Michael Mizrachi named Ante Up World Series of Poker Player of the Year

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By Christopher Cosenza

The cell phone rang at 12:30 a.m. I was passed out in my room as jetlag had kicked my butt. I glanced at the phone as a courtesy, but there was no way I was answering. Then through the blurriness I saw the words “Michael Mizrachi” on my phone.

“This is Chris,” I said, the frog still hanging around in my throat.

“Hey man, it’s Grinder. I know we said we’d do the interview tomorrow, but can we do it right now? Lily and I want to take the kids to Disneyland tonight.”

I thought, “It’s 12:30 a.m. Are you really making that drive to L.A. now?”

But before I could say that aloud he continued. “Or can you do it Thursday? Will that work for you?”

Whew!

“I basically flew to Vegas to talk to you,” I said, slowly propping myself up in bed. “So yeah, I’ll do it whenever you want, but Thursday would be best.”

I understood. He was having a great World Series and just came off a very successful Day 1 of the main event, having built his starting stack of 30K to more than 140K. He wanted to celebrate his good fortune. This is what the Grinder is all about: family.

So we had a deal; we’d meet up Thursday morning.

Wednesday night rolled around and my text alarm went off at 10:07. It was Grinder — I could call him Grinder now because he woke me up at 12:30 a.m. so I earned that right — and his text said: “I’ll be back around 5pm tomorrow. Hope that’s good for u!!”

That’s plenty of time to interview him and write the story before leaving Friday morning, I thought, so I agreed.

On Thursday I got a little antsy at 4:16 p.m. and texted him: “Got an update for me?”
His response: “See u arnd 7:30-8. Tonight.”

What’s another three hours, right? I could stay up late and work on this piece and maybe clean it up on the plane.

I understood. He was having a great run at the Commerce Casino’s $100-$200 stud tables in L.A. and was looking at a nice five-figure session. This is also what Grinder is all about: winning money.

At 7:18 p.m. my phone vibrated. I look down hoping to see Grinder was indeed at the Rio. Instead it said, “B there in an hr.”

An hour later at 8:15 he texted me that he’d “B by tourn registration in 10.”

I went to the designated area and waited. All of the players from the main event had returned to their seats so when there was a commotion coming my way I knew who it was. As Grinder strolled down the main hall of the tournament area I could see plenty of fans trying to take his picture and get his attention. One guy even started chatting up Grinder as if he knew him, but he didn’t.

This was it. It was 8:30 and I finally was about to interview Ante Up’s 2010 World Series of Poker Player of the Year. He wore a white-and-gray shirt (with jewel highlights) from his Royal Pain clothing line (think Affliction but with poker style) and a pair of dark blue jeans. We made our way into the tournament registration area, which was about the only quiet room around. Despite playing an all-night 12-hour session and making the five-hour drive from L.A., there still was a bounce in his step and a smile on his face. Winning nearly $1.6 million and your first World Series of Poker gold bracelet will do that for you. And what a bracelet it is, the $50K Players Championship, which also awards the winner with his name engraved on the Chip Reese Memorial Trophy.

“To say you won the $50K for your first bracelet is any poker player’s dream,” he said, “and you know you’re winning a large amount of money as well. And the field to overcome, you know, I was playing 115 of the best players in the world with a lot of the eight-game mixed players. It was a really, really tough field. Chip Reese was a legend, and played in my time, but I didn’t get a chance to play much with him. I wish I could have. But from what I hear he was one of the greatest players, and just to have my name on his trophy is any poker player’s dream. It’s almost like winning another bracelet. It’s almost like I won two bracelets in one. It’s something I’ll never forget and my name will always be there. I hope one day I’ll be remembered as a legend as Chip Reese was.”

He’s certainly on his way. With a couple of World Poker Tour titles, nearly $10 million in career tournament winnings and the removal of the “Best Player Never to Win a Bracelet” bullet from his resumé, Mizrachi’s poker legacy is on the runway to immortality and he’s been cleared for takeoff.

But this isn’t anything you don’t now. Let’s find out how this Miramar, Fla., resident became the Grinder.

The Beginning

Most autobiographical details of successful poker players follow one of two paths: savant with some sort of computer sciences/math degree or gambling degenerate. Mizrachi was the latter. That’s not to say he isn’t beyond intelligent, but school just wasn’t his thing, and poker was.

“I was always skipping too many classes, always for poker,” said Mizrachi, who graduated from Hallandale (Fla.) High and is nearly fluent in Hebrew. “In my senior year I had to pretty much get straight A’s just to get my diploma. I was just skipping too many classes and poker was always conflicting with my school. And I don’t recommend that for anybody, but it was just that I thought poker was going to be my career and I was skipping class to go to casinos. That’s when you know you’re a degenerate. And then I’d go to the (gambling) cruise ships at night to play poker.”

