It’s no secret that Jewish Baltimore tends to head to the movies and Chinese restaurants on Christmas. In Las Vegas, Andrew Rothbart would head to the Bagel Ball, an annual event for Jewish singles, but he kept seeing the same people year after year.
“I said, ‘There has to be something for Jews to do on Christmas Eve other than just going to the Bagel Ball,’” Rothbart, 37, said.
Upon learning that Jews were well-represented in the poker world, Rothbart launched the Jewish Poker Championships at The Venetian in Las Vegas last year.
Twenty-one players showed up for the Christmas tournament, where the winner walked away with $14,845.
“I like what it’s about, that is has the Jewish element in it,” said Terry Fleischer, last year’s winner and self-described “semi-professional” poker player.
This year, the tournament will be held at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, starting at noon on December 24. Rothbart is hoping for 50 to 75 players this year, who will play no-limit hold ‘em, with a buy-in of $550. Rothbart expects the grand prize to be around $30,000.
What inspired him in the first place was when he learned that although Jews are only 1 percent of the world’s population, they represent roughly 8 percent of the world’s top poker players, he said.
“We’re not such a small minority in poker, which was shocking to me,” Rothbart said.
While he had a different partner last year, an old high school friend he recently reconnected with is helping him put on this year’s tournament.
“I was kind of restarting my life with quite a few difficulties and looking for something interesting to sink my teeth into,” said Michael Balaban, 36.
He and Rothbart went to high school together in Northbrook, Ill., but hadn’t talked in about 19 years until Balaban reached out to Rothbart on Facebook this past summer. He was coming to Las Vegas, where Rothbart lives, to be closer to his family. The poker tournament perked him right up, having spent many Sundays playing poker with his family.
“I’ve always been fairly active in the Jewish community and [working on the tournament] kind of breathed a little more life back into me,” Balaban said. He retired from the Army in January 2012 because of combat injuries.
While their bond is not over poker, what the two do have in common is that their Judaism resurfaced in both of their lives under trying circumstances.
When Rothbart first moved to Las Vegas to attend the University of Nevada Las Vegas, he was looking to join a fraternity and asked someone about Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish frat that was just starting out on campus. Someone used the ‘k-word’ to tell him why he didn’t want to join the frat. He wound up joining the Jewish frat and became a very active member.
For Balaban, Judaism came back into his life when he was stationed in Afghanistan.
“Anytime someone’s in a pretty scary situation, there’s lots of feelings of mortality, and I think most people get, in my experience, a little closer to God,” he said.
He started working with the Jewish chaplain in his brigade and would take part in Shabbat services. He even donned a yarmulke on his helmet.
At the tournament, the poker players aren’t the only thing giving it the Jewish touch. Rothbart said they’ll decorate with some blue and silver, have some Jewish food and will probably bring in a rabbi to bless the players. Last year, he brought in Manischewitz, blue and white M&Ms and a Moses impersonator.
Although the tournament is only in its second year, Rothbart hopes to expand into other cities, and eventually, an international tour.
For now, it’s all about the community.
“I’ve always enjoyed being Jewish,” Balaban said. “There’s an element of pride and happiness. It’s a great community, and everybody in it is tightknit.”
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter