When I was first told that Ari Engel was wearing a kipper I was a little perturbed.
“Why would anyone wear a smelly fish on their head?”
I later learned that a kippah (also spelled kippa, kipoh or kipa) is not a smelly fish full of irritating bones. It’s a small skullcap that is worn by members of the Jewish community.
I was intrigued.
This valley boy had never spoken to a member of the Jewish community before. It was time to break my duck.
This is what Ari Engel had to say.
What are you up to Ari?
I am single, don’t have a home, and play poker all of the time. In the past couple of years I have played primarily 80% live and 20% online.
Where do you go during your downtime?
I don’t do much downtime. I travel from tournament to tournament. I take a few days of here and there, but not much.
I believe you are homeless.
Sort of. I actually own a house in Vegas that I rent out. I have good tenants. It’s not a huge deal. It gives me headaches from time to time. Even when I had a house I never had lot of stuff. Living on the road presents some challenges, such as maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but when it comes to enjoyment of life I’m fine.
Was it a conscious effort of yours to eradicate stuff, or did it just work out that way?
It just worked out that way. Don’t get me wrong. I get whatever I want. I’m not trying to portray myself as some sort of noble person. I have two suitcases full of stuff, and I am fine with that.
Andrew Lichtenberger has decided to get involved in the campaign to legalize online poker in the U.S. Thoughts?
It sounds good. I have seen some Facebook posts, and some Tweets. I’ll support anything we can do to legalize online poker in the U.S. The dream would be to have a federal bill, but nobody thinks that will happen. I guess the next best thing is to get online poker legalized in as many states as possible.
How far will you go in terms of support?
I’ve written letters and sent Tweets in the past. I’m not sure what people are doing today? I would be open minded to taking a more active role, but I am not sure how much impact one person can have.
It must help that Lichtenberger is a high profile professional player.
It doesn’t hurt that’s for sure. Right now I don’t know what’s going on. I wish him all the best, and good on him for stepping up. But I do wonder what impact individuals can actually have? Perhaps he should tweet ideas for individual players to take action instead of tweeting politicians? Perhaps it is effective. I don’t know? I might not dedicate my life to the fight but I would go out of my way to help if I could. I haven’t really seen anything beside a few Tweets and Facebook posts though.
If he asked you for your help would you be there?
There is a decent chance that I would. Especially, if I felt there was a small chance something could come from it.
I’ve seen you playing in Europe. Did you ever consider leaving the States after Black Friday?
I’m a dual citizen: Canada and U.S. so I spent a lot of time in Canada post Black Friday. I also made trips to Europe and Latin America. That’s the post Black Friday story – you go where the games are. I play a lot more live events in the U.S. A lot of my peers moved out of the country. I did it for a while but the Canadian winters got the better of me.
The World Series of Poker Circuit (WSOPC) helped advance your career. What is it about that tour for you?
Those victories certainly gained me some notoriety in the poker world, but most of my big scores haven’t happened on the circuit. The wins are nice but they often happen in smaller events, and thus smaller prizes. If you play a lot of 200-player tournaments, and you have an edge in those games, you are going to win a few of them. I may have seven wins, which is the second most, but I bet I am also in the top 10 for players who have played the most. It goes both ways. People don’t see all the buy-ins and the 12th, 11th 10th place finishes that happen far more than the wins.
I always play the lower buy-in-higher value stuff as part of my balanced schedule. The glory of chasing the rings means I play a higher percentage than I normally would. They also have the points system for the $1m freeroll, so I end up playing a little more than I otherwise would.
Are you in this game for love, glory or the money?
I don’t have any long terms plans. I’m not sure what I will be doing in a year’s time? That’s hard for me to predict. I’m not a Daniel Negreanu. I am learning things like goal setting. But it’s something I have never done. Thinking where I am going to be in the future is a new thing for me. The main reason I play poker now is to pay my bills and set myself up financially. On the other hand I have a little bit of a nest egg now so I don’t have to play poker every day. I like playing. I enjoy it. It’s competitive and enjoyable, and it’s not like I am set for life yet. I have to work somewhere, so I guess working in a job I enjoy will do for now.
