Eli Elezra on High Stakes Poker and tangling with durrrr: ‘All of a sudden we discovered that this kid has balls’

The man they call Mr Vegas was one of the original High Stakes Poker crew. We talk to Elezra about bringing the Big Game to the screen, jousting with durrrr and needling Sammy Farha

Before anyone knew about High Stakes Poker, poker-world insiders knew about the Big Game. Long prior to articles and attendant hype, card-room cognoscenti considered it to be the real-deal, nosebleed acid test in Las Vegas. Poker TV veteran Mori Eskandani and inventor of the hole-card-cam Henry Orenstein counted themselves among the insiders. They realised that being a fly on the wall while mega players angled for hundreds of thousands of dollars of real money – not tournament chips – would make for compelling television.

With a ratings blizzard in mind, they approached Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Sammy Farha, Gus Hansen, and Eli Elezra about moving their game from Bobby’s Room to a TV soundstage for a few days. The idea was to keep it all as real as possible, with the only concession being that they would play no-limit hold’em instead of mixed games.

Suddenly, relatively anonymous gamblers developed small-screen personae with Elezra emerging as a favourite. On TV, he seemed tough and cunning, exuding Middle Eastern cool, dropping hinhights about his time in the Israeli military, evolving into one of the more compelling players on the show. One thing we soon learned: If Eli Elezra smiles, calls you buddy, and casually dispatches a six-figure raise, you’re probably in trouble.

PokerPlayer: When High Stakes Poker started, what adjustments did Mori and Henry want you to make for TV?

Eli Elezra: Nothing. They wanted us to play our normal game. They said they would let us do what we wanted. We even brought our own chips from the Bellagio, the $25,000 chips that everybody started calling pound cakes after a manager told our dealer to stop throwing the chips around like they’re pound cakes. Then they paid us around $1,000 per hour. That first year, we got $20k checks for playing our poker game on television.

Sounds like a sweet gig. But I heard that there was an issue with the prop betting that you guys love to do.

Mori had a problem with it. Every time the flop came, we talked props. Mori said it would be confusing for the people at home. Nobody would know what we were talking about. Doyle said, ‘You told us that this is our game and we could do whatever we want.’

But you gave in and stopped doing the prop bets. I have a feeling the TV aspect drew enough amateurs and non-cash-game pros to make it worthwhile.

That’s true. We got to like it. Every tournament superstar they brought to the show tried to be a hero and bluff you on television. I’ve known Phil Hellmuth for 20 years and never saw him win in a cash game. But he wanted to play on High Stakes. For us, he was new meat on the plate.

If Phil was new meat, then Jamie Gold must have looked like a seafood buffet. I remember that wild hand in which he lost more than $200k with Kings to Sammy Farha’s Aces.

Jamie looked like he was going to start crying. It was such a big joke, but it made for good TV. In the World Series, tournament cards hit him in the face. Then he comes to play with us on High Stakes and it’s people who do this for a living. He’d be trying to talk to an opponent in the middle of a hand without realising that it doesn’t work.

I have to admit, prior to High Stakes Poker, I did not know who you were. I also know that you came to Vegas from Alaska to invest in certain businesses, which did quite well. Were you actually a professional poker player at that point?

I would say I was still on the border of being a recreational player. I still had my businesses in Vegas. But then I let my family take it over and I spent more time playing poker. At a certain point during that first season, in 2006, I realised that this game could be bigger than the business. High Stakes Poker showed me involved in $200k and $250k pots. You realise that, at a certain level, poker is a big business. I re-watched a lot of my hands with Doyle and Phil [Ivey] and took notes on their play. That helped me a lot.

Just as I was unfamiliar with you, much of the poker loving public had no clue as to who Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan was. For a lot of people, High Stakes Poker was their introduction to him. Did you know much about Dwan?

Daniel Negreanu was telling us about a guy named durrrr. We didn’t know who the hell durrrr was! Then this kid comes in and, man, he f♠cking has the balls. He started the stare and spending four minutes in the tank – which we quickly realised is not him thinking about nothing. He was thinking about bluffing, thinking about what his opponents had, thinking about how to get the most money out of us, or to get us off a hand. He showed the world how to play suited connectors. He definitely changed High Stakes Poker.

It was probably better for you to play against him on TV than in Bobby’s Room. At least you were able to see how he strategised. Otherwise, I’m guessing, he would have been a lot harder to come to terms with.

