Last year, over Pesach, I composed a holiday-inspired post on my poker blog entitled Let My People Go… and Play Poker in Israel. The main thrust of the article was that the Israeli government should act to legalize and regulate live poker, and I brought a number of poker-related supporting arguments in favor.
When Israeli-born Amir Lehavot placed third at the World Series of Poker back in November, local media quickly pounced on the story to “claim” his success as a national one. In fact, my interview with Amir Lehavot was cited right here in the Times of Israel as it, along with plenty of other local media outlets, gushed with pride and fawned over his fantastic poker achievement on the world stage. Glossed over are the fact that Lehavot has been living in the United States for a couple decades now and that he can’t even ante up in his own country because live poker is currently illegal in Israel.
- While there are already a bunch of laws that make most forms of online gambling illegal, programs that are currently kosher have not had to conform to the Wire Act. Now that they do, this could.
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Similarly, Yediot Achronot ran a story (in Hebrew) last year about “The IDF Poker Ace”, a 19-year-old solider who “moonlights” as a Texas Hold’em champion. How ironic that all of this young Israeli poker ace’s successes have come exclusively outside his homeland’s borders. As a matter of fact, I personally think it’s almost embarrassing. Can you imagine Shachar Pe’er not being able to play tennis here, but only in tournaments abroad?
My aim in this op-ed piece is to suggest that our government could not only make licensed, regulated live poker in Israel an economic reality and success but also the most unique, “kosher” poker experience in history, befitting of a country meant to be a light unto the nations.
Definition of Gambling. In this study 'gambling' refers to a wager or bet in which each player agrees to risk losing some material possession to other players in exchange for the chance to win the possessions of other players without compensation to the loser, the winner(s) and loser(s) being determined by the outcome of a game.
Just Poker Rooms, Not Casinos
When many people hear the word “poker” they immediately think of casinos. Having casinos in Israel has been debated ad infinitum, and we even had a “Casino Party” run in past elections. My proposal is different in that I advocate only the establishment of legal live poker rooms. I believe that for the concept to work and be accepted by the general public and the government, it’s critical that a distinction between poker (as a skill game) and casino gambling (as purely luck-based) be made and that specifically only poker be legalized. Even by the local media standards, as evidenced in the two quoted stories above, the game of poker is treated differently than other casino gambling games.
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In any event, specifically, were a poker room (chain?) to be operated the right way in Israel, it would have the potential to be a complete success on a number of levels. The key to this would be following established, proven models of successful poker rooms – and then adding a uniquely Israeli twist. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
Following Regulated European Poker Room Models
Though the United States is far and away the world’s hub for live poker, the regulated European poker room model seems to be more suited for Israel to follow. There are hundreds of poker rooms throughout the “Old World” and, to be quite frank, playing poker in Europe is a far different experience than doing so in the good ol’ United States. A European-style system whereby passports/IDs are checked at the room’s entrance and membership is a requirement will resolve a number of otherwise thorny issues:
- Undesired elements coming and going unchecked
- Problem gamblers having unrestricted access
- No free-flowing liquor, drugs, or illegal substances on the premises
Notably, it’s an open secret that there are a number of underground poker rooms currently operating in Israel, many with connections to mafia organizations. These would likely cease to exist, along with their multiple accompanying problems, were a regulated framework for licensed live poker rooms put into place.
Part of following the regulated European model would also mandate that operations be run by Europeans themselves. To that effect, I’d propose having our government offer tenders to experienced professionals from Europe to open licensed poker rooms and be responsible for managing their day-to-day operations.
These top-level administrators would train floor staff, dealers, and those filling the numerous other corollary positions. Depending on the number of poker rooms licensed, this would potentially create up to hundreds of new job opportunities for locals, both poker- and non-poker-related (e.g., valet parking, food and beverage personnel, maintenance persons, etc.).
For local poker-playing patrons, the entire experience would thus be pretty surreal, probably giving us that feeling we love of taking a short hop abroad. Plus, it would give Israelis another great way to relax and be entertained, something desperately needed in our overly stressed society.
The Kosher Poker Element
And now for the “kosher” part. There’s one particular element that I believe would make Israeli poker rooms unique among their counterparts around the world:
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- Operating on an almost completely non-profit basis, with the overwhelming majority of net revenues split among the Social Welfare Ministry, municipal social services departments, and local charities.
For an operator, especially a foreign one, to invest the kind of resources necessary to run a top-tier poker room, there has to be a little something in it for them. That said, a properly run poker room is literally a money-making machine for the “house”, which profits from each hand played while hosting the games. If that “house” were to essentially be “good charitable causes”, this would make Israel’s poker rooms shining beacons of ingenuity, benevolence, and righteousness.
Israel as an Exotic New Poker Tourism Destination
Part of what makes the game of poker fun and exciting is the staging of high-profile tournament series. As if there weren’t enough great reasons to come and visit Israel, staging world-class poker tournaments a couple times a year, like on Hannukah, when it’s already all about the gelt, would bring plenty of poker-playing visitors eager to “ante up at the holy felt” (I hereby claim copyright on that slogan by the way :-)).
