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Jews and Poker

Yesterday my wife told me that she might submit a post to PokerMoments about poker and Quakerism. She’s a Quaker, and I remember her once telling me that Quakers don’t believe that playing the lottery is ethical. Perhaps they have similar views on poker, or gambling in general. I’m curious.

I’m not a Quaker. I’m a Jew, and as far as I know, Jews have no prohibitions against gambling for money. In fact, when I take a cursory look at the world of professional poker, at least with respect to men, I seem to see a large number of Jews.

I just finished reading Alvarez’s fine book “The Biggest Game in Town,” about Binions Horseshoe Casino and the 1981 WSOP. I thought it was interesting that when the final six players were left there were three Jews and three Texans, and Jewish Gabe Kaplan – aka Mr. Kotter – (see here for Kaplan’s impressive tournament record), bet against Texan Doyle Brunson about who would win the tournament, a Jew or a Texan. Kaplan bet on a Jew and won since Jewish “Stuey the Kid” Ungar won in 1981. For those who never heard of Ungar, he is considered by many poker players to be one of the greatest poker players who ever lived, one of only two players who has won the WSOP three times, winning it in 1980, 1981, and 1997. On a side note, the last three players at the 81 tournament were all Jewish, and one was Orthodox.

The disproportionate number of Jews who are quite good professional poker players perhaps points to something in Judaism that contributes to this connection. The only thing that comes to my mind is that on Hannukah there is a wagering game played with a dreidel. Is there anything else? If anyone else knows anything about the tenets or teachings of Judaism that might explain the ties between Jews and poker, please let me know.

13 thoughts on “Jews and Poker

  1. As a fellow member of the tribe, I can point out a couple of things that attract us to poker. I’m going to sound, well, racist, I guess, but keep in mind that I’m a Jew and I’m speaking about my experiences.

    Jews are often financially secure, so this will allow us to play more.

    We also don’t have any religious rules against gambling. I’m sure there are some, but as a reformed Jew (for you non-Jews, it means my temple wasn’t very religious), there was no “Though shall not gamble.”

    Also, we are familiar with numbers and odds and whatnot as a people who made a lot of their money as bankers (we had to when we were not allowed to have stores).

    Finally, we hold education in high regards, which also reinforces understanding numbers and odds.

  2. Jordan – All good points.

    I also wonder whether there is something about the fact that poker has never really been fully accepted as a respectable activity. Perhaps a Jew may be attracted to the “forbidden” game because he feels, like many Jews do, as an outsider.

    I watched for the first time on TV dominoes being played competitively. I noticed that there were a lot of (I assume non-Jewish) minorities playing the game. Any thoughts about this connection?

  3. austen:
    i’m guessing you are not one of them?

    >> they have high IQ’s then WASP and asians on average.

    I think you were trying to say they have HIGHER IQs than WASPs and Asians on average.

  4. Fellas, not everyone who reads these comments are Jewish. There are a lot of Jewish card players who lose a ton of money daily. Each of you know at least one member of the community who is as dumb as a post. Not all of us are independantly wealthy. Usually when someone starts a comment by saying, I might sound….(fill in the blank) they usually are what ever word they filled in. If we are terrific with numbers, ask the next ten members of the community the following question, If there are six and a half billion people on earth, how many are Jewish? I think the answers will surprise you. The old guy with only average intelligence.

  5. dpodan,

    I’m not sure I’m following your line of thought. I think that you’re saying that the comments (and perhaps the post as well) suggest that there are a disproportionate number of Jews who are wealthy, intelligent and good at poker. And you think that this suggestion is mistaken. If I’ve interpreted you correctly, then I’m not sure why you believe what you’re saying. Are you denying that there are a disproportionate number of Jews who are wealthy/intelligent/good at poker?

  6. Suber it is always more difficult to prove a negative. The vast majority of all Jews don’t play poker. The vast majority of all Jews are not disproportionately more wealthy than the majority population. Some Jews are more intelligent than some non Jews. We are a hyper small community so that when one of us is successful it reflects disproportionately. My guess is that more Jews played a variation of dominoes hundreds of years before they ever played poker. Step back from the page and insert any minority label in place of Jew or Jewish and honestly way the comments. You may have another take on the comments offered by the participants.

  7. I agree with you that the vast majority of Jews don’t play poker. And I would agree that the vast majority of Jews aren’t wealthy. However, I am talking about these attributes relative to the general population, and from what I’ve observed it seems that the Jews are disproportionately higher. It is here where I’m not sure whether we are in agreement or not.

    I don’t know what the statistics are, but I would bet that if you compared the average wealth or IQ of your American Jew to the average wealth of the American nonJew or nonJew in general, it would be higher on the Jewish side. I’m sure this is easy to prove. The “Bell Curve”, e.g. shows the statistics with respect to IQ.

    To take a more concrete example, consider Nobel Prize winners. There are certainly more nonJews who have won this prize than Jews. However, when you take these numbers and compare them to the population of Jews and nonJews, it is staggering the proportion of Jews who have won this prize.

    I have a feeling that the Nobel Prize situation is analogous to the poker situation.

    You write, “Step back from the page and insert any minority label in place of Jew or Jewish and honestly weigh the comments. You may have another take on the comments offered by the participants.” I don’t think this is true. Consider, e.g., “American Muslims”. They are certainly a minority. And compared to Muslims in the rest of the world, I would be that they are doing disproportionately better financially speaking. And I wouldn’t be surprise if they are doing disproportionately better than the average nonMuslim American. However, I would bet that the number of American nonMuslims who play high stakes poker and are good at it are proportionately lower than the nuber of Jews who are. If I’m wrong, I think this would be an interesting result.

  8. Suber, you got me. I did say insert any minority and you did. The non-convert american muslim population is probably smaller than the American Jewish population. The convert population is probably substantially larger than the Jewish convert population. The numbers outside of the the United states skewes in favor of the Islamic population. The American muslim population is not very homogenius. Genetically the Jews of the middle east and the muslims of the middle east are genetic cousins. I am not sure whether there are religious sanctions against gambling within the muslim dogma.
    Initally I stopped in to see whether there was a list of the top ranked players and to see how many were Jewish. The inquiry was based on curiosity because I initially believed that there were a disproportionate number of Jewish players at the final tables of many of the tournaments. Apparently religious affiliation is not thought to be very important because I was unable to find such a list. A naturalized immigrant.

  9. France. Like many of our world wide extended family we arrived in 1949, Moms, Pops, my sister, two pieces of luggage and fifteen dollars. My father thought he was rich. He spoke three languages and none of them were English. My mother spoke three languages and none of them were English. On any given day for the first three years they would have packed it in and returned to France. He was a master barber but because he wasn’t licensed he could not practice. He spent the rest of his life as a skilled manual laborer. The streets are paved with gold in America if you have a street map showing you the way. In Europe before the war there was no such thing as credit. If you did not have the money you couldn’t buy it. Here the entire economy was run on your promise to pay back what ever you could get someone to lend you. When he died at the age of eighty four his children were provided higher educations as were his grand children. Only in America. He waited, he worked and along the way found a road map.

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