One of the top stories to emerge from the 2018 World Series of Poker Europe was the fantastic performance of players hailing from Israel. Three new bracelets won during the 2018 WSOPE made it a dozen in total for the tiny Middle Eastern country, which sits above poker powerhouses like Sweden, Denmark, Italy, and Spain, in eighth place among all nations. Multiple Israelis have also made deep runs in the WSOP Main Event in recent years, including a pair of former November Niners, Ofer Zvi Stern and Amir Lehavot. Punching well above its weight, it might make people wonder what exactly it is about the Holy Land that makes Israeli players perform so well on the big stage in prestigious poker tournaments.
Having myself resided in Israel for just over 20 years and not having recorded a single tournament cash of my own, I can assure you that there’s nothing special or unusual about our drinking water, save for perhaps a bit too much fluoride. Rather than any sort of secret sauce, many of the Israeli poker players who’ve been seeing success have a common trait: they study hard.
Unique to Israel, however, is the existence of the Israel Poker Academy (IPA), an institution which I’ve had the opportunity to visit in person. Players here don’t have to suffice with just hitting the books, studying shove/fold charts, or taking online poker courses. Rather, they can gather together in groups at IPA headquarters in Rishon LeZion (the country’s fourth-largest city) to attend university-style lectures, with all material presented in their native language of Hebrew.
To learn more about this institution, I reached out to one of its co-founders, Stas Tishkevitch. We’ve written about Stas before here at Cardplayer Lifestyle, as he’s been at the forefront of the campaign to help legalize poker in Israel. He was also an integral part of the success behind Israel’s first large-scale charity poker tournament, which raised $180,000 for special-needs children. In our discussion, we spoke about Stas’ personal poker history, the history of the IPA and how it has developed over the past five years, some of the IPA’s most successful graduates, and their unique poker training method.
Thank you so much, Stas, for agreeing to do this interview. So, for people who don’t necessarily know who you are, tell us a little bit about yourself and your own personal passion for poker. Where did it come from?
So I was a regular young Russian, Belorussian guy, moving his way towards being a programmer or something, when in high school I was introduced to the card game bridge. That started my journey into the world of playing cards. Rather than being a “regular, decent start-up or hi-tech guy,” I found myself in love with cards. When I was 14 years old, I was already champion for mini-bridge, with my partner Amots Barg, and we did it again next year.
When I was 17, I started playing backgammon online for real money. I trained with a software called Snowie, Backgammon Snowie. They were the first ones to solve backgammon back in the day, like 15 years ago. Backgammon is an obvious skill game and the online backgammon scene started to dry up as soon as people understood they could play with the software online. So, then my transition into poker started.
I first played limit games. Limit is a funny game, it’s different. You raise two, I re-raise four, you re-raise six, I re-raise eight; we see the flop. There’s no fold equity. The game was very simple, you just bet, bet, bet. If someone folds on the river, you win a big pot for a disproportionately small bet; you’re like, wow! In limit hold’em, the main thing is choosing your starting hands. Because there is no fold equity, small margins are what helps you beat the game. If you play dominated hands, you lose.
So you’re self-taught in terms of poker, or you were reading books to learn the game better?
I had a close friend who introduced me to backgammon, and then we moved into poker together. He had a very good mind for poker and games. We read books, we read forums. The 2+2 forum was one of my personal favorites. I played limit hold’em for quite some time, successfully. I progressed in stakes, playing $2-4, $3-6, and even $5-10 at some point, at partypoker. It was the best site back in the day. I lived in Mexico for several months, playing from Playa del Carmen. I played seven hours a day, many tables, then went out snorkeling or partying.
So this is around 2004-2005, something like that?
Yea. I remember winning some grinding competition in which a number of WSOP packages were offered as prizes. I think I was 21 years old, and I had no visa to the U.S. Trying to get a visa from Mexico was going to be a very hard thing to do, and I had only one month, so I sold my package. This was probably my first bad poker decision. Money comes and goes, but experiences like playing at the World Series of Poker you can hold onto for your entire life.
Anyhow, so the limit scene also started drying up as soon as people understood the basic strategy involved. Then, everybody started to transition into no-limit hold’em, which was a very tough game. I remember that every game I had tried to learn until then was quite easy. Over 10 years ago, there still wasn’t too much strategy material or books published about no-limit hold’em, so you had to be self-taught. It was a tough game. It took me about six or seven years to actually crack it.