Are you a deep thinker?
I do think a lot. There are some people who may think that poker players are not doing a lot for the world. I can see that. But I got a degree in finance. Most likely, had I not gotten into poker, I would have worked on Wall Street or something like that. I wouldn’t have done anything noble.
I’m trying to be a good person. I give money to charity and try to do the right things; be a nice guy. Poker is all about adults coming together to enjoy themselves. I feel a high percentage of poker players play with money they can afford to lose. I think it’s a worthwhile activity and if people want to earn that way, that’s fine. It’s not the most noble thing to do, but it’s very far from the bottom.
Was it difficult to play poker coming from an Orthodox Jewish background?
I come from an Orthodox family which is the strictest section of Judaism. My family is very conservative. I’m not sure why, but they have been very supportive. In the beginning, when I was just getting into it, I kept it from them. When I decided to become professional I was open to them for the first time, and they have been very supportive. Not only has my immediate family been supportive, but also so have my larger circle of family. They are all extremely conservative, but they have all been understanding.
What was life like growing up as a son of an Orthodox rabbi?
I always went to all Jewish Schools. My High School was boys only. We started at 7.30am and school ended at 8.30pm – except Sundays and Fridays which were half days. It was very intense. Only the hours between 3 and 6.30 were secular studies. The rest were religious studies.
Afterwards, when I went to college, I found there was so much time and very little work when compared to High School. That allowed me to grind online which is what I did.
Did you ever feel like you were missing out on anything growing up? Did you feel resentment for spending so much time in school?
I was very motivated when I was in school. I was into it and didn’t view it as a burden at the time. Looking back it seems excessive, but it didn’t feel like that at the time. All my friends and associates were from the same background and were doing the same things. I understood public school had shorter hours but it felt worth it at the time.
And then you come into poker where there are so many different cultures and ways of doing things.
I feel like poker has definitely helped expand my mind. I started to be exposed to different scenarios in college, but poker took it to a different level. I was suddenly meeting people from different cultures, different backgrounds, traveling to different countries, and being confronted with different problems. It was a real eye opener.
Have you ever been subjected to anti-Semitic abuse on or off the tables?
It’s amazing how supportive people are in poker. The only comments I have ever received have been positive. I have never experienced any anti-Semitism. People have called me a young punk but never Jewish related comments.
Off the table I have had very limited exposure to it. The usual: ‘people shouting at you from passing cars’ type of thing. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had people shouting at them. But I never experienced anything physical. Just verbal things like that.
I have been, and continue to be, really impressed by the poker world. Not just towards Judaism – everyone seems to be accepted. People reminisce about how poker used to be. They say it was great and today it’s not so great. I think this is one area where poker has improved immeasurably.
When I first got into poker there was a lot of people who were grumpy and didn’t like playing with people who were different. These days you have people coming out of the closet to tons of nice remarks; lots of races, genders, and nobody bats an eyelid. I think the poker world can teach the rest of the world a thing or two about acceptance.
What fears do you have?
I have all kinds of fears. I could spend hours with a therapist and still not get over all of my fears. But in general, I find poker is very therapeutic. I feel more comfortable at a poker table than a lot of other places. I have become a lot more confident and stronger due to poker. Mentally, I am more able to deal with the natural trials and tribulations that occur in life. Not everything is going to go super smooth, and that’s one thing that poker has helped to teach me.
Are you happy?
I’m pretty good. Like a lot of poker players I struggle with results and the affect it has on my mood. It’s difficult to control my mood when I am on a huge downswing. Equally, it’s difficult to keep your feet on the ground when it’s all going great. I’m not close to where I want to be. There are tons of people better than me at that.
Where are you with the balance of making yourself happy, and also other people?
I live by myself a lot. I am definitely lean way more on the balance of the self. I try to be helpful with friends and family. I try to be a nice person in general. Probably, I am below average in the selfish/unselfish ratio.
Do you get lonely?
I don’t get lonely. When I travel, I know a lot of the regulars and traveling professionals. I eat with people I know and hang out with people I know. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes, I just want to be done with people and be on my own. I also use the freedom in poker to travel often to visit family – I can’t say I feel lonely very often.