I would stay away from after dark and even during the day. I made up my mind that I would drive by the address and then just turn around and drive home. This was too scary and not worth the risk just to play some poker.

After several twists and turns that saw the neighborhood deteriorate every few hundred meters, I found myself at the specified address, and I pulled over and took a parking spot across the street. There were no people around. It was very quiet. I was not happy.

It was 9:10 pm, and the game was called for 9:30. I decided to keep a lookout and see if people started showing up to play. I would see what they looked like and make a decision. I turned off my headlights, locked the door, and turned the mirrors so that I could see the front door to the alleged poker room. I happened to glance at the odometer and noticed that the last three digits were 666. Seriously, you can't make this kind of thing up. I'm not at all superstitious, but I couldn't help but feel that this should have been enough of a sign for me to get out of there. Occasionally, a car would come by and pass me, and I put my cell phone to my ear to make it look like I was on the phone, in case someone wondered why I was sitting there in the car.

At 9:25, a taxi pulled up to the building and stopped. Two relatively normal looking men got out, looked around and went into the building. In a moment of temporary brain paralysis, and for reasons that I still do not understand, I turned off the motor, got out of the car and followed the men inside. The building looked like it should be condemned, and it smelled. I knew I was not in a good place, and yet I followed them up the stairs. Two flights and we arrived at a landing. There was a room with what appeared to be a large black and white marble dance floor, and a guy who looked like a gangster with large tattoos all over him and a cigarette in his hand standing at a bar in the back of the room. He yelled over at us asking who we were. One of the guys answered, "we are with the DJ". "All of you?" No, this guy isn't with us. So who are you, he yelled at me. I walked up to him and asked him, is this so and so address? He said yes. I said that I'm here to see Yaniv. He said there is no Yaniv here, and that this is private property, and that I need to leave. A further invitation, I did not need, and I got out quickly.

As I left the building, I couldn't help but feel that I had been had. Some trickster sent me to a rough part of town to play a joke on me. Why anyone would do such a thing, I have no idea, but I had no other conclusion that made any sense. Before returning to my car, I pulled out my phone and called Yaniv. I said that I was at that address and there is no poker game. He said to hold on a minute and put another guy on the phone. The other guy asked me where I was. I told him. He asked if I saw a blue door, and I said no. He told me that the street I was on had two #6 entrances, and that the poker room was on the other block. I didn't see what he was talking about, but I walked around the block with my heart literally pounding, feeling like I was making the biggest mistake of my life and wondering what was wrong with me. I'm usually the most cautious person, typically mocked by those who know me for being overly protective of myself and everyone close to me.

As I turned the corner, I saw a tough looking guy on a cell phone leaning out of a building with his back to me. He was clearly looking for someone. As I approached, I could hear that the person on my cell phone was saying the same words as this guy, with a slight time delay, and I realized that I had arrived. I put my phone away. I approached the guy and said that I was the one he was talking to. He acted like he didn't know what I meant. I said that I was here for the poker game. The guys told me that he doesn't know of any poker game, and that I need to get out of here. I felt he was right on that second point, but I said that I was invited by Yaniv. Oh, he said, why didn't you say so, and he moved aside and let me in. I walked through the looking glass into another world that you would never imagined existed on the other side of that blue door.

As I walked in, to the left there were modern, clean and well equipped restrooms. Around the corner to the right was a table with dozens of stacks of poker chips, a cashier, and several men hanging around. I asked for Yaniv, and they pointed to a guy across the room. In that room I observed about 12 nice poker tables with 10 chairs each and many men milling around. Most of them were smoking, few of them were clean shaven, and some looked like they had not seen the inside of a shower stall or a dentist in quite a while. Yaniv was all business. He shook my hand when I introduced myself and moved on to the next order of business. He was running the whole show. One thing that really surprised me was the number of men that were wearing Yarmulkas. They were smoking like the rest of them and fit in in every respect. I estimate that there were about 75 people there, including several women. There were also waitresses that were coming around and giving people sandwiches and drinks. There was no alcohol. Some of the men sat around a high definition television watching a basketball game. Others sat at the poker tables and played a two man card game that I had never seen before and could not understand. I sat down next to some of the guys at one of the poker tables and took in the scene.