I’m confident that the biggest Jewish names in poker (and there are plenty of them) would be proud to pay a visit to the Homeland to further hone their craft. Were the “kosher poker” model to be adopted, I’m certain that these Jewish poker pros would take that much more pride in being ambassadors for Israel and try to encourage their non-Jewish poker-playing peers to come and join them. Can anyone say “tourism dollars”?
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Large-scale events like these could be held at the Dead Sea and Eilat, each of which already have a reputation as world-class resort destinations, boast plenty of hotel room capacity, and have enough grand ballrooms to play host.
Plus, big-time poker events in Israel present a natural sponsorship opportunity for the companies that make up Israel’s giant online poker industry, which could finally be proud to “go on public display” (as opposed to the current “we don’t talk about it” status quo among industry insiders).
Legal Live Poker in Israel Makes the Government a Winner Too
To me, it seems like a no-brainer for the Israeli government to jump onboard and legalize live poker. The plain facts are that for them, it’s a winning scenario:
- Creation of new jobs
- Greatly increased funding for the Social Welfare Ministry
- A new source of tax income (from players declaring their winnings)
- Increased tourism revenues from participants international poker tournament events
- Eliminates illegal mafia-run poker rooms, thus reducing crime and funding in the black market
Having literally written the book (okay, maybe just a very popular blog post) about how to run a successful charity poker event, it would be an absolute privilege to be even tangentially involved in the establishment of such a kosher poker enterprise in Israel. It is my hope that with these seeds planted, a groundswell of support for the idea will be generated.
While there is no explicit Jewish prohibition on gambling, the rabbis of the Talmud did not have a positive view of the practice. The clearest statement on the matter is in the Mishnah in Sanhedrin, which rules that someone who “plays with dice” is barred from serving as a witness. There is a dispute, however, about the particulars of this prohibition.
According to one opinion in the Mishnah, the prohibition applies only in the case where the gambler has no other occupation — i.e. a professional gambler. Based on this view, the Talmud suggests that the reason such a person is barred from testifying is because they contribute nothing useful to the world. Another opinion suggests that gambling is a form of thievery, since the losing party to a bet gives up their money against their will. This rationale would suggest that even an occasional gambler cannot serve as a witness. However, this opinion is not universally accepted, since presumably both parties to a bet engage in the wager willingly and therefore accept upon themselves the possibility of loss.
The halachic permissibility of gambling rests on which of these is the reason for invalidating a gambler as a witness. If it’s merely because gambling is a frivolous pursuit, then the occasional bet may be permitted. If gambling is thievery, then it’s prohibited at all times, which is the view of some rabbinic authorities. In either case, compulsive or professional gambling would be forbidden.
There is some question of whether the latter approach would apply to all forms of gaming, or merely to bets or wagers, in which one party wins and the other loses. Some forms of casino gambling, in which one plays against the house rather than other players, may not run afoul of the concern regarding theft. It’s also questionable whether lotteries run into this problem. Some authorities, like the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, have ruled that buying lottery tickets is form of stealing, since the person who purchases a ticket may have assumed he would win and therefore surrenders his money unwillingly. The late Israeli Rabbi Ovadia Hedaya has ruled that lotteries are permitted, since one is not taking money directly from another person but rather from a pool of money. Lotteries, raffles and the like, when undertaken for charitable purposes, are not considered forbidden and there are many examples, both historic and current, of Jewish communities running lotteries for fundraising purposes.
None of these considerations address the moral perils of gambling, which has commanded the attention of Jewish authorities throughout history and even in the present day. Excommunication, flagellation, fines and the denial of synagogue honors were common penalties for those who transgressed gambling regulations. Compulsive gamblers were described as sinners, charged with harming family life and forgetting God. The habit has been described as abominable, ugly, frivolous and morally impure. According to the Tul HaAroch, a commentary on the Torah by the medieval authority Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Moses warned the Jewish people before his death not to become corrupted by gambling.
Is Gambling Hereditary
Indeed, some understand the sheer volume of these efforts to suppress gambling, and the large number of exceptions to those rulings, as evidence of its popularity among Jews. Historically, the prohibition on gambling was relaxed on minor Jewish holidays like Hanukkah, Purim and the monthly sanctification of the new moon (Rosh Chodesh). Authorities in Bologna in the 15th century specifically permitted playing cards on fast days “in order to forget the pain, provided one wagers no more than one quattrino at a game per person.” Similar exceptions were made in medieval Europe on the occasions of weddings and births and on Christmas Eve, known in some Orthodox communities as “Nittel-Nacht.”
In contemporary times, concerns about the corrosive effects of gambling, particularly gambling as an addiction, have persisted. In the 1980s, the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies (today UJA-Federation of New York) ran a task force on compulsive gambling to address what one official called “a problem of some magnitude in the Jewish community.” Shmuly Yanklowitz, an Orthodox rabbi and social justice activist, has penned several articles in recent years that invoked longstanding Jewish concerns about the dangers of gambling, noting also studies that link gambling addiction to bankruptcy, domestic abuse, criminality and even suicide risk.
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A number of Jewish groups offer gambling treatment programs. Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish residential treatment program in Los Angeles, offers help with gambling addiction, as do a number of local Jewish Family Services organizations.