Two years ago no-one had heard of Michael Mizrachi, but now he’s running rampant through the poker world. PokerPlayer met the man known as ‘The Grinder’ to discover why in some poker circles he’s already seen as the world’s best
There is only one word to describe the experience of taking on Michael ‘The Grinder’ Mizrachi at the poker table – devastating. I’m usually pretty level-headed when I bust out of a tournament, but it’s not every day that you find you just have no answer to any of the moves that an individual makes.
I’d just been dumped out of the Camp Hellmuth Invitational by arguably the hottest poker pro of the moment – Michael ‘The Grinder’ Mizrachi. The invitational, a shootout organised as a learning tool during the camp, pits 180-odd aspiring poker players against each other and against the ten pros who had been mentoring them over the past two days.
Aside from tutelage, Mizrachi seemed to believe that his role was also to prove to us why he’s one of the best players in the world. He may be known as The Grinder – a name he came up with himself during his days playing low limit in Florida – but he wasn’t messing around at Camp Hellmuth. If you limped, he would punish you; if you raised, he would simply re-raise. Play back on the flop and he would set you all-in. If you picked up a monster hand, he would coolly lay his hand down. I might as well have been playing with my cards face up.
As I slumped on a sofa outside the gargantuan Augustus Ballroom at Caesars Palace, licking my wounds, I took solace from the fact that none of the players had an answer to The Grinder either. Quite simply, we were outplayed, outsmarted and outclassed by the man of the moment.
Despite playing professionally only for the past four years (the first two solely online), his tournament form is nothing short of unreal. Last year, he had a record seven cash finishes at the WSOP, came fifth in the WPT World Poker Open and then went on to win the WPT LA Poker Classic. This year, he managed second place at the WPO, won the following WPT event and is currently a runaway candidate for US player of the year.
And it gets me thinking – just what is it about the make-up of Mizrachi that makes him so good? We all know the basic mathematics of poker success, but what sets that elite 0.01% apart from the pack? I tracked The Grinder down to a quiet corner of the bustling Caesars Palace to find out…
To the untrained eye, The Grinder is like any other 25-year-old poker player living it up in Las Vegas. He usually wears baggy denim shorts, an oversized baseball shirt and can barely walk two steps without having some sort of wager or side bet. He speaks with that confident swagger and at around twice the speed of a normal person – cards, suits, chip stacks are a flicker. It’s almost as though he doesn’t expect you to be able to keep up. But looks can be very deceiving.
In fact, The Grinder is keen to distance himself from the stereotypical extravagant lifestyle that’s associated with poker players. ‘I don’t carry much cash on me. I’ve put most of my money into houses, realties and mutual funds. I’ve done the whole blowing money on cars. Now I just like to go to the movies with my fiancee Aidilay. She loves poker as well. She plays it almost every day, but she’s mostly with the kids while daddy does all the work! I’m happy with the way I live and that’s why I love to do it.’
Family is his priority. ‘I’m very close with all my brothers. Robert has just bought a place in Vegas, Eric and Daniel are in Florida. I see them a lot,’ he says, adjusting his baseball cap. It was his brothers who introduced him to the game. Indeed, card games were such an intrinsic part of his family life in Florida that it’s little surprise that Eric and Robert became professional poker players, while Daniel became a magician. ‘It’s in the blood; it’s in the family, y’know?’ he says.
Just like Phil Ivey, Mizrachi’s home base is a solid foundation upon which to build his poker life. He’s happily engaged (‘We say we’re married’) to the mother to his two children, Paul and Julie. So devoted is he to his family that he even bought a luxury tour bus in order that they could travel with him on the circuit.
He’s just as grounded when it comes to money. As a Vegas local, he’s tried his luck at the Big Game, but he knows his bankroll isn’t ready for that game yet. ‘I played the $2,000/$4,000 once for nine hours. I ran real bad and lost about $100,000. I won three other times, so I’m probably up overall, but I don’t feel I need to play that high. You might be the sucker in the game, so why don’t you just find a better spot?’
It took a few years for The Grinder to realise poker was what he really wanted. ‘My mother was in nursing school and I thought I wanted to be a doctor. But I knew I couldn’t take college. Poker was in the way, and conflicting with my college classes. I couldn’t wake up early in the mornings. It was killing me to have to drink five or six Red Bulls, so I stuck with poker. My mother taught me: “Whatever makes you happy – just go for the goal.”’
It was when eldest brother Robert introduced him to $1/$2 seven-card stud cash games that Mizrachi first realised what his goal may be, and a nine-to-five existence definitely wasn’t it. ‘When I was 16 I was a busboy in a restaurant and a waiter. I was a great waiter, too,’ he grins, ‘but I’d always rather play cards than work. It was certainly a lot more profitable. From then on I was playing online – and I’ve never stopped winning.’