Who would ever imagine that I'd find myself in the Tel Aviv underworld in a secret poker club about to play against a collection of apparent hoodlums, which included some orthodox Jews who were chain smoking? I felt one of those unique moments in life where you know you are having an extraordinary experience that will be memorable for a long time. As arranged in advance, I sent Ann a short text message saying that I arrive and was okay, and that I was about to start playing poker.

At 9:45, Yaniv stood on a chair and went over a few house rules and announced that the game was starting. Everyone formed an Israeli style line in front of the cashier and bought in for 400 shekels. An Israeli style line is one that has no front or back, just a crowded middle with everyone trying to get ahead of those around them. The buy-in gave you 8,000 in tournament chips and a seat assignment. There were 6 full tables, so I figured there were about 60 players in the tournament. Each table had a dealer, and by the end of the evening, I was of the opinion that these dealers were better than the ones at the Delaware Park casino, and probably every bit as good as the ones in Atlantic City. Their tasks, besides the obvious one, involved controlling the chips in the pot, dealing with side pots, resolving disputes, and policing the table, which turned out at times to be no small feat.

The rounds were twenty minutes long and the blinds went up by the standard amounts. As I expected, the play at my initial table was very aggressive. There was one guy who went all in with a marginal hand, lost, re-bought and then went all in again on the first hand. He got everyone to fold and lasted another 15 minutes before someone called him and he was felted. He re-bought again. I was dying to pick up a hand against him. In the early rounds, I was card dead, and I was playing extremely tight, as I like to do when playing people I don't know and in the early rounds of tournaments in general. They guys next to me were friendly enough, and we were kidding around a bit. They guy to my left was a very strong player, and I recognized several moves that he made. I made a mental note to take him seriously. By the fourth blind level, I had played only a small number of hands, and I had only won one small pot, and my initial stack of 8,000 had dwindled to about 5,500. I knew that if I did not make some kind of move soon and win a decent pot, that I would have a short evening, and I wasn't getting any cards. So, when in good position, I picked up 5-6 suited with many limpers in front of me, I decided it was time to make my move.

As the blinds get higher, I tend to play suited connectors less often, as implied odds fall with bigger blinds, but this was a situation where I felt I had to do something. The table had to have noticed my reluctance to get involved in hands, and nobody had shown any strength, except perhaps the first limper, who might have been trapping. I raised five big blinds, which I felt was probably enough to get rid of most of the limpers. Everyone behind me folded, and all but one of the original limpers folded as well. I was heads up against one of the late limpers whom I had observed was pretty loose with his calls. In this situation there are two good outcomes possible. I can connect with the flop and have a well disguised monster (or more likely a draw to a monster), or I can represent great strength on a dangerous board. Of course, many bad outcomes are possible as well. The flop came A-8-Q rainbow, and the guy in front of me checked.

A quick digression. My friend Brian Sims with whom I play a lot of poker observed that I have a rookie aura at the table, and that I tend to give the impression that I'm not much of a player. He suggested to me that when I play with new people, I try to exploit this rookie image that I project. In this environment, I felt Brian's rule held, and that these aggressive players probably viewed this clean shaven non-smoking guy who seemed to fold every hand as a total fish.

So, giving my best "I have a great hand and I'm very excited to bet now that my Ace has paired, and I have a great kicker" impersonation, I quickly and eagerly, overbet the pot, and the other guy folded, showing me a queen. I had to fight hard the temptation to show my 5-6 suited, but I managed to muck the cards. I needed to get more use of my image, and showing now would ruin that and reduce my fold equity in future hands. Comments abound on my hand. One guy said, "I guess this guy finally picked up aces". Another asked me if I could beat A-J. The guy who folded asked me if I had the ace, and I replied, "let's just say it was a good fold." I'm certain every single person at the table believed me.

I had won my first decent sized pot and was almost back to a starting stack size. The game continued for the next couple of hours without much incident. I won some pots, lost some, and never got involved in any big coin flip situations. We went down to three tables, and I had an average stack and felt I was playing very well. Then came the most significant hand of the night and my luckiest break. Dan Harrington says in one of his poker books that you can't ever go deep in a major poker tournament without catching that lucky miracle card at some point along the way. This was my break, and I'll describe the hand below.

