Texas Hold ’em Poker Is Back
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Texas Hold ’em Poker Is Back

The winners will go to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas to test their expertise and hopefully make serious money.

Toco Hills players, from bottom left clockwise, Neil Kalnitz, Matt Lewis, Marci Joel, Henry Benamram, Jeremy Goldman and Seth Lynn.
Toco Hills players, from bottom left clockwise, Neil Kalnitz, Matt Lewis, Marci Joel, Henry Benamram, Jeremy Goldman and Seth Lynn.

A Jewish group, the Toco Hills Poker League, has been playing Texas Hold ’em poker for years but has been on hold for months because of the pandemic. Because all the players are now vaccinated, poker is back this month in person, and the group is excited to see each other to play face-to-face with masking optional.

When the pandemic started spreading a year ago, the group had to stop playing entirely for a while. They tried to play in the garage of one of their members, but the virus made that unacceptable.

Some players tried playing online, using the online poker system offered by PokerStars, one of the well-known poker companies, but it wasn’t the same as being there in person. No one could kibbitz, you had a restricted skill set about other players, making it difficult to tell if they were bluffing. It wasn’t as much fun or exciting.

Matt Lewis, Marci Joel and Henry Benamram kibbitzing during a game.

Under Texas Hold ’em rules, you appreciate the fun of bluffing, the ability to size up other players, especially over time as play continues hour after hour. You can bet all your money on a single hand, with the excitement that arrives as the last card determines the winner. It is even more exciting when the winning hand had a small likelihood of winning and wins.

To deal with COVID, the leaders in the group set out a series of rules under which the poker tournament will now take place.

Here are some of them:

  • Each player pays $250 for the entire year of poker playing.
  • Everyone starts with the same amount of money chips. When you lose all your money, you receive a number of points according to when you are “out.” The longer you stay in the game, the more points you get.
  • After all the games are played, the top two winners with the most points go with the money to Vegas to play in a $500 or $1,000 World Series of Poker event this fall. If they win money in their tournament, they keep half the proceeds and split the other half with all the other players.
Josh Arieh has two gold bracelets, the top prize among poker champions.

Matt Lewis had this to say about playing once again in person: “It’s been hard not to be together for the last 15 months. We are kind of a family for each other, and the quality of our play has increased over the years. We have had several players cash in [during] the World Series.”

A Vegas tournament usually has a thousand or more players with the top 8 percent finishers “in the money.” With a thousand players paying their $1,000 entry fee, there is $1 million or more to split among the 80 or so top finishers. The top winner could receive several hundred-thousand bucks with less and less paid down the line.

To provide a real success story about playing, I spoke with Josh Arieh, who is originally from Toco Hills but lives now in Alpharetta. He finished third place in the 2004 World Series of Poker Main Event, where the entry fee was $10,000. At the 2005 WSOP, he won his second gold bracelet, the top prize. His total live tournament winnings exceed $6.8 million.

Justin Katz shows off his aces.

When I asked him why he got involved in playing poker professionally, he said, “I love to gamble and compete. However, the game has evolved.” It is obvious why, there is so much money to be made. “Professionals use a computer tool that analyzes millions of poker hands to determine the optimal way to play for every conceivable situation.”

The Toco Hills league begins its game at 7:45 p.m. on Sundays, and it’s usually over by midnight. Justin Katz said, “The great thing about poker is that it allows people from all backgrounds to come together, socialize and compete. Our group, in particular, gives an outlet to a wide range of individuals who enjoy getting together to build friendships while focusing on the opportunity to travel to Las Vegas. The best part is not winning, but rooting on those that have made it to the WSOP.”

In 2020, when Vegas was closed, the $10,000 entry fee “Main Event” online poker tournament generated a $27.5 million prize pool for a single event. Nearly $150 million in prize money was awarded across the online poker festival, including seven-figure prize pools in 45 events, making it what is claimed by the WSOP to be the biggest tournament series in history.

Winners also receive the prestigious gold bracelet. Although Arieh always focused on the money, he also recognized the value of the bracelet. “There are only about 100 poker players that have won two gold bracelets.”

This fall, the WSOP will be back in-person at the Rio All-Suite Las Vegas Hotel & Casino for a diverse calendar of events beginning Sept. 30 with all play concluding Nov. 23. The top players in the Toco Hills League will be there.

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