Israeli poker legend playing his cards right

Elezra’s propensity for poker and gambling seemingly comes by way of heredity. His father, a postal worker, gambled away his meager earnings in games of stud poker at the Mahane Yehuda market.

‘THE GAMBLE wasn’t what did it for me. I loved the psychological warfare.’ (photo credit: JIM FUQUAY/MCT)
‘THE GAMBLE wasn’t what did it for me. I loved the psychological warfare.’
(photo credit: JIM FUQUAY/MCT)
If terms such as “ace kicker,” “hit the muck,” “pre-flop” and “big blind” mean nothing to you, obviously you (like me) are not among the hordes of poker players and fans across the world.
But if the terminology and descriptions of strategy in Pulling the Trigger: The Autobiography of Poker Pro Eli Elezra go right over your head as they did mine, you may still find the book of interest.
It has been estimated that about 100 million people play various forms of poker in person, online or both. However, no more than a couple of thousand people are poker pros, earning a steady living from playing this addictive card game.
Jerusalem native Eli “Mr. Vegas” Elezra, 58, is a member of that exclusive club, though he also has a lucrative business outside of poker. Elezra’s name does not appear on the 2019 list of top 10 richest poker players, but nearly all these multimillionaires appear in his book, sitting with him at a table where they can easily lose or win breathtaking sums of money within a few hours of play.
I was struck by how many serious poker players have Jewish surnames – perhaps not surprising when one considers the stereotypical Jewish inclination to tame Lady Luck using strategy, psychology and mathematics.
Matan Krakow, author of the original Hebrew version of this book, met Elezra at a $15 buy-in home poker tournament in Israel.
He approached Elezra about writing the first Hebrew book about the game, and Elezra responded that he was more interested in sharing his Cinderella-like life story than in sharing his poker strategies. Together Elezra, Krakow and Yoav Ronel wrote the original book, which was translated into English by Robbie Strazynski.
Elezra’s propensity for poker and gambling seemingly comes by way of heredity. His father, a postal worker, gambled away his meager earnings in games of stud poker at the Mahane Yehuda market. This destructive habit eventually broke up his marriage.
However, Elezra’s propensity for hard work and high earnings is clearly his own. Growing up in the Baka neighborhood – now fancy but then shabby – he rarely had a lira in his pocket.
THE BOOK opens with Elezra winning the $1 million first prize in the 2004 Mirage Poker Showdown.
“A million dollars is always going to be a huge amount of money to someone who grew up in a poor Jerusalem neighborhood even if you’ve made [and lost] much more than this amount in your lifetime,” he writes.
Elezra drives a Cadillac and houses his family in a mansion with two pools and two housekeepers in a gated community in Nevada. “None of that came from an inheritance. It all came from poker.”
Several times, he emphasizes that his biggest priority is making his wife and children proud. That 2004 win was the turning point.
“I had played poker for many years and for the first time, my friends, my family and, most importantly, my kids were able to be proud of me and say that their father wasn’t ‘just a gambler,’ but rather ‘the poker player, Eli Elezra.’ Oh, how the little kid from Baka needed that.”
This is not to say that Elezra has always been a model family man. When his first child, Jonathan, was born in Alaska in late 1985 – to Elezra’s Inupiat girlfriend, Aurora – he didn’t have the heart to tell his mother about her new non-Jewish grandson. He admits to being “an irresponsible father” at the time, but he later won custody of Jonathan and has raised him with his children born to his Israeli wife, Hila.
How did this Jerusalem kid end up in Alaska?
Elezra served as a platoon commander in a Golani battalion during the First Lebanon War. Feeling shell-shocked after his discharge, he and a childhood buddy went to Alaska, intending to make some cash and come back to Israel to serve in the army or the Secret Service.
The two 22-year-olds worked long days on an assembly line, eviscerating and cleaning salmon. After three months, they’d each socked away $25,000 to bankroll their first Asian backpacking trip.
Following a three-month stop back in Israel, Elezra returned to Alaska with his sister Pnina and her husband, Pini, and the two men ended up driving taxis. By working smarter and harder than their rivals, the Israeli brothers-in-law amassed a small fortune and began buying up businesses – first in Alaska and then in Nevada, once Elezra rediscovered his teenage love of poker.
“The gamble wasn’t what did it for me,” he writes. “I loved the psychological warfare, trying to get into your opponents’ heads. The satisfaction that you get when you make a good call or catch someone bluffing. The tremendous pleasure that courses through your body after you carry out a hugely successful bluff without getting caught.”
Elezra’s relationship with Pini would be strained to the limit as he dipped into the shared till to fuel his growing poker passion, at first losing mind-bogglingly enormous sums.
But somehow the two remained business partners. Pini and Pnina would come to Stardust Casino to cheer on Elezra in Hebrew. And Elezra eventually forged a lucrative poker career, appearing on the American cable show High Stakes Poker for six seasons and winning several major titles.
Despite not living in Israel for many decades, Elezra considers himself thoroughly Israeli.
In 2013, upon winning his second bracelet (he now has three) for a first-place win in the World Series of Poker, he insisted that “Hatikva” be played during the ceremony.
“Even after all my years living in America, which I love, I’m still Israeli at heart,” he writes. “And to a large extent, my win was also a win for an Israeli representing his country.”
While I find Elezra’s choice of career less than inspiring, I admire his hard work and gumption, and his pride in being an Israeli rags-to-riches success story.