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Full House

Michael Mizrachi and his three brothers are observant Jews and champion poker players

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Michael Mizrachi playing in the World Series of Poker on Saturday. (AP Photo/Laura Rauch)

The boys were being irksome and unruly on that night 20 years ago. As their mother and her friends were playing gin rummy late into the evening, they ran wild around the table, announcing to the room what cards the women had in their hands, until, finally, they were banished to their bedrooms. With that, the house grew quiet. Susan Laufer Mizrachi had proved she could control her brood.

Except that, as anyone with young sons knows, silence is a good clue something’s up. And sure enough, at 3 a.m., when Susan’s friends went home and she checked on her four sons, then aged 4 to 12, she found them playing their own card games and keeping track of their accumulating debts to one another on pieces of paper that she still has.

“Their father would say, ‘Look what you’re doing to these kids, you’re playing cards every night and they’re just gamblers,’ ” she recalled. “And I said, well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Two decades later, those apples have grown into a quartet of Jewish card sharks who have taken Las Vegas by storm. Last weekend, early on Sunday morning, the most successful of them, 29-year-old Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi, earned one of nine berths in the World Series of Poker’s Main Event in November. In poker, a “grinder” is someone who slowly wears down opponents by patiently waiting for good hands and attempting to outlast his competitors not with flair but with persistence. It’s an apt description of Mizrachi’s style of play on the weekend, letting other players knock against one another until he was among the final nine players who will compete for a $9.8 million jackpot and the most prestigious title in all of gambling.

What’s even more stunning is that in the past two weeks, as the initial field of 7,319 players in the $10,000 Buy-In No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em event was culled to the final nine, the other three Mizrachi brothers also survived long enough to “cash,” or win money. Robert, 31, notched 116th place and earned about $57,000; Donny, 23, was 345th and earned $36,000, and Michael’s twin, Eric, ended at 718th place, for a $19,000 payday.

“All four of us cashed, which is a record that will probably never be broken,” Michael gloated an hour before play on Friday, sitting back on a red leather couch in a private lounge reserved for players sponsored by a poker website, FullTilt, at the Rio All-Suites Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas. “Hopefully I can win this event and make history.”

The Mizrachis are already the year’s big winners. While families of poker players aren’t new—legend Doyle Brunson’s son is a well-respected pro—the Mizrachis’ dominance has turned their name into a brand and attracted a long list of sponsors. The World Series is actually comprised of 57 events that begin in May. Robert cashed in six of them, for a cumulative haul of $500,000, while Michael won $1.6 million in another tournament in addition to qualifying for the main event’s final table.

“He’s LeBron, Rob’s Dwyane Wade, I’m Chris Bosh, and Donny’s Chalmers or something,” Eric said over dinner Sunday night, recycling a line Michael uttered to ESPN.com a week earlier, comparing the family to the all-star lineup for the Miami Heat. “We’re a team. It’s Team Mizrachi.”

***

A fairly straight line can be drawn from the foursome’s surreptitious all-night card games of their youth to their current lifestyles as globe-trotting card mavens, but the Mizrachi boys didn’t divine a lust for gambling on their own. For all of their father’s protestations, both parents, Ezra and Susan, were inveterate, lifelong bettors. Ezra Mizrachi and his friends and cousins, in fact, would sneak into his family’s kosher pizzeria in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and play poker on Shabbat when the restaurant was closed, Susan said. Susan’s family, too, spent long hours playing cards as she grew up.

The couple—she was a model, he was a cabbie—married in their mid-20s and followed Susan’s parents when they moved to Miami, where all four of their sons were born. Ezra and Susan first owned a donut shop but then soon launched a clothing line that, Susan said, “did really, really well. We made lots and lots of clothing.”

The line is called Get Lucky. And, yes, they named it after their passion for gambling.

