Being a member of one of the world’s most prestigious poker clubs is every player’s dream. The World Series of Poker (WSOP) Poker Hall of Fame (PHOF) is the most exclusive poker club that hosts the greatest poker players. As of 2021, the club has a total of 60 members out of which 32 are still living. This year, the club is looking to induct its 61st member (and maybe 62nd as well). There have been ten nominees that have been shortlisted for this prestigious award.
Among the ten is the co-founder of top poker platform PokerStars, Isai Scheinberg. While Scheinberg has not won any WSOP bracelet or well-known poker titles, his contributions to the industry’s growth make him eligible to be nominated in the list. This is also not his first nomination, as he was also included in the 2020 PHOF nominee list but didn’t make it.
Isai Scheinberg is a Lithuanian Jewish who left Israel in 1986 and moved to Toronto in Canada. Oldest of the five siblings, he worked extra shifts as a cleaner at a local distillery in Lithuania to make ends meet and spent free time studying. Being a bright student, he earned himself a 4.0 GPA despite the difficulties and got a full-ride scholarship to Moscow State University in Russia.
While studying for a business degree, he changed his mind within his first year at college. He decided to major in mathematics and eventually earned his bachelor’s and master’s in mathematics from Moscow State University.
Before starting his career, he was drafted into the Israeli Defense Force, where he served for three years during the War of Attrition. Thanks to his knowledge in mathematics, Scheinberg was one of the soldiers responsible for designing and producing Israel’s first custom-made weapons, which were known for their accuracy.
He was introduced to poker while serving in the military. He played with other soldiers and became known for his aggressive gameplay and risk-taking abilities. After he left the military, he secured a job as a programmer at IBM in Israel. His exceptional work at his job led him to be sent to Canadian IBM offices to train other programmers.
There he played poker at local gambling units, and in his first week in the country, while playing poker, he met a woman named Libby, who he ended up marrying within a year. They had a son named Mark in 1973. Scheinberg continued playing in local poker tournaments.
After over 20 years, Scheinberg decided to test his poker skills and entered the WSOP 1996 Main Event. He finished 25th at the event and decided to make a career change despite being disappointed with his performance. After returning home, he started working on his very own poker site. Realising it would be impossible to achieve it single-handedly, he began recruiting his team, including some of his co-workers from IBM. Finally, he recruited his son, Mark.
He co-founded the online poker room PokerStars with his son Mark Scheinberg. In 2000, the father-son duo launched PYR Software to build an online poker tournament software in order to licence it to online casinos and sportsbooks. Unknown to them, they were at the cusp of what would become the online gaming industry.
Back then, Scheinberg was a 54-year-old man who had just left his job at IBM to pursue a business venture of his own. Instead of getting a partner for the business, they decided to market the product on their own and in 2001, PokerStars.com came into existence. This proved to be a huge success as many praised PokerStars’ software for being on a league of its own and far more advanced than any other software at that time. Scheinberg has always been a poker enthusiast and focused majorly on developing multi-table tournaments.
In 2002, the first PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker was held. There was a nine-tournament series which had a $1,050 buy-in event. This may seem small, but no one had thought of poker tournaments the way Scheinberg did back then. However, PokerStars came under the spotlight in 2003, when Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event from a $50 satellite hosted on the platform. This launched the company to become one of the biggest online poker sites in the world.
In 2005, Scheinberg added a blog to the PokerStars site after relocating the company’s headquarters to the Isle of Man to save corporate taxes. This made PokerStars the first online poker site to have a blog, and by the end of 2005, the site became a billion-dollar enterprise.
However, in 2006, the company received a big blow when the United States passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), making gambling transactions illegal in the country. While many online casinos and poker sites shut down following the new rule, Scheinberg had a different plan. He approached several small banks that faced financial difficulties and made a deal that he would invest millions of dollars into them if they processed his customer’s gambling transactions. Known for taking risks, Scheinberg was willing to do whatever it took to keep catering his US audience.
This continued for several years, until 15th April 2011, which became popular as Black Friday, when the US seized the domain names of PokerStars, along with four other poker sites, Fulltiltpoker.com, Absolutepoker.com, Ultimatebet.com and UB.com, because they were still serving the US customers. Scheinberg was also charged with five criminal charges related to Pokerstars, including money laundering and bank fraud.
On 31st July 2012, the US government dismissed all complaints against PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker with a settlement which included PokerStars purchasing Full Tilt.
Consequently, PokerStars was forced to pay a fine of $765 million to the Department of Justice in order to get their domain back. They also bought Full Tilt Poker and paid US players the funds that were owed to them since Full Tilt Poker did not have the necessary funds. Eventually, PokerStars started to flourish again. However, Scheinberg’s personal charges remained.
In 2014, he sold his stake in the online gaming site to Amaya Gaming for $4.9 billion and stepped down from regular operations of PokerStars. However, he continues to be a part of the board’s decisions regarding the technological progress of the online site.
While he was on vacation with his wife in Switzerland, the Swiss police detained Scheinberg at the request of the US Department of Justice. On 17th January 2020, when he landed at Kennedy airport in New York City, the authorities were waiting for him. After being processed at the airport, he was immediately taken to court. He pled not guilty to all charges and was released on a $1 million bond the same day as promised not to leave New York City. Over two months later, he arrived at a NY courthouse and pleaded guilty to a single case of operating an illegal gambling business. This made him the final of the 11 Black Friday defendants to plead guilty.
He was sentenced with a maximum five-year sentence. However, his lawyers argued that since the company was now operating in the country legally on legal advice that said offering poker was not illegal, he should not be further punished. Additionally, he had been in contact with the Department of Justice since 2011, was active with numerous charities around the world, and the company had paid more $300 million of Full Tilt’s debts, and hence the court should not punish him. Finally, the judge ruled out Scheinberg’s conduct ‘a mistake’ and sentenced him to time served and was immediately released.
The Israeli often donates money to charities, such as One Acre Fund, which provides training and equipment to farmers, and Living Goods, which educates people in third-world countries on hygiene and prevention of common diseases.
The WSOP has released a list of 10 nominees for this year’s Poker Hall of Fame. The winner will be chosen by the 32 living members on a ballot of 10 points and will be announced on 10th July 2022 alongside the WSOP 2022 Main Event.
To know who is inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame this year, stay tuned to Gutshot Magazine.
Amarylisa Gonsalves is a Content Writer at Gutshot Magazine. Advancing from a marketing background, she found her calling in writing. She takes delight in exploring genres and is a curious learner. Patient and ambivert, she believes in letting her work speak for itself. Apart from content writing, she finds solace in writing poetry by manifesting herself through words. Additionally, she adores indulging in drawing and DIY crafts.
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