The blinds were getting pretty big, and I adjusted my style. In unopened pots with decent position, I began raising with big hands like Q-10 off and any Ace or King with a decent kicker. That usually resulted in winning outright, and the tight image I had built up was doing wonders for me. I had yet to have to show down a weak hand when I picked up 10-J suited on the button. A middle position player opened the pot with a raise. I noticed that this player always raised when the pot was unopened to him (raising in this situation is better than limping, but you're also supposed to fold from time to time), and he did not have any understanding of position. He liked to go all in if raised, and when players folded he enjoyed showing his 2-7 or 3-8 off suit. He was a big bluffer. It seemed like the perfect time to push the action. My stack was average, and the blinds were going up fast. At some point, I needed more chips if I was going to do well in this tournament, and this looked like a good opportunity. So, I raised him three times his raise. Everyone folded to the original wild guy, and he insta-shoved. I went into the tank.

I had seen him make this move numerous times and then show a bluff when people folded. He had also won some big pots with successful all ins when he had a hand or sucked out. I figured that it was about a 50-50 chance that he had a hand that was better than mine. The pot was huge relative to my stack, and I also figured that if I folded I wouldn't last much longer in the tournament. My stack would be crippled. So, preparing myself mentally to go home, I called. He turned over a pair of fives, and we were off to the races. The flop was terrible for me. K - 8 - 3 with none of my suit. The turn came an 8. I thought I had 6 outs at that point, but I actually had more. The river was a K, and I was getting ready to shake his hand and leave when I realized that I had actually won the hand. The dealer realized it too, but the other player didn't. He gave a whoop and wanted to collect his chips. The dealer explained to him that since there were two pairs on the board and both were higher than his pair, my J kicker was higher than his 5, and so the winning hand was kings over eights with a jack kicker. I doubled up and became one of the deep stacks.

I coasted for a while taking few chances and playing my strong hands. People were eliminated around me, and I was holding steady. Many of the people who lost went over to the cash tables, but some stayed to watch the rest of the tournament. When we were down to two tables, I was moved for the third time, and a pretty big crowd was following the action at this point. We had about 25 observers, and there were gasps when unlikely hands came out on top and cheers when big pots were won. As each person exited, they received a round of applause and handshakes from everyone around. It was very ceremonial. I was involved in several all in confrontations, but all of them were against much smaller stacks. I eliminated some players and others doubled up through me. I didn't mind coin tosses with people who had one tenth of my stack, and I tried to bully the medium stacks because I knew they had more to lose than I did in a confrontation. When they came over the top of me, I usually let it go, as they were representing real strength. I did not feel there were players there strong enough to realize what I was doing and take advantage of it.

My Hebrew is at the point where I was comfortable keeping up with the game, and I understood everything that was going on. I did have to learn a few new words. For example, they say "dama" for queen, and the word for prince is used instead of jack. They also use words I was not familiar with to describe spades and clubs. The English words for "call", "raise" and "all in" are used. At one point in the game, I announced a raise, and everybody looked at me strangely. A player who was in the hand asked me, "what?" I said, "raise". They still didn't get it. So, I repeated the word, but this time, I rolled my R deep in my throat and with a thick Israeli accent that conjured up the image of Adam Sandler as the Zohan, and stated "Raise". Oh, "Raise" they said, with the same accent, finally understanding. The rest of the evening, I found myself using an exaggerated Israeli accent for the English words, and I had no more problems. I hope I can remember to turn off that accent when I return home.

At around 2 a.m., the final table of 10 players was set, and my stack was below average. I had about 10 big blinds remaining. We did not draw for seats, as is appropriate and customary in the States. Rather, there was a rush by those who knew the other players to jockey for the best positional advantage and the best seats at the table. I was more concerned with avoiding the big blind as long as possible, but my attempt to sit in the cut off seat proved useless as they did draw cards for the button. With 10 big blinds, and blinds getting ridiculously high, my strategy is to wait for a decent hand in any unopened pot and to shove, otherwise fold. There were no donkeys left, and the play at the final table proved to be high quality. I did not see any plays that did not make sense.