There are reports of him sitting on Mama Grinder’s lap learning stud, which today is still his favorite and best game, but his real poker mentor was his brother, Robert.

“Rob pretty much brought me to the cruise ships,” he said. “We analyzed hands together, we learned from each other, and we were playing online poker. … When we started playing poker (semi) professionally Robert and I were about 15 or 16,” said Grinder, who was born in Miami Beach. “Robert and my mother went to deal at Dania Jai-Alai. … My mom always loved casinos. My dad was always into casinos, but he slowed down because my dad was always a hard worker. He slowed down with the gambling and he wasn’t always very supportive of it, but my mom was always very supportive of whatever we’ve done.”

And you have to remember, this was before the no-limit hold’em boom, and this was Florida, where you had to play in a private game or on the day cruises to get any practical live experience because Florida poker was just in its infancy.

“At first I started playing $1-$5 spread-limit stud,” he said. “You know, at the age of 16 you don’t have the bankroll. … So it took a lot of time, studying the game. … Then I started playing $4-$8 limit hold’em and I was beating it all the time. Eventually I started playing $5-$10 hold’em online. I was more of a limit player, but as the game went on I started playing private games, $10-$20, $20-$40 limit hold’em, and then I started stepping it up.”

That’s when he “decided to be responsible.”

“I wanted to have some responsibilities and try something else and have a job. But even though I was working at Bennigan’s at 18 years old I really wasn’t making much, just to make some money to play poker. Then I wanted to try something different and work as a poker dealer because I knew I could deal. But I was doing it more just to wake up in the morning and have something to do instead of just being lazy every day.”

But like school, having a regular job didn’t suit the Grinder.

“It wasn’t too long before they terminated me. On the termination sheet there wasn’t enough room on the paper to (list) all the reasons I had to get fired. (laughs) It was like every excuse in the world just to get fired because I wasn’t used to being responsible and having a job. So I just took my own path.”

That short career as a dealer at Seminole Casino in Hollywood (Fla.) did have one happy ending, however. It’s where he met his wife, Lily. And she wants it to be clear they were co-workers, something that has been misconstrued in the past.

“People think I was a dealer and he was a player and he picked me up,” she said, sitting at the table awaiting the start of her $1K NLHE WSOP event. “But it wasn’t like that. He was my co-worker. We both had the same cars (BMWs) at that point. I always noticed his car outside, and I didn’t know if it was a guy’s car or a girl’s car because it was a nice light blue. That’s kinda how me met, through our cars.”

One night she was dealing in Hollywood to one of Mizrachi’s friends named Ricky, who left his phone at the table on a coffee break. It started ringing and Lily saw “The Grinder” on the phone, “and I was like, ‘The Grinder? Who’s that?’ ” When Ricky came back she said “Someone named Grinder called you, who’s that?” He said it was a co-worker of hers and she said, “What? The Grinder, is my co-worker?” (laughs)

When she heard he was good looking as well, that was all she needed to know. “That’s the way I was back then,” she said. “If I liked you I was going to get your number. It was kinda meant to be, I guess.”

They crossed paths almost immediately after that, she said, and began talking about their BMWs. But Grinder remembers the latter part of that conversation.

“I met her in the casino in the break room,” he said, smiling. “I told her I was a really good poker player and I was excellent at heads-up. And she said, ‘Well, let’s play heads-up.’ She took my number down and she called me the same night and we’ve been together since that day.”

Indeed, and Mrs. Grinder is a fine player in her own right, taking second on the WPT’s Ladies Night Out event a few years ago and cashing in a couple of other big tournaments. But they never had that heads-up match, unless you count when they tied the knot in 2009. Now they’re raising three children, and Mizrachi brightens up whenever they are mentioned, and laughs when he says even they call him Grinder sometimes.

“I never hear Michael anymore,” he said.

With poker clearly in their blood, will Mizrachi support his children (like his mother did for him) if they want to follow in their parents’ footsteps?

“They know what I do every day,” said Grinder, 29. “They know I’m a pretty big poker player and they see me in magazines and TV and say, ‘Look, Daddy’s on TV. Look, Daddy’s on the front cover of the magazine.’ But I’m the type of father that I want my kids to be happy with whatever they do. I’m very supportive of whatever they want to do. If they want to become poker players I’m supportive of them. If they want to become a football player, baseball player, doctor, lawyer, an astronaut, a fireman, I don’t care. Whatever (they do), if they want to work in McDonald’s, I’m always ready to support them. And I’ll always be there for them.”