“While the kids were growing up, Ezra would hit a lot of jackpots” on the slot machines at Seminole Casino in Hollywood, Florida, Susan said in a phone interview. “We’d go there every night, spend all night there. Every single night. And we’d plug in thousands, literally thousands. He used to always hit jackpots, $40,000, $30,000, $28,000. And Ezra would say, ‘Don’t tell the kids we won all this money because then they’re going to want to be gamblers.’ But I would go home and say, ‘Guys, I’ll buy you anything you want, we won this big jackpot.’ ”

Susan found it entertaining that the boys were playing their own games and gave them money they claimed they needed for school supplies but really needed to pay one another for gambling debts. When she found out the truth, she was more amused than irate. In the late 1990s, she bought the boys computers they said they needed for school work and soon discovered her teenage sons were betting—and winning—big bucks on poker websites. They got themselves cell phones, a rarity at the time for teens, and she’d overhear them asking one another to transfer $5,000 or $10,000. At one point, one of the boys called the bank on speakerphone and she heard the automated voice indicate he had a balance of $28,000.

“Did it worry me?” Susan says. “They were doing good in school—I wouldn’t say they were A students, but that was because they were interested in making money. Their father would always brag, ‘Hey, look, I make more money than doctors.’ So, the kids learned to value the mighty dollar. I can’t say they worried me, though, because I made sure they got their reports out, I made sure they went to school on time, I picked them up every day, I took them to the library, I did my part.”

The boys showed unusually sharp entrepreneurial instincts, too. Susan recalled that when she’d take 4-year-old Robert along to a flea market to sell Get Lucky clothes, the tot would ask her to buy pencils and other small items at the wholesale store. Then he’d resell them at the flea market for a profit. “He made $24 one time and he was so excited, he put it in his little bank.”

Ezra Mizrachi, now divorced from his wife, couldn’t be reached for this article, but Robert remembered their father being less tolerant and indulgent. When he was a teen, Robert said, his father sent the boys to a computer school, but they dropped out. Ezra was angry over the wasted money, but the boys went on to assuage him by paying the outstanding balance on the classes with their online poker earnings.

Susan was the one who suggested that 18-year-old Robert, attending classes at Broward Community College and working as a waiter at Bennigan’s, get a job as a card dealer at the Dania Jai Alai to make some extra money. “I said, ‘Hey Robert, what are you doing, why don’t you learn how to deal and then you make in one day what you make in a week at the restaurant and then you’ll have the whole week to study,’ ” said Susan, who also became a dealer and now plays extensively online under the handle “Mama Grinder.” “Next thing you know, he was making $500 to $600 a night playing poker, and the school books went into the trunk and that was the end of that.”

***

To understand the extent to which Mizrachi Mania gripped Las Vegas last weekend, it is necessary to explain that the World Series of Poker’s Main Event draws thousands of people who come just to watch and be near their heroes. Over 12 days, a field of 7,319 entrants—including virtually every famous poker pro and thousands of unknown wannabes from more than 90 countries—slug it out in pursuit of the game’s ultimate glory. By the time play began on Friday, with the aim of reducing the surviving 78 down to 27, the only player that fans had ever heard of was The Grinder, which is even what Michael Mizrachi’s three kids call him when he doesn’t respond to “Abba.”

Part of Mizrachi’s appeal resides in an affable grin and Jersey Shore speaking cadence that exudes a regular-guy sensibility. But it’s the family element that makes him fascinating; his three brothers and his wife, Lily, sat through hour after agonizing hour of play in the latter stages of the tournament with a boom mike from ESPN dangling over them. Each seems to have a unique role: Robert, with comparable poker skills, serves as coach; Eric is responsible for keeping fans updated with frequent Twitter posts and photos; Donny, a professional magician, provides comic relief by doing magic tricks; and Lily seems to both support her husband and make sure he doesn’t get a swelled head.

Over the two days of play, Michael’s fortunes waxed and waned and waxed again. He started Friday with the second-most chips, but some unlucky hands left him for most of Saturday’s play near the bottom of the pack and in constant danger of elimination. Over the two days, he played for more than 28 hours; his siblings sat with him through virtually every hand. His mother, back in Florida taking care of her 94-year-old mother and her sons’ pets, followed along via the Internet and through text messages exchanged with her daughter-in-law.

While other players had family and friends to cheer for them, few had legions of strangers screaming their nickname or leading chants like, “We will, we will, ’rach you!” When Mizrachi had a good hand, several spectators would make a circular motion with their clenched fists as though they were grinding something. “They’re just what poker needs,” said Theo McDanielson, 45, of Brisbane, Australia, who comes to Vegas every year to watch. “They’re a nice group of kids, very talented and successful. They seem like good family men.”