My first hand at the final table was a pair of aces. Two players limped in front of me and I shoved, immediately winning the pot. I was not sorry, as the pot was huge and I did not want to get outdrawn, especially not this close to the money. A while later, with 7 players left, I caught A-K suited twice in a row. Both times I raised 3 BB and everyone folded. On the next hand I picked up A-J suited in the big blind. The small blind raised me, and I shoved again. People were commenting that I had to be stealing because I made big raises 3 hands in a row. The small blind folded, and my stack was now closer to 16 BB, and I felt that I did not need to shove anymore but could raise 3BB when I played a hand. I also knew I had to continue my aggression. As we were almost in the money, some of the short stacks were trying to ride things out, and I figured they were folding anything except top premium hands. I was raising most hands and people were folding. On the rare occasion that I was reraised, I let it go because I never got reraised when I was holding good enough cards.

The top five positions paid off with the prize money very top heavy. There were two very short stacks and two very deep stacks at the table, including the guy who was sitting on my left at the very beginning of the night. Over the course of the evening, I learned that he was a professional, often playing poker tournament in Las Vegas, including several stints at the WSOP. I was not surprised to see him in this position - the chip leader pushing the action. His name was AviAd, and we became very friendly throughout the evening. My stack was medium size.

When we were down to six players, the dealer suggested that some of the prize money be taken out of the top three places and used to pay 500 shekels to the bubble boy. This is common in tournaments in the US, and we all agreed. The short stacks were especially eager, as they were more likely to come in sixth than the rest of us. I was able to eliminate both short stacks and was left with a reasonable stack. And then there were four. At this point the action really picked up. The blinds represented a reasonable portion of our stacks. Only AviAd had room to maneuver and he knew how to push the action. The crowd surrounded the table in a tight (smoking) circle, as though watching a live sporting event. Every major result was cheered, and the peanut gallery was ripe with advice, comments, and criticism. I felt like telling some of these guys who were suggesting better plays to us after every hand that perhaps they should defer to those of us who are still in the game and who managed to outplay them to get to this point, but I thought better of it.

At 3:15 a.m., we were down to three players. Two of us, me and AviAd had about equal big stacks, and the third player had about 2 BB. My cell phone rang, and it was Ann wondering if I was still alive. I was very curt and told her I was okay, and that we were down to 3 players and that I needed to concentrate. She sounded relieved and went back to bed. The next 45 minutes featured a chess match between me and AviAd. We were making moves, backing off, pushing all in, and folding in rhythm. The third guy went from 2 BB to 6 BB when he shoved and AviAd and I called and checked all the way down only to both lose when short stack hit his three outer on the river. I had managed to get my stack almost even with AviAd's. A couple more lucky breaks for the short stack, and his stack size began to resemble ours. The crowd had loosened a bit as people decided to go home, and at 4 a.m., Yaniv came over and asked if we wouldn't just chop up the prize money three ways. I was extremely tired and was more than happy to do so. AviAd was not thrilled, but the third guy made a huge plea. I think all three of us knew that AviAd was the best player at the table, and that I was probably second best. Ultimately, AviAd caved and we chopped the first three places to a standing ovation from the remaining spectators. My profit was 4,600 shekels ($1,314), by far my biggest lifetime poker pay day.

Yaniv called us over to the cashier station and counted out the bills for each of us in 200 shekel denominations. We each left 200 shekels as a tip for the dealers and the waitresses, and parted ways. I walked out of there with 5,900 shekels in my pocket and saw the street completely quiet and abandoned. Down the block and around the corner, under a lone streetlight was my car. I looked left, then right, and then on my injured foot that I hurt playing soccer, sprinted to my car, unlocked the door, jumped in and got the hell out of that neighborhood. I have to say that I never felt so vulnerable as leaving this club in that neighborhood with all that cash in my pocket and a room full of people down the road who knew I had it. Every kind of conspiracy theory went through my mind. Did one of the spectators call his buddy on a cell phone to say I was coming out? Would the alley be blocked by some hoods in cahoots with Yaniv? I did not want to stay to find out. I'm sure it was all just paranoia, but my heart was racing all the way home.

At 4:35 a.m., I climbed into bed. Ann was fast asleep. Pretty soon, so was I.


A few months after writing that blog entry, I wrote a new blog entry about another poker game in Israel.