“He’s a great dad,” Lily said. “He’s very busy with all the traveling and the poker. But other than that he’s excellent. He’s a very affectionate father. I’ve never seen him hit my kids once. He’s a very good dad. He’s very playful. When I reprimand them he’s always like ‘No, don’t do that to my babies.’ ”

The Brothers Mizrachi

Casual poker fans know of the Grinder and Robert, but they probably don’t realize Grinder is the fraternal twin of Eric and older brother to Daniel. If you type “Mizrachi” into the Hendon Mob database it looks more like their family tree than a poker listings site.

Eric is a professional poker player and Daniel is a magician who has some poker chops as well. All four played in this year’s main event and all four cashed, both of which had never happened before.

“We left the moms and wives out,” Grinder said, laughing. “But we’ve all been very close, Robert, Eric, Daniel and myself.”

And despite not being identical twins, do Michael and Eric have that mind-reading thing going on?

“Oh, yeah, Eric and I always have one of those, you know, at the same time we’d both think of the same thing, and want to do the same things.”

Eric was the first Mizrachi sibling to make the same final as Grinder, not Robert.

“(We) finished first and second in a limit hold’em tournament once,” Grinder said. “It was a $1K buy-in. Of course I finished first. I actually put him in the tournament so it was kinda funny. It was only a 41-person field at the Bike. I remember Jon Bonetti saying, ‘What is this, a f*cking sandwich?’ Those were his words, not mine.” (laughs)

Grinder will tell you his tournament career has been so lucrative because his style was borne from everyone else’s style.

“When it came to tournament poker I kinda picked it up on my own,” he said. “When I was watching (Rob) I was like, ‘No, that’s not the way to play.’ I was watching everybody play and I put everybody’s minds together and I created my own mind, my own style of playing and it worked out well for me. … My tournament career started in ’04 … I can’t believe it’s already been five, six years. That’s a long time.”

So who’s the best Mizrachi poker player? Grinder laughs and somewhat skirts the question.

“I remember when (Robert) and I were playing Chinese poker together like 10 years ago. Actually my brother’s mastered that game. I haven’t mastered it because I don’t play it as much. I’m good at it but my brother’s great at it. If there’s a game he’s better at than me, it’s definitely Chinese poker. But Rob and I are great at all games and I think we have great instincts as well. The way we analyze hands and the advice we give each other is unbelievable. I give a lot of credit to my brother (for my success) and I’m sure he gives a lot of credit to me. Thank God I have a family that’s very supportive of each other and a great group of poker players and we can learn a lot from each other.”

And now all of the brothers are linked in business as well, representing Deliverance Poker, an overseas online poker site that is just getting under way.

“Deliverance has a great logo and I think we have a legit shot,” he said. “The four brothers have joined together and I think it will be a great site. It’s gonna take a long time, but if there’s time and great marketing strategy I think we have a legitimate shot at competing with the other sites.”

Quick rise to fame

Grinder became a star at the height of the poker surge in 2005, winning the nationally televised L.A. Poker Classic, a WPT Main Event worth nearly $1.9 million. This came less than a month after his fifth-place finish in Tunica at the WPT’s World Poker Open. Then in 2006 he finished second ($566K) in Tunica when the WPO moved to the Gold Strike for the WPT event. One week later he captured his second WPT title (his second straight WPT final table) by winning the Borgata Winter Open for $1.17 million. So it’s easy to see why people think of him as a no-limit hold’em player, when in fact he steers clear of NLHE when he can.

“My favorite game has always been seven-card stud,” he said. “Any stud game has always been my game of choice. I enjoy the draw games a lot. I play more of the other games than I do no-limit hold’em. I enjoy no-limit hold’em tournaments but not cash games, unless it’s a great spot. I pretty much give most people credit in no-limit. It’s not an easy game, but a lot of people have a grasp of it and there are a lot more weak spots in the other games. I’ve been playing mixed games for 10 years.”

Over the next three years he stayed on the radar with a few undercard victories, but by Grinder’s standards they were anything but stellar, and a few close calls at the Series made the drought all the more difficult to swallow. He decided he needed a rest from the “grind” and took nearly all of 2010 off leading up to the Series. … a move that would pay off handsomely. The Grinder was headed home.

‘I root for the hurricanes’

According to Grinder, he spent way too much time in Las Vegas, and he missed Florida. “I think it burned him out,” Lily said of being in Vegas.” Plus, having poker finally get uncapped in the Sunshine State made the move back all the more important.

