Las Vegas businessman Eli Elezra is no longer the fish in the Bellagio’s Big Game
POKERPLAYER: When you play big tournaments is it hard for you to take the early stages seriously? After all, the buy-in is barely more than the big blind when you play cash.
ELI ELEZRA: When the blinds are 100/200 in a tournament, I play as if they’re 1000/2000. I gamble more at the beginning when other people like to play tight. I play a lot of hands and see a lot of flops. That’s the way you have to play. Look at Daniel [Negreanu] – he raises 50 percent of the hands. You don’t know when he has it and when he doesn’t. I’m not as good as him in tournaments yet, but I’m trying.
PP: The Big Game seems to have been on hold for a while. What’s going on?
EE: The internet kills our game. You have Gus [Hansen] in Copenhagen, another guy in Spain, a couple of people in New York, and some of us in Vegas. It’s easy for us to play together online rather than driving to the Bellagio. And $1,000/$2,000 online is as big as $3,000/$6,000 live because it’s played so fast. I believe we’re heading into a new era: the Big Game now takes place only during major tournaments. I heard that the Venetian poker room is empty, the Bellagio is empty – all kinds of poker rooms are empty. Doyle Brunson has told me that the days of us showing up and finding a game are over.
PP: Unless it’s on TV… You’ve made a good name for yourself as a regular on High Stakes Poker. How has it been financially?
EE: I won four out of five times. And when I lost it was because somebody hit a gutshot straight on the river with $400,000 in the pot.
PP: Do you love the fame?
EE: It tickles me. Wherever I go, people ask me to sign autographs – but it’s not a big deal in the way that it is for Daniel [Negreanu] and Gussy [Hansen]. Did Doyle ever tell you the story about when he was sitting in the Bellagio with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire? Everybody was asking him for autographs and ignoring the big Hollywood stars.
PP: That’s the kind of sex appeal that makes the casinos compete for the Big Game, right?
EE: Plus, they know that some of what we win will go back to them. Andy Beal put $40m into the poker economy and some of that ended up in the pit. Phil Ivey loses millions in the pit. David Benyamine’s Achilles heel is the pit and online. He’s lost so much online it’s scary. And he lost a couple of million in the pit. That got his brain messed up and he couldn’t sit in our game and win.
PP: But he also went on a mega rush in your game, right?
EE: He won between $12m and $15m and was so good during that period. He was totally attuned to what was going on at the table.
PP: Considering that you learned to play poker in live games, has it been hard to make the transition to high stakes play online?
EE: It’s different. I like to see who I’m against and use my ability to read people. In our game you get to see who lost the last pot, who lost the last 10 pots, and who’s stuck. You see it in their faces when they don’t have good hands. Online, people jump in and out, they log back on with new names. You never know who you’re up against.
PP: Do you worry about security?
EE: It can be bad. Somebody sits down with three different IP addresses and looks at 16 cards when I see only four. They know that, say, the K; will make a nut flush because they’ve seen the Ace in another hand. That’s what scares me, and it’s why I try to play online against people that I know.
PP: Conversely, when you play live you’re happy to have newcomers join the game…
EE: Fresh meat is good. If somebody we don’t know comes over and asks what we’re playing, we tell him that we’re playing whatever he wants to play. Chip [Reese] used to see Barry [Greenstein] and call him over: ‘Hey, buddy. Right here, we have the best game for you.’
PP: When was that?
EE: It was a long time ago. I was yum-yum at the beginning. I was the businessman who comes in and loses on a regular basis. But from sitting with Jen [Harman] and Phil and Doyle, I learned by seeing what the best players do.
PP: If you were a steady loser in the Big Game, why didn’t you play smaller stakes?
EE: It’s amazing, but as soon as I started playing high I couldn’t play low anymore. My wife doesn’t like it when I play $4,000/$8,000 and $8,000/$16,000. She says I play too many hands and gamble too much, and she’s right.
PP: Did you view your string of losing sessions as an investment?
EE: Exactly. I knew that one day I would get there and beat the game.
PP: Being able to generate a large income outside of poker must make all the difference when you need to recover from a big loss.
EE: Yeah, I can lose, lick my wounds, and spend time at home with my five kids. Being a family man and a businessman really helps me as a poker player.
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