The first thing that struck me upon meeting Ari Engel was just how, well, normal he looks (and, I should add, is). Standing there in jeans, t-shirt and wearing a kippah upstairs in the Venetian Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, I easily could have mistaken him for any guy in town for a bachelor party, who had probably just lost his last $100 on a badly played hand of Blackjack. He was very much a nice Jewish boy from Chicago, the son of an Orthodox Rabbi. My mom instincts immediately kicked into high gear. I offered him something to eat, and asked if he was single, wondering if I knew any nice Jewish girls living in Las Vegas to set him up with. (I don’t. If you do, email me.)
Of course, that nice Jewish girl would also have to be completely comfortable with the fact that Ari is a professional poker player who gambles at all hours, day and night, risking sums of money that could buy a nice family home along Chicago’s North Shore. Hmm, this could be hard.
It’s not surprising that Ari blends in to his surroundings. After all, his unique ability to “fly under the radar” is something you would expect to be a key asset for his ‘job.’ But you might not expect another thing that has also worked to his advantage: wearing a kippah while playing.
“I always wear a kippah when I play,” says Ari, who is religiously observant. “I get a lot of ‘shaloms’ and yiddish words. It is interesting how people respond to me as a religious person—it has been my experience that some people don’t think that ‘religious people’ are that smart, and often these people will treat me as if I don’t know the game. And this works in my favor, although over the years as people have gotten to recognize me, I don’t get that as much.”
Some people might question if there is an inherent conflict between Ari’s religious beliefs and how he makes a living. But Ari has made peace between his professional and spiritual worlds.
“I’m comfortable with my decision, and with myself,” says Ari. “I know that it is impossible to reconcile what I do—gambling—100% with my religious beliefs. But I go about it in a way that reflects favorably on myself...I am very professional. Frankly, I’d rather play poker ethically than be a shady businessman. I’m very comfortable in what I do. And my parents have been very supportive—my dad will even mention me in his sermons.”
Ari’s religious observance has occasionally barred him from participating in poker tournaments—many which span several weeks with no days off, including Shabbat. This is one of the reasons why Ari has focused much of his playing online, versus playing in the casinos. He spends 90% of his time gambling online, and only 10% of the time in casinos. And when in a casino it’s all business—in and out.
“Casinos hate people like me,” jokes Ari. “They don’t make hardly anything off me.”
So just how did a nice Jewish boy, a graduate of Skokie Yeshiva, wind up as one of the most successful online poker players? Well, that’s easy: college.
Ari was introduced to online poker gambling by his freshman year roommate at NYU. At the time, he didn’t play, but was interested and learned while watching his college roommate.
“During my second year of college, my roommate, Andrew Brown—Browndog19 online—used to play online poker all the time,” says Ari. “I began to watch him a lot, and for three months I only watched, never played a hand.”
After Ari graduated, he took an entry level job, making just enough to pay the rent and the monthly payments on his six-figure student loan debt. After “scraping together enough cash,” Ari decided to play online and within six weeks, he had made enough to quit his job and play online full-time.
“After college graduation, I completely stopped for about two months, barring my weekly $40 home game with college friends,” said Ari. “During one of those games, two of my friends were raving about a new site where they both made over 1K. I signed up for Bodog, and 10 days later quit my day job.”
I admit, listening to Ari, I was tempted to quit my job and go ‘all in.’ But before I could break out my credit card, Ari brought me down to earth, warning about the perils of online gambling.
“This is a 90% failure rate,” warns Ari. “One year I can make well over six-figures, the next year I could lose money. It’s part skill, and part luck. I’ve been very lucky.”
Which is one of the reasons why Ari has started a business teaching others how to play. Warning shameless plug alert: Ari has opened a successful training academy: The Maven VT (www.mavenvt.com).
And even with all his success, Ari is not sure how long he will stay in the online poker world.
“At 26, I’m one of the old guys,” says Ari. “I don’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life. The poker world is unstable; eventually I might need to move on.”
Well, shit, if 26 is old, that makes me… oh, forget it. One final thought: Ari is indeed single, and you can stalk him online at his blogspot: bodogari.blogspot.com