I remember developing my own strategy of limping from early position and then limp-raising; something very weird. I was breakeven, winning slightly. I remember traveling to Prague in 2010 with my girlfriend, who is now my wife and the mother of two children. While we were traveling in the Czech Republic, which is one of my favorite places on Earth, I remember reading a famous “Ask Me Anything” (well) thread on the 2+2 forum from Phil Galfond, one of my favorite poker players in the world. I don’t just appreciate his poker skill, but also his mind. He’s very life-oriented, always looking for the connection between poker and life. I remember reading his posts, how he thinks about poker, and how he analyzes his opponents; and I had an “Aha!” moment. From then on my poker career rocketed.
Fast forward to 2011. I was introduced to Poker Table Ratings, it was a site that monitored not only cash game results, but also hands played. For instance, you could click to the top 10 winners at every stake and see their stats. I noticed big differences between their stats and my stats, so I just reasoned “let me adjust my game to be more like theirs.” So I made the adjustments and – in a funny way – started learning proper no-limit without truly understanding it.
At that time, I was sure I was the only Israeli playing poker online. I wasn’t yet familiar with Israeli poker community and Israeli online poker forums like Pokerland.
Black Friday hit that year. Did you find that the games started getting harder, or were they still easy?
They were still really soft. I had a bankroll of $2,000 dollars on PokerStars. I crushed the $50 buy-in, I went into $100 buy-in, I crushed it. I had a tough time at $200 no-limit, but I crushed it eventually. I moved to $2-4, $400 entry, etc., up to $3-6.
I finished 2012 winning around $110,000 on the tables, which is pretty sick, because that’s before all of the bonuses, and I was only playing five days a week for two hours per day. I had Friday and Saturday to myself.
That’s crazy! That takes a lot of self-control.
Yes. I recorded all of my sessions with screen capture software, and every time I saw that I had played for two hours, I sat out and then left the tables. If I was having a really good session at good tables, I gave myself one more hour. I noticed that three hours was the maximum I could play my A-game, in my comfort zone. After this I start to autopilot, etc.
So I was making around $100 per hour in 2012. By the end of the year, I was wondering from whom I was more afraid, the Israeli police or the Israeli tax authorities? I was making a lot of money, relatively speaking, so I really didn’t want the Israel Tax Authority breathing down my neck. On the other hand, online poker wasn’t legalized in Israel.
The law in Israel is that if you earn money, no matter whether it’s from legal or illegal activity, you have to pay taxes on it. So I hired a good tax attorney, and after much persuasion I got him to open a file with the Israel Tax Authority for me to start paying taxes on my online poker earnings.
I was the first Israeli to pay taxes for his cash earnings, which cannot be monitored. I basically said “here, take my money.” I transferred money from my PokerStars account to my Bank Leumi account, and had invoices for everything.
So, at some point you said to yourself, “OK, I’m not going to only be a professional poker player anymore, I have a big dream. I want to build this Israel Poker Academy.” At what point did this dream come to you?
At the end of 2012, I decided that I also wanted to teach poker one-on-one, so in 2013 I started giving private lessons, both via Skype and in person. People would come to my house, we would go through various theoretical material, they would play, I would review their game, etc. It was going really well. I was teaching mostly Israelis. After a while, I started working as a coach for PokerStrategy.com, and created many series for them. I started also coaching abroad.
What is it that you wanted to teach? Why did you feel the need to share your knowledge and not just keep it all to yourself?
I understood that I needed to have an additional source of income that was not variance-dependent. At the time, my girlfriend was pregnant and I knew I’d have another dependent soon. I also understood that poker was influencing my mood very strongly. If I had a bad run, I would be a different person, and this would not be good as a young father. Beyond that, I think about how tough it was for me to learn poker, and knew I could create shortcuts for others, passing on my knowledge, and getting paid for it.
In my mind, poker can be a very useful tool to improve people’s lives, and I’m talking not only about the game, I’m talking the way of thinking. I know what poker did for me; the way I talk, the way I think, the way I act in my life is very influenced by my poker thinking. So, I think that if everybody would be thinking poker players, they would be also thinking human beings.
Interesting. So there’s sort of a logical progression there. I guess the next stage was scaling up your coaching?