“I expected myself to have a great World Series just because of the time I had taken off,” he said, “It takes a lot out of you, traveling expenses, air. It takes away time with my kids. So I knew I oughta stay in Miami and just ended up playing a lot of PLO games, private games, and just enjoy myself in Florida. I was actually overworking myself in Florida, too. I was playing more poker in Florida than I was playing elsewhere. But I wasn’t playing any tournament poker. I probably played four events throughout the year before the World Series started.”

Family wasn’t the only reason to return home.

“I’m very sports-oriented,” he said. “I love my baseball team and my basketball team and my football team. And Las Vegas had nothing for me, besides traveling to Los Angeles to watch the Lakers. I’m a Lakers fan as well, but my No. 1 preference would be all Miami teams. I’m a big Dolphin fan and big Heat fan. I missed it too much, the water, just the lifestyle, the beaches, hanging out with my kids at the beach. I’m not used to being in the desert with this blow-dryer weather. I just can’t take it. I like the humidity actually. And I enjoy the hurricanes whenever they come to South Florida. Some people root against hurricanes; I root for the hurricanes. It’s something that’s fun to experience. Some people say no, but I’m a Floridian and I love the wet weather. I just prefer it not be on a football day.” (laughs)

But the time off wasn’t all rosy. In March the Sun-Sentinel published an article that said he owed nearly $340K in back taxes from the mishandling of rental properties (that he owned with Robert) and his poker winnings. His house also was foreclosed and put up for sale. Mizrachi couldn’t believe the false stories that ensued, such as he was penniless and that the IRS audited him.

“I have no idea what that article came out for,” he said. “Some of the articles were false. Some said the IRS took my house away, which was never even true. First, why would the IRS take a house that’s not worth anything, with all the homes in Florida going way down under. There’s no real value of taking that home. So a lot of these things were not even true. The foreclosures that Rob and I (did were) a decision we came to. I took great advice from a lot of great businessmen and friends. … The tenants weren’t paying on time, so I just got tired of it. I can’t afford to pay it anymore, 10-20 grand a month just in mortgages. So I decided to just drop everything and start all over again. It started working out for me. I just decided to throw all the bills away.

“There’s no point of these high maintenance things, the nice cars, this, that. I thought, ‘What’s the point of it?’ The No. 1 priority is to take care of my family and make sure they get what they deserve. My primary home was under foreclosure, too, because it was way down under and I was going to rent a place on the beach. So I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do yet. Maybe we’ll save the (primary) house, but I’m still undecided. I just had a bad loan and I thought it was way too high for the mortgage. I was paying for a house that wasn’t even close to the value of it. I still have the primary and we’re still working out a deal with the banks. I can always get another house; it’s not like a big deal. There are a lot of options for me. But I never lost my primary.”

Grinder made sure the problem was dealt with as soon as possible and has an idea as to how this story came out in the press.

“The IRS never audited me,” he said. “They just had an investigation, but I had tax lawyer. I paid a lot of money for tax lawyers. I paid a fortune when I could’ve just paid the IRS. (Maybe the story came) up because I’m a high-profile poker player in South Florida and they looked into my case because Florida is getting high-stakes poker, and I represent pretty much South Florida.

“I think it came up because Lily made a joke, too. She put my trophy up (for sale) on the Internet as a joke. You know, how much we could get for it. I think she put the LAPC trophy up, as a joke, for like 10-15 minutes just to tease me, and maybe they got the story from that. I told the guy it was all a joke and I’m doing fine. (Then) after the article comes out I win the $50K, so it was a pretty crazy time.”

And in typical Grinder fashion he found a positive note from the experience.

“Sometimes it’s better for people think you’re broke so they leave you alone.”

The big one

Never doubt a woman with a premonition. Lily felt this was Grinder’s year, and she never really told him that in years past.

“I said ‘Babe, believe it or not I have a really strong feeling you’re going to do really well this year at the Series,’ ” she said. “I even told his mom the same day that he was going to win a bracelet. … So the first tournament he plays he says, ‘Lily, if I’m gonna win a bracelet I want it to be this one.’ And I said, ‘You’re due. You’re like a 10-month pregnant lady so give birth to that baby already! You’re like so pregnant right now you’re full of it. Go do it! Push!’ ” (laughs)

The catalyst for Mizrachi being named Ante Up’s WSOP Player of the Year was, of course, his victory in the $50K Players Championship. He would make four final tables at this year’s Series, including the November Nine, and win well more than $2 million, but the $50K win was the start to everything. And it turns out that victory had one very key hand, one that will live on in the annals of poker lore.

