Is­raeli Mys­tery Man Crashes Poker’s Main Event

Be­hind His Hoodie and Dark Sun­glasses, Ofer Zvi Stern Rakes in a Mil­lion

Forward Magazine - - News - By Josh Nathan-Kazis Con­tact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@for­ or on Twit­ter, @josh­nathankazis

An Is­raeli mys­tery man has made it to the fi­nal round of the United States’s most pres­ti­gious poker tour­na­ment, best­ing some of the world’s top poker play­ers along the way.

Un­like other fi­nal­ists, some of whom are well­known in tour­na­ment poker cir­cles, Ofer Zvi Stern has no ob­vi­ous online pres­ence and hasn’t taken home a ma­jor prize in a live poker tour­na­ment since 2008. Dur­ing com­pe­ti­tions, he hides be­hind a hoodie and dark sun­glasses. Yet the 36-year-old has qual­i­fied for the fi­nal round of the World Se­ries of Poker’s Main Event, al­ready win­ning $1 mil­lion in the tour­na­ment. He’ll have the op­por­tu­nity to up that to $7 mil­lion when the com­pe­ti­tion re­sumes Novem­ber 8.

“I’m pretty bor­ing. I do soft­ware,” Stern told the poker web­site Pok­ in a stilted video in­ter­view soon af­ter mak­ing the fi­nal round.

No sub­stan­tive pro­files have been writ­ten on Stern, whose suc­cess in the July tour­na­ment has cat­a­pulted him to the top ranks of the world’s tour­na­ment poker play­ers. When con­tacted by the For­ward, the un­mar­ried soft­ware devel­oper from a Tel Aviv sub­urb de­clined a tele­phone in­ter­view but pro­vided lengthy an­swers to emailed ques­tions.

“I am com­ing at it a bit like a Lit­tle Lea­guer who sud­denly gets to pitch in the ma­jors,” Stern wrote. “But I trust my­self. Even with not a lot of ar­ti­cles be­hind me.”

Un­til late in the evening of July 14, Stern’s tour­na­ment poker ca­reer had been un­ex­cep­tional. He had only won $49,000 in prizes in live tour­na­ments, nearly all of that in 2008. That’s not much for a big-shot tour­na­ment poker player: Joseph McKee­hen, the 24-year-old who holds the most chips of the Main Event’s re­main­ing nine play­ers, had life­time live poker tour­na­ment earn­ings of $2 mil­lion be­fore this com­pe­ti­tion.

Stern, who owns his own small soft­ware firm in Is­rael and lives in the Tel Aviv sub­urb of Ra­mat Hasharon, has been trav­el­ing to live poker tour­na­ments in the United States and Europe for years. Though he has pre­vi­ously qual­i­fied for the World Se­ries of Poker’s Main Event, he’s never fin­ished in the money.

Over 6,000 com­peti­tors paid the $10,000 en­trance fee to com­pete in this year’s Main Event, dur­ing which play­ers face off in suc­ces­sive rounds of no-limit Texas Hold’em. Stern nearly skipped the com­pe­ti­tion en­tirely. He had flown to Las Ve­gas to com­pete in a smaller World Se­ries of Poker tour­na­ment, then gone all the way home be­fore the Main Event be­fore hav­ing a change of heart. “I quickly changed my mind, booked a ticket and flew all the way back,” Stern wrote. “I had to do it.”

It’s a good thing he did. Stern amassed 29.8 mil­lion chips dur­ing the tour­na­ment’s first 10 days, more than all but one other player. The nine play­ers re­main­ing as of July 15, the so-called Novem­ber Nine, will re­unite at the Rio All-Suite Ho­tel & Casino in Las Ve­gas in Novem­ber for a three-day tour­na­ment. Their games will be broad­cast live on ESPN.

Stern is a rel­a­tive late­comer to poker. He re­calls play­ing five-cent hands at a friend’s house as a pre­teen, then los­ing in­ter­est for years. “Girls hap­pened,” he said. He picked up the game again in 2006, at the peak of the online poker boom. From there it was a few short steps to tour­na­ment poker.

Poker tour­na­ments boomed in pop­u­lar­ity in 2003, af­ter an am­a­teur online poker player named Chris Money­maker won the World Se­ries of Poker’s Main Event. To­day the top ranks of pro­fes­sional poker are dom­i­nated by young men who made their bones in online games. In that sense Stern stands out: At 36, he’s rel­a­tively old for a top-ranked pro.

Stern’s foes in­clude Thomas Can­nuli, 23, and Max Steinberg, 27 — the lat­ter of whom came first in a 2012 World Se­ries of Poker tour­na­ment. And, though six of the fi­nal nine play­ers are be­tween the ages of those two play­ers, Neil Blu­men­field from San Fran­cisco, 61, is the sec­ond old­est and Pierre Neuville, a 72-year-old Bel­gian, is the old­est per­son ever to make the Novem­ber Nine.

Stern’s rel­a­tive lack of prior tour­na­ment wins is less un­usual. “At least two com­plete am­a­teurs with al­most zero tour­na­ment ex­pe­ri­ence … have won the [World Se­ries of Poker Main Event],” writer and poker player Jim McManus wrote in an email to the For­ward. McManus, au­thor of “Pos­i­tively Fifth Street: Mur­der­ers, Chee­tahs, and Bin­ion’s World Se­ries of Poker,” said that the in­her­ent luck fac­tor in poker is enough to push tal­ented am­a­teurs to the high­est lev­els of tour­na­ment play.

Daniel Ne­gre­anu, cur­rently the top poker player in the world, missed the fi­nal nine in this year’s tour­na­ment by just two slots, col­laps­ing to the floor as his hand fell apart. “I was shocked,” he told the poker web­site Pok­erList­ “I ac­tu­ally le­git­i­mately lost my knees and hit my head. I’m a lit­tle dizzy, but noth­ing a lit­tle vodka-some­thing can’t heal.”

Stern is aware that he’s play­ing against men (all nine are men) with more ex­pe­ri­ence than he has. “It’s a game of skill and I will be play­ing against amaz­ing pro­fes­sion­als,” he wrote. “I’m go­ing to do re­search on how to re­act when curve­balls hap­pen, how to sharpen my fo­cus, how to re­spond to un­ex­pected sce­nar­ios.”

He said he plans to prac­tice for the Novem­ber tour­na­ment by play­ing against friends in Is­rael, by watch­ing videos of his soon-to-be op­po­nents play­ing in tour­na­ments — and by watch­ing videos of him­self. “That might be the hard­est,” he wrote.

Though Stern is the only Is­raeli among the Novem­ber Nine this year, he’s far from the sole Is­raeli in the game’s re­cent history. Pok­er­Stars, the largest online poker site, is owned by an Is­raeli-Cana­dian fam­ily. Is­raeli player Idan Ra­viv won $457,000 in a World Se­ries of Poker tour­na­ment in June, and player Amir Le­havot took third place in the tour­na­ment’s 2013 Main Event.

“It means a lot, rep­re­sent­ing my coun­try,” Le­havot told the Pok­ in­ter­viewer, af­ter a long pause, in the post-com­pe­ti­tion in­ter­view.


The Hooded Man: Stern amassed the sec­ond largest stack of chips at the World Se­ries of Poker’s Main Event.

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