Exactly. I gave myself four hours a week to do private coaching, and spots filled up very quickly. I then thought to myself,” why teach one and not two at a time, or four, or 10?” So I came up with the idea of opening a boutique academy. I would teach two, three courses per year; very relaxed, with some yoga, some meditation. This was in mid-2013. Then I approached several Israeli poker players, the main one being Eyal Eshkar, who ended up becoming my partner in founding the academy. Together we started building a syllabus for the first ever course of the Israeli Poker Academy.
We opened in March 2014 with 25 students paying 2,500 NIS (approximately $675) apiece to take eight sessions. Most of them were private students of mine and Eyal’s. We really taught them a lot of great poker theory, plus they realized they were getting better value overall, paying less money than private coaching and still getting excellent instruction. The first class was a big success. Some very advanced players came out of there.
You did this out of your house?
No, we preferred to have a dedicated location. We found a place in Tel Aviv that was teaching people how to trade in stock markets, so we rented a small classroom there. The first class was very successful; one of our students there was Eyal Simhon.
Eyal is a very successful Israeli player, with two WSOP Circuit rings, crazy results, and he’s one of the coolest guys in the industry. He plays wearing costumes and funny headwear and makes everybody laugh at the table. He’s also a rising star in the content creating aspect, creating a lot of video blogs and sharing his knowledge with others.
That’s Eyal Bensimhon 😉
— Christian Zetzsche (@zedmaster84) December 10, 2017
After our first course was so successful, we started opening more courses. Every month, we opened another course. Then we started scaling up, bringing on more employees. My girlfriend was our first employee; she managed the academy’s finances and customer relations.
At what point did you shift out of playing online to focus more on the teaching?
In 2013, I was mostly focused on tournaments. I wanted to up my MTT game. I had a big score in the 2013 SCOOP Main Event, finishing in 7th place for $90,000. The second I busted, the remaining players made a deal. Among them was Randy “nanonoko” Lew, who I played with at the Zoom 500nl cash games. He made a review of that final table. I also had a nice score in the Sunday 500, finishing 4th for around $21,000. By 2014, I was already very focused on the teaching business, writing courses for the Israeli Academy. I was implementing the Poker-Fighter training app, taking all of my knowledge from poker, and using it to create software that would teach amateurs how to get better at their favorite game.
If I had known what it would take from me in terms of time and energy to develop all of the training materials, I don’t know if I would do it. As they say, “if you would know what children will take from you, you would not bring children into the world.”
As you know, there’s no regulated live or online poker in Israel. When you started out, weren’t you a little concerned that there wouldn’t be enough students to fill up a classroom? How did it grow? How did you get the word out and put butts in the seats?
As mentioned, our first customers were our own private students. Later on we started spreading the word on Israeli poker forums and via Facebook. From back then up until today, I think Facebook has been our main lead generator. Poker is very, very popular in Israel. It’s hard to capture just how popular the game is. Everybody plays. Everybody.
We have a campaign to get the game regulated and you think there would be opposition, but everybody plays. If not the government Minister, it’s his/her assistant. I think this game is just getting started in Israel. No-limit Texas Hold’em has been popular in Israel for about seven years, more or less, so there’s still a lot of room for the game to grow.
When you were beginning with the academy, you obviously started very small. Can you chart out the growth for us or maybe just share some numbers about the IPA’s progression over the last few years?
As mentioned we started with one class and gave 1 or 2 sessions a month. Each course consists of 25 people, so we started with 25, then 50, then 100. By the end of the first year, 2014, I think we got to 400 students. Once we reached a point where we opened two courses per month, we decided we needed a bigger place. In 2016 we found Seminar Hakibbutzim, a place in Tel Aviv where you rent classrooms; lots of space there. At that point we were giving over courses almost every day of the week. Eyal Eshkar, Gilad Aroch, and I were the only instructors.
Poker teaches you self control, correct decision-making, risk management, and how to read people and situations correctly.
In Seminar Hakibbutzim, we developed an additional course. As we grew and reached more students, the theory level was going down. When we started, it was with advanced students; they already knew what fold equity was, for example. With newer students, who were more unfamiliar with poker in general, we’d spend half an hour trying to explain the concept of fold equity, so we didn’t get to the material we wanted to teach. That’s when we realized the need to develop a more basic course. We called it the “first degree” for no-limit Texas hold’em, and it was mostly basic theory, like opening ranges, fold equity, equity, etc. The previous material we had been teaching the more advanced students became our “second degree” course.