“In this tournament there really was never a close call until we got heads-up,” Mizrachi said. “But one of the greatest hands that happened came against Lyle Berman when the flop came {a-Spades}{j-Spades}{6-Hearts}. He had {6-Spades}{6-Clubs}{7-Spades}{7-Hearts} and I had pocket aces, top set. I bet and then he said. ‘Grinder there’s no way you can have pocket aces again,’ and then he decided to check-raise me all-in. I did have the aces, he had bottom set and turned quad sixes. He said ‘OK, no more aces, no ace, no ace!’ And the river comes an ace and I make quad aces. So that was probably one of the greatest hands in the championship ever. That was a hand I’ll never forget.”

After that he had another mountain to climb, one of the toughest final tables in history, including a little someone named Robert Mizrachi. The incredibly pro-Mizrachi crowd dealt with the bittersweet emotions by rooting for whoever won the pot, but it wasn’t easy on any of them, especially Grinder.

“Knocking your brother out; it’s a lose-lose situation or a win-win situation,” he said. “If we finished fifth and fourth I think it’s a lose-lose situation and I would have felt a lot worse. But now that I won and he came in fifth I’m sure if you were to tell him he would get fifth and I would get first I’m sure he’d say take it. And the same for me. If I finished fifth and he finished first I would accept that invitation all day. I’m sure he’s happy with the results and the way everything went.”

Their final hand pitted Robert’s A-10 vs. Michael’s Q-J and a jack on the turn sealed not only Robert’s fifth-place finish ($341,430) but a few records. It was the best combined finish in a WSOP event for siblings, edging the Annie Duke-Howard Lederer sixth place-ninth place finish in 1995. The Mizrachis also are just the second brothers to each win a bracelet, as Grant and Blair Hinkle did in 2008.

“At least I put his chips to good use,” he was heard saying afterward. And he mentioned there were no close calls until heads-up play. Here was the biggest landmine he had to dodge, and Lily’s premonition was put to its ultimate test.

“I had {a-Clubs}{7-Clubs} and (Vladimer Shchemelev) had {a-Diamonds}{j-Diamonds} and that was for my tournament life,” he said.

The flop came {k-Clubs}{10-Diamonds}{9-Clubs} giving a glimmer of hope to Grinder as he picked up the nut-flush draw. The {q-Hearts} on the turn gave Shchemelev the nut straight, but the {5-Clubs} on the river saved Mizrachi.

“Thank God a {5-Clubs} came on the river to give me a flush,” he said. “And after that I never looked back. I played my heart out. I was actually drenched from this tournament. I never had a tournament take so much out of me, so many hours. Just watching cards, change of pace in games, you know? Sometimes you’re in drive, sometimes you’re in neutral, then you gotta go in reverse and slow it down a little bit. But I was always super-focused and just when that last hand finished I was like, ‘Thank God it was over.’ ”

The final table took nearly 13 hours to complete and the field Mizrachi bested had 54 bracelet-winners in it (that’s 15 percent of all bracelets in existence).

“I think that really drained me a lot for the rest of the Series. I had a great World Series, I’m not complaining, but I think I could probably put a little more effort into it and maybe got another bracelet. But this took a lot out of me. I made (four) final tables so it was good, no complaints. I’m very happy with my World Series.”

And he’s not done yet. As the first to win the $50K and make the November Nine, don’t be surprised if Grinder comes away with more hardware in November. After all, Lily saw this coming, right?

FROM FIRST LADY TO FIRST PLACE
Michael “Grinder” Mizrachi watched his stack dwindle at the final table of the $50K Players Championship and as the dinner hour approached he felt he needed a little refresher. What he got was a surprise and boost he’ll never forget. We’ll let the Grinder take it from here:

At the dinner break at the $50K final table I was kinda short, a little over a million. So I decided to go back to the Wynn Casino and just take a nice hot shower and change and feel like I’m starting all over again with a fresh stack. When I went downstairs (at the Wynn) the Secret Service was there and they stopped us. And (his wife) Lily was like “We’re in a rush,” and they were like, “Please ma’am just wait 30 seconds,” and she was like “We’re playing for $2 million!” And he said, “Ma’am! Step back!” And she was like, “What do you mean; what’s going on?” And then all of a sudden there’s Michelle Obama passing through and going up the same elevator we went up and she was kinda saying “hi” to everybody.

After that maybe she brought me luck, I don’t know. The president has a beautiful wife and maybe that little smile brought me luck, I don‘t know. I know it was a pretty cool thing and it was exciting to see the president’s wife. Who knows if I’ll ever experience that again? After that it was like, “Go ahead, Grinder, go win it!” And I ended up winning the tournament. So I want to say thanks to her as well.
— Christopher Cosenza