As soon as this Shabbat ends, Gershon Distenfeld will leave his home in Bergenfield for the airport. A few hours later, he’ll land in Las Vegas, where he will take his place as one of the nine contestants at the domestic final table for the World Series of Poker.
As he said — and as ESPN’s breathless coverage of it bears out — this is “prestigious television and a Very Big Deal.”
Mr. Distenfeld is a very good poker player — that obvious truth is borne out by the fact that he made the final table — and he’s had good luck — something else that’s necessary for his level of success at poker — but he couldn’t have gotten to that table had it not been for the pandemic, which allowed the games up until this final one to be played online.
“Poker is a hobby of mine, and I probably play about three or four tournaments a year,” Mr. Distenfeld said. “And I usually go to Vegas for a week.” But he has a big fulltime job working for asset managers AllianceBernstein, so he wouldn’t have been able to take the time off to travel to games had it been necessary.
But everything is different this year.
“The World Series usually is from the end of May until the end of July; usually it’s about 80 or so tournaments and then the culmination is the main event. It takes a $10,00 buy-in” — that didn’t change this year — “and then the main event usually takes over a week to play.
“This year, they ended up having a lot of events online.”
There are only two of the 50 United States where it is legal to gamble online; one, logically enough, is Nevada. The other is New Jersey. You can gamble from anywhere in those two states — your basement, your in-laws’ kitchen, a parking lot, a botanical garden, a Palisades Parkway overlook, or, more practically for out-of-staters, a hotel room — but you have to be in either the Silver or the Garden state to do so legally.
That made it easier for Mr. Distenfeld to find the time to play.
“I decided last month that I wanted to play.” So he paid the $10,000 he needed to enter, and “I played for 12 hours on Sunday, and I made it.
“Seven hundred and fifty people entered, and 71 advanced to Day 2; play resumed at 3 p.m. on Monday, and I ended that day in sixth place. And then it got down to the final nine people.”
Once he gets to Las Vegas, Mr. Distenfeld will have to be tested for covid. “If God forbid I test positive, I will be disqualified,” he said. If he tests negative, as he fully expects to do, he, like the other players, will quarantine.
“You have to stay in your hotel room, and they bring you food. You can’t leave.
“And then, on Monday evening, December 28, I will be sitting at the final table, with no masks and no social distancing,” he said. “Whoever wins will face off against the international champion two nights later.” The international championship was fought in the Czech Republic last week.
It is different playing online, Mr. Distenfeld said. “But it’s not that different. You don’t see the other person’s reaction, and there are people who believe that they can read players’ reactions, and other players who don’t.” He counts himself largely in that second group. “There is a lot of math and probability and understanding your position relative to other people’s,” he said. “There is a certain amount of randomness too. In any one tournament you also have to have luck on your side. It’s a combination of skill and luck.”
Mr. Distenfeld “wants to be careful, because I don’t want anyone to look at me as a role model,” he said. “I think that people should be careful about gambling, and especially teenagers should be very careful.” The legal gambling age in New Jersey is 21; in some parts of New York State it’s 18.
“Gambling can be addictive,” he continued. “I do it as a hobby, not to make money. I am involved in charitable endeavors, and I am in a position in life where I can and do give away a lot of money.
“I am not doing this for the money. I am doing it to win. I want the challenge of winning. I will give money away to some of the worthwhile causes that I already support that are doing good work for the less fortunate. I have identified five charities so far that I will support; I’m working to identify the others. The minimum that I can win is $9,800, minus New Jersey state taxes; the federal government does not tax what you give away to charity, but New Jersey does.” The maximum is much higher; “$2.5 million, minus state taxes.”
So far, the causes he will support with his winnings are Minds Matter, which helps “driven, low-income students succeed in college, create their future and change the world”; NCSY Missions, the Orthodox Union youth groups “harnessing teen volunteers to address disaster relief and food insecurity”; Yachad, another Orthodox Union project, this one aimed at “enhancing life opportunities for Jewish individuals with developmental disabilities and of learning challenges”; Project Sarah, which works “to overcome cultural, legal and religious barriers confronting victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse; and the Bergenfield food pantry, which combats hunger and insecurity in Mr. Distenfeld’s own town.
Mr. Distenfeld is thrilled with the chance to claim his seat at the final table. “It feels a little surreal,” he said. “I always thought it would be pretty cool to get to a prestigious tournament like this, but I never really thought it would happen.”
But it does make sense, he added. “I don’t necessarily think that I am such a good player, but I am an investor for a living,” he said. “I evaluate or assess probabilities, with not all the information or limited information. That is very similar to poker. In poker, you have some information, but not all of it. Not even a lot of it. You are dealing with uncertainty and probability, and they are similar skill sets.
“I don’t play a lot, and I definitely had some mazal” — some luck, that is — “in getting there. I will need some skill and some mazal to make it farther, and hopefully to win it.”