Just three people (you, Gilad, and Eyal) teaching all those courses, it must have been a very tough schedule to sustain, no?
In 2015, Eyal, Gilad and I started to train more coaches. As we lectured, there were other coaches standing with us in class learning how to teach poker. Teaching poker and playing poker are very different skills. We tried bringing in the best Israeli players to teach, but that didn’t work too well. That was one of the mistakes we made. The pros charged us a lot of money, and they weren’t good teachers for amateurs.
Nowadays, what we do is find the best graduates of the academy, and we take them and turn them into coaches. Homegrown. It’s way cheaper, and they talk at a more basic level that students can understand. They used to be students themselves, so they get it. Also, they don’t go into the classroom like it’s a chore; they’re excited to start teaching new players.
In poker, just like in life itself, those who study and have ambitions to constantly improve have a huge advantage.
So, on the numbers side of things, how many instructors are you now? How many students do you have?
In March 2019, we’ll be celebrating five years of the Israel Poker Academy. We’ve had 2,200 students who have graduated at least one course, and we now offer four main courses. We have “Poker for Advanced Players,” which teaches mostly pre-flop game. Our “first degree in Texas Holdem” is mostly post-flop play poker. Then we have doctorates in MTTs and cash games, and you choose what you want to learn.
Plus, there’s an Omaha course and we have many master classes, which are short courses in psychology and live tells. We also have a poker tracking software course, when you learn how to play online poker and properly make use of tracking software.
You said that most of the new students who come to the academy are beginners. Do they just want to become better at their home game, or do they have dreams of winning bracelets and millions of dollars?
We have a very diverse student database. Their age ranges from 18-70 and about 15% of our students are women. In every course, you have two or three women out of 25 students, which I think is pretty good considering that at most tables you find perhaps one woman or even no women at all.
Most of our students just want to get better, to stop losing at poker, so that their friends don’t make fun of them. Some of them really want to be pros, and you can see how they train and learn and get better. Some of them just want the opportunity to meet new friends. Say you’re 50 years old, your children are already grown up, and you come to the poker academy. You play with young people, you grab a beer, you have fun.
When we started, we tried to raise pro poker players. Now, we give an experience. I think we are mostly like a club, a cards club. We give people a very good atmosphere and try to offer additional value, whether it’s improving your poker game or improving your life through correct decision-making processes.
Are there any big successes that some students from the IPA have had that you could point to?
While many of our students and instructors have had some good results in Europe and in Las Vegas during the WSOP season, the overwhelming majority of our students play in home games and in bar league tournaments in Israel, where you can win prizes (not money). I would say that that’s our big achievement, I think. Teaching amateurs how to play better. This is the biggest market nowadays, amateur poker players, and no one understands how to teach them, because they don’t really want to learn. So we gamified the poker learning experience. What’s our main weapon to teach poker? It’s not frontal lectures in the classes, but rather guided practice at the table.
Yes! I remember coming to visit the IPA last year. That was a very interesting part of it. You sit down with the people who you were sitting in a class with, and the dealer isn’t just a dealer.
Correct. So after the frontal lecture, the teacher sits in the dealer’s seat and starts dealing to the students. After every hand is finished, we open the cards, and the dealer/coach explains the thought process of what each player did right or wrong. Each practice session is devoted to the material just taught in the classroom.
Immediate feedback like this is incredible. Sitting in a theoretical course is one thing, but actually playing a hand of poker, having all the cards revealed right there in front of you after the hand, with an expert coach explaining everything to you – that’s priceless!
This method of immediate feedback is one of the strongest tools we have to improve their game. That’s for live play. We also coach online play in a similar way with the Poker Fighter training app. Our students are given homework to practice with the training app and learn the ranges that they should play, both pre-flop and post-flop.
All of this together, the frontal lectures, the guided practice, and the online practice – I think we give very good tools for amateurs to improve their game with minimal efforts. Poker is a tough game, so we offer a lot of shortcuts. I don’t think they feel the need to “beat the game,” but just that they want to feel more comfortable and having a sense of competence. That’s what you search for when you practice any kind of sport. You don’t want to look (bad).