But neither his brother nor anyone else had an influence on how he plays the game today. ‘We talked about hands but I learned all the strategy on my own. No-one ever taught me how to play. I didn’t really have anybody that I looked up to. I never read a book. I play almost the opposite way people are taught.’
The Grinder is blessed by what seems to be a trait characteristic of most great poker players: an extraordinary memory. He estimates the number of cards that he played at the World Series to be between 3,500 and 4,000 hands, and claims he can remember almost every single one. ‘Bad ones, good ones, I play lots of hands. Same thing with Phil Hellmuth; he has a great memory and knows exactly what happened. Sometimes, I go back to that situation and say, “What did I do?” and try to avoid that mistake or repeat that great play.’
Remembering the minutiae of each and every hand has its downsides though, not least that he finds himself occasionally haunted by key hands in major tournaments. He calls the hand with which Hasan Habib eliminated him from the 2005 $25,000 WPT Championship ‘the most depressing’ of his poker career.
‘There were 11 players to go and I was chip leader. Hasan Habib was second in chips. He had about 3.3 million and I had 4.1 million. It was six-handed and the blinds were 20k/40k. Tuan Le made it 120k, I flat-called the small blind. Hasan made it 700k more, the big blind Tuan folded his two 8s. I had two 6s and just shoved in. I was trying to pick up about 1.1 million in dead money. He [Hasan] thought for about five minutes until he called with two Queens and then flopped a Queen. If I’d had Aces or Kings, I still would have lost but, y’know, still… Going back to that play, the only way I could do that play again would be against somebody who would think as advanced as I would in that situation.’
Mizrachi is a post-fl op specialist in the same vein as Daniel Negreanu. He believes he can outplay anyone on the fl op. ‘I see a lot of fl ops because I know how to play almost every single hand in every situation.’ This in part is due to his uncanny ability to gauge people’s holdings. Earlier in the day at Camp Hellmuth, he deduced players’ hole cards five times out of five. ‘That’s why he’s player of the year, baby!’ Hellmuth boomed over the microphone.
Mizrachi is pretty matter-of-fact about it, emphasising that there’s no magic formula. ‘I try to track how many hands they play – that gives me an idea of what they could have. When they raise in position, when they raise out of position, what level we are in the tournament, why they’re raising from the blinds. I try to pick up tells and factor everything together – that’s why I can pick up what hand they could possibly have in that spot.’
The Grinder’s tournament record is unparalleled in recent times. In just two years of playing, he’s racked up earnings in excess of $5.5m. Yet, despite his obvious pedigree, a WSOP bracelet somehow still eludes The Grinder.
‘I’m not just waiting for a bracelet, I’m waiting for a final table. It’s something about the World Series; I feel like I’m cursed at the Rio,’ Mizrachi jokes. ‘But I’d rather win a WPT event for $1.3 million than a bracelet for $600,000.’
He says this without a break in step, but this is the same man who voiced visible disappointment when he was told that the pros couldn’t venture to the final table in the Camp Hellmuth Invitational – despite the fact that none of the pros would have been allowed to win the $28,000 first prize anyway.
This is the same man who admits he plays every single poker variant, and wants to be the best in everything he does. He never stops working at it. ‘I think my weakest game is probably badugi because I just started playing. I’ve been playing Chinese poker for about seven years, but I still make a few mistakes here and there. I was watching a couple of the other players like Barry Greenstein. There are small edges that these guys have, but it all adds up. You have to remember the hand that you threw away. There is skill in Chinese and if someone had a huge edge on you, you’d have no chance in the long run. I still have to work on my game a little bit.’
The Grinder is jam-packed with selfbelief. ‘There’s a lot of great players out there, but I feel like I can play any game against anyone. Just give me two cards and I’ll figure out a way to play them.’
Nevertheless, he had a disappointing World Series where he cashed only twice after entering 27 events. However, he quickly discounts any suggestion that he’s not on top of his game. ‘I don’t feel as though I’m lacking anything. I had a lot of chip leads throughout the Series up to the first six or seven levels, got my money in good almost every single time, but I just got unlucky.
And even though he’s not yet firing on all cylinders in the Big Game, Mizrachi knows it’s just a matter of time until he finds his feet permanently under poker’s top table. ‘I want to be there every day if I’m going to play. I don’t like to keep taking shots. Soon that time will come when I’m just sitting there. A year or two years – who knows?’
PokerPlayer magazine is packed full of great poker strategy and awesome poker promotions every month. Read it HERE