The Mizrachis all keep kosher in the home, speak fluent Hebrew, and observe Jewish holidays when they don’t conflict with important poker tournaments. Michael’s Cuban-born wife converted before they wed. But Michael also admits that their decision to become full-time poker players hasn’t sat that well with some more Orthodox elements in their family.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a bad Jew, but I’m not what some of my cousins want me to be,” Mizrachi said. “The World Series goes through Fridays and Saturdays. There’s no way could I be Orthodox. I would do it, but I can’t. I enjoy poker too much, and I want to play every day. Maybe later when I grow out of this.”

Another regret Mizrachi has is how much time he spends away from his family. His wife, Lily, is also a poker player—they met in a card room in Florida—and says she’s tolerant of her husband’s lengthy absences. He’s sometimes gone four weeks at a time, playing tournaments around the world, but with the oldest of their three kids turning 6 next month, Michael and Lily recently made a deal that he’ll only be gone for 10-day stretches. “The kids are getting older, and they’re getting to notice that he’s gone,” she said. “It’s very hard. They’re involved in Little League and whatever, and they want you to be there all the time.” Her son recently told her he doesn’t like poker; she thinks it’s because he blames the game for his father’s absences.

Still, there are perks. Lily, for instance, bought a new Mercedes the week before her husband left for Las Vegas for the World Series in May. She said she told the salesman she’d be back the following week to pay for it in cash because she had a sense her husband would win big. A few days later, Michael bested a field of 116 entrants who paid $50,000 a piece to win $1.6 million in the World Series’ second event. Robert, meantime, came in fifth and won $341,000, the first time any siblings made it to the final table of the same event.

All that success has won over the Mizrachis’ father, who wasn’t enthusiastic about this career path earlier on. Now, he keeps a scrapbook of articles about their triumphs, Susan says. “My ex-husband’s friends would say, ‘Look, my son just graduated from Yale, this one’s a doctor, this one’s an attorney,’ whatever,” he said. “After my kids started winning lots of money, Ezra would open a book and say back to his friends, ‘Look, Robert won this tournament, Michael won this one.’ I say, ‘Now you’re bragging!’ ”

If the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, though, then Robert has one important thing in common with Ezra: He’s not keen on his own son becoming a professional gambler.

“Definitely not,” Robert said as he rushed back to the ballroom where Michael was playing after a dinner break on Saturday. “I see all the stress and everything I’m going through in life. I would definitely like to see my son be a doctor or lawyer or something really successful in business. But, you know, this is the family business, isn’t it?”

Steve Friess is a Las Vegas-based writer who blogs at VegasHappensHere.com and contributes regularly to The New York Times. You can hear selections from Friess’ interview with Susan Laufer in his podcast, The Strip.

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John says:

You misspelled Dwyane Wade.
Most writers do that at least once.
Thought I’d let you know as an FYI.

dasan says:

You missed the bigger story which is the Grinder losing his FLA house and not paying his taxes. He may be a good poker player, but he’s not playing the game of life well. The interesting story is how all these great poker players make all this money and blow it all. your piece was so ingratiating, which is not typical for you, Steve. I think you got too close to the subject here. The big picture is even more interesting.

It’s amazing this didn’t turn out bad, having started gambling at such an early age. However, I think a saving grace was that the brothers were there for one another – to learn from and throw strategies back and forth – heck, like the article said, borrow money from one another. They took care of one another in their gambling escapades and it worked out. Pretty amazing group of guys.

Merlee says:

You cannot be an observant Jew and a gambler. Because someone always loses, gambling, especially when everyone has to buy in, is kin to stealing.

So they may keep kosher in their homes, and speak Hebrew, but as Jews, they are not observant.

bucky says:

The talmud forbids gamblers from acting as wtinesses…too unreliable.

Jeffrey Ellis says:

“Sports”? Really? Perhaps the category should be changed to “Sports and Gaming”. Where is the athleticism in gambling?

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Asa Ollmann says:
2000

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Full House

Michael Mizrachi and his three brothers are observant Jews and champion poker players

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