I recorded all the shows with Tom and glued myself to the TV. My opinion is that Tom Dwan was the first new-generation player. Doyle, Phil, and I, all of a sudden, we discovered that this kid has balls. He doesn’t mind pushing in $200k on a bluff. He changed the game with his three-bets and four-bets. He read opponents, shoved in chips, and made us change the way we play. That just doesn’t happen with a lot of new players. Usually, they have to play our way. But not Tom! I have to give it to him. When he was at the table, he made me feel uncomfortable.

Switching to somebody who made you feel less ill at ease, I have to tell you that I always sensed heat between you and Sammy Farha.

We had a bit of a rivalry. It wasn’t because I’m Israeli and he’s Lebanese, although I did tell him, ‘I’ve been to your country, Sammy, but not with a passport.’ It just developed that every time we were in a hand together, he happened to be the aggressor. Every time Sammy was in a hand, it was a semi bluff; if he pushed all-in, you knew he was on a draw. I called him a couple of times with Q-2 and caught on the flop. There were ten or 15 confrontations – but the best was when I made four Aces. I told everybody I had Aces and nobody believed me! I respect his game, but let’s just say that he and I play a little differently.

If there is one strong player on the show who I kind of feel bad for, it’s Daniel Negreanu. He seemed to be a textbook example of a poker player getting unlucky at the wrong time. He seemed to suffer so many crazy bad beats. Daniel ran horrible during the show. He was the biggest loser. He’d turn a full house and then be up against quads. I think I beat him for $500k in a few pots. But he was the face of High Stakes Poker, and whenever somebody new came into the game, Daniel told us about him.

Looking back, what did High Stakes Poker ultimately do for you?

I tell everybody that this show put me on the map. It made me feel like a superstar. At some point, your personal life gets mixed up in it to the point that you can’t go around [without people stopping you].

It got a little ridiculous. But the fame helps me in tournaments, where people overplay me all the time. When I go back to Israel, where the show still runs, over and over, season after season, everybody knows me. The first question they ask is, ‘Do you play with your own money?’

That brings me to my last question. With all those pound-cakes and bricks of cash flying through the air, to what degree did you and the other guys have pieces of each other?

Some of the young kids had pieces. Phil Laak and Antonio traded pieces. But the old school players, we never took pieces. We bring our own money. TV or not, you have to. That’s just the way it is.

Tangling with durrrr

Eli Elezra vs Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan,
High Stakes Poker, Season six
Pot Size: $638,500

Eli Elezra gets dealt a pair of Queens and makes a bet of $7,200 (Daniel Negreanu straddled for $3,000, making for a starting pot of $5,900). He is called by Phil Galfond, David Benyamine, Negreanu, and Tom Dwan. A rather innocuous flop of 3-7-9 rainbow drops into the centre of the table. Still figuring that his Queens are good, Elezra bets $23,300. Benyamine folds, Dwan raises to $71,000. Everybody else folds. Elezra follows by making it $173,300. Without a whole lot of thought, Dwan shoves in his chips. It will cost Elezra $250,000 to call. He thinks about it and mucks after correctly announcing that Dwan could have 9-7.

How did you feel at the start of the hand, when all those people called your initial bet?

Of course I didn’t like it. Everyone calling behind me is dangerous. They can all play suited connectors.

The flop looked like it should have been pretty good for you. What were you thinking when Dwan raised you?

The first thing I noticed was that he did not take his time. I thought it was either the Tom Dwan move – a semi-bluff with 8-10 up and down – or a gut-shot or he has the two pair. So many times Tom also does this with nothing. So, really, it could have been anything. Then, instead of making a foolish move, I bet $100,000 to find out where I was at. After that it didn’t take him long to shove it all in.

You had no trouble getting away from the Queens at that point?

Before this hand, I was up $500,000 or $600,000 on the night. If I called, I would have had to gamble. It was the last or second-to-last hand of the night and I didn’t want to gamble so much at that point. If I was not up and it was not the end of the night, I might have called him and made a different decision on the turn.

You must be pretty happy with the way you played it.

It’s not about how aggressive you can be. It’s about walking away with a win. Tom was losing that night, and I’m sure he was happy to win $170,000 on that hand. That’s a good way for him to end the night. And walking away with my win, well, that was a good way for me to end the night as well.

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