So, let’s take a complete amateur. From the moment that someone enrolls for the first time until they reach that stage of competence, and feeling good and comfortable, approximately how long does that take each student? How many hours of teaching, study, and practice is the full first degree course?
The “Poker for Advanced Players” course is five meetings. Each meeting is five hours – 2.5 hours in the class and 2.5 hours at the table. That’s 25 hours. The first degree course is 35 hours, and the doctorate courses are 35 hours apiece as well. But you can’t just learn poker day by day. It would not be good for you to just come every day and learn; it’s too much information to absorb so quickly.
We meet once a week, with the first degree course taking seven weeks, the advanced course taking five weeks, and then the doctorate courses take seven weeks as well. I would say that, from a complete beginner to someone who can win, it would take between half a year and a year. Of course, this is very dependent on the student and how much effort he/she wants to put in outside the classroom. With that said, I think a newcomer to the game could become a very good player within a year; it’s very doable.
What percentage of those students who complete the first degree move on to the second degree, then the doctorate courses?
So, as a rule of thumb, I think about 50% of those who graduate each course continue on to the next one. I think that a main reason that many students choose not to continue to more advanced courses is that they don’t really want to understand the game better. Many students very quickly understand the tremendous effort it takes to really get good at playing poker. When it’s too serious, they feel – and maybe correctly so – that it takes some of the fun away from the game for them. They don’t want to keep folding or playing “right”; they want action, to have fun, to see flops.
Even as an amateur you can try hard and play seriously. You don’t want to make the mistakes that you’ve specifically been taught not to make. With that said, some people just want to treat it as a fun game, to be carefree, drink beer with friends, even lose a little money. So they say “to heck with the theory, I’ll limp into the pot or cold call from out of position; I want to see if hearts will come on the flop.” And that’s OK; everybody makes their own decisions.
You guys have built a successful operation. It’s really admirable, five years going now and it just keeps on growing. Of course, it has all been done in Hebrew. I imagine there are lots of non-Hebrew speakers out there who would read about what you’ve done with the IPA and wish they could tap in to your success. Is this a model and an operation that maybe you want to go ahead and translate into English and export internationally at some point?
Very good question. Yes, we are hoping to have a proper fundraiser for the Israeli Poker Academy to expand its operations. Specifically, there are two markets we want to expand to:
- Hebrew speakers abroad. There are big communities of Israelis in North America, Europe, South Africa, etc. that we want to reach through online courses in Hebrew. We are now in the process of building online courses that correspond to our live courses in Hebrew.
- Online poker training courses in English are still not in our pipeline, because I don’t see what big advantage we could offer over existing competitors. With that said, I think we are the only ones in the world who actually teach live poker via frontal lecture then immediate practice at the table. So we’d want to replicate this model and open live academies in places where poker is legal. This would open up additional potential revenue streams to us that are not available here in Israel. I don’t want to go into too much further detail, but we have big ideas that we want to see materialize.
The eyes of the poker world have turned to Israel based on fantastic successes that we’ve had on the big stage at the recent World Series of Poker Europe. Before we wrap up, is there anything you’d like to share about that specifically?
Yes, we saw three Israeli bracelet winners: professionals Timur Margolin and Asi Moshe, and a recreational player, Tamir Segal. Israelis also recorded a number of other notable results there in Rozvadov, at side events. Last year at the Battle of Malta, four out of nine players at the final table were from Israel. Three of them were Israel Poker Academy graduates. Also at the WSOP in Las Vegas during this past summer, as every summer over the past few years, Israelis did very well.
I believe poker is an outstanding tool for improving one’s strategic thinking, decision making, and also coping with the results of those decisions, whether good or bad. These skills prove valuable in every aspect of life on a daily basis, and the Poker Academy does a great job of teaching those skills methodically.
I think Israelis are very good in tournaments, less good in cash games. Israelis have a lot potential to be great at poker. We’ve got a lot of chutzpah. We take no prisoners. We don’t care if it’s Phil Ivey sitting across from us at the table. We’re already eighth place in the world in bracelets, which means we are number one in the world per capita. Just imagine how great we could be if poker gets legalized in Israel, if we start hosting big tournaments in Israel; how many more people will start getting into the game.
I am proud that the IPA has been instrumental in putting Israelis on the world’s poker map, and that locally we’ve been one of the biggest forces to push poker to the place it belongs: a mind sport, a fun game, a great hobby, and a great tool to improve your life.