Shalom Life | April 19, 2015

Ari Engel: Son of an Orthodox Rabbi… and a Professional Poker Player?

Despite traditional Jewish law, Engel is an incredible poker player and doesn’t believe the card game should count as gambling

By: Caitlin Marceau

Published: December 30th, 2014 in Sports » Local

Photo: Ari Engel


For most who follow the Jewish Orthodox tradition, poker night is something not often attended. Traditional Jewish law strongly discourages and frowns upon gambling (though there are some rabbis who are more lenient towards it), meaning that late nights are better spent elsewhere than at a poker table. However Ari Engel, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, doesn’t see poker that way. In fact, he sees it as a great way to make a living.

And so far, he hasn’t been wrong.

Engel was born in Toronto, but has since been around the world. He lived in South Africa, Australia, Jerusalem and Annapolis, all before ending up in Chicago with his family. There, he attended a yeshiva high school, and got his first taste of poker when he was in his senior year of school. He continued to play in yeshiva in Jerusalem during his gap year, and then during his time at New York University. It was during his second year at NYU that Engel began to play for larger sums of cash and, with the tutelage of his roommate, Andrew Brown, became an increasingly skilled player.

Engel graduated NYU with a degree in finance and an uncanny skill to succeed in online poker. He took on a job in the financial industry, but found his evenings and weekends packed with late night poker sessions that quickly became more lucrative than his job. He quit his work to pursue professional poker playing a few weeks later.

Much to his surprise, his parents were supportive of his decision to pursue full-time poker. Perhaps, like Engel, they share his view on how poker isn’t a game of chance, but rather skill and strategy.

“To me it’s very unfortunate that poker takes place in casinos. It doesn’t really belong there,” Engel explained in an interview with JTA. “Poker definitely has a lot of things that are beyond one’s control, but it has plenty of things within your control. I don’t gamble at all. I’m trying to get an edge when I play poker, and I try to make a living out of it.”

So far, Engel has been able to pay off a significant amount of his student debt from NYU. He also has enough saved up that he’s able to comfortably pursue live tournaments for his income. However, up until 2011, Engel preferred to play online poker but was forced to change his playing strategy when the laws for online gambling changed.

In April of 2011, the U.S. Justice Department indicted several of the country’s largest online poker providers, claiming that they violated internet gambling laws as well as partook in both bank fraud and money laundering. Although the issue was resolved with PokerStars and Full Tilt, both companies were forbidden from offering their online services to American citizens. Thankfully, Engel, who was residing in Las Vegas at the time, was born in Canada and was able to get a passport. Until recently, he had an apartment in Toronto and was able to play poker online.

He soon grew bored of the online poker scene and has since packed his things to chase tournaments on the road. According to JTA, Engel, who ranks as one of the world’s best poker players (number 23, to be exact), has grossed over $5 million playing professional poker. Most recently, he won over $136,000 in a competition in the Dominican Republic, over $142,000 in St. Louis, and almost $188,000 in an online competition in May. Not too shabby.

Although Engel enjoys playing poker, when he’s not celebrating with his family in Florida during the Jewish holidays, and giving online poker courses, he’s not sure he’ll be playing poker for the long haul.

“I don’t know if I’ll be playing poker forever, but for the time being I will,” Engel explained to JTA. “I’ve built a little bit of a nest egg and I have the freedom to follow different opportunities. I just need to keep my eyes and ears open and just be smart about it.”

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