Poker Faces in the Crowd: Robbie Strazynski

Ben Saxton

On March 1st, 2017, Robbie Strazynski visited a familiar street corner in Karnei Shomron, an Israeli town in the northwestern West Bank. It was the spot where, for the last thirteen-and-a-half years, he’d hitchhiked to work at six in the morning. But not anymore. On this day, Robbie took out a sign that read, in Hebrew, “Kesem” — the name of a local train junction. Then he lit his hitchhiking sign on fire. No more commuting! No more smoky cars, or loud music, or annoying chit-chat! Robbie was quitting his job in order to work full-time in poker media.

Robbie is the co-founder of CardPlayer Lifestyle, a popular poker blog that he launched in 2009. The site includes op-eds, book reviews, and in-depth interviews with Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Helmuth, among many others. In this recent email conversation, we discussed Robbie’s transition to self-employment, his favorite CardPlayer Lifestyle interviews, the differences between living in Israel and the United States, and this month’s World Series of Poker.

Ben Saxton: You might be the most enthusiastic poker fan that I know. Where does your passion for the game come from?

Robbie Strazynski: I take that as a big compliment; thank you! :-) There was just something I really loved about the game of poker from the first time I was introduced to it as a young kid. My Dad taught me how to play and I always enjoyed the penny ante games of five-card stud we used to play around the kitchen table.

I grew up in Southern California in the 1980s and 90s. Las Vegas was a short 4.5-hour drive away and those were the days when it was being marketed as a family-friendly destination, with new megaresorts popping up all the time. As my parents got numerous comped room offers, we’d usually spend 5–6 weekends there each year. I loved everything about the city’s non-stop energy and electricity. My mom always seemed to hit a big slots jackpot and my Dad always loved talking about how much fun he was having playing in the poker rooms.

I moved to Israel when I was almost 17, but the love for “everything Vegas” and the game of poker never left me. I must’ve rented Rounders half a dozen times from the video store (remember those?). I turned 21 just a few months shy of the Moneymaker Boom. Though my exposure to poker was only limited to TV, with Vegas now 7,500 miles away, I immediately started playing in home games.

How did you conceive of Cardplayer Lifestyle? Now that it’s been around for 7+ years, what are your plans and goals for the site in the future?

Cardplayer Lifestyle kind of started by accident. In mid-2009, my buddy, Avi, asked me if I wanted to start a blog about poker with him. He understood webmastering and figured that since I already watched and consumed poker content and knew how to write (my degrees are in English Linguistics) we’d be a good team. It took me a couple years to understand the audience I was writing for; we literally had one or two dozen visitors to the site per day when we started. During that time, I learned as much as I could about webmastering from Avi. In mid-2011, I bought out his half and since then it’s been an incredible solo journey.

When I started out, I can’t say that I really had any goals or plans at all with the blog. I literally just thought it would be a cool thing to try. With each new “milestone” and level of growth the site has achieved over the last seven years, more and more I’ve come to treat it as a brand and work hard on enhancing its quality and reputation in the poker world. Everything I’ve “achieved” with it in the poker world up until now has been via working on a part-time basis, all on nights and weekends as an extracurricular pursuit.

Also, just a couple weeks ago, for the first time in four years, I unveiled an updated site logo and a brand new WordPress theme; those were pretty labor-intensive undertakings, but long overdue and I feel they’ll deliver great results. So, the main goals for now are to increase my content output and also generate enough income from the work to make my self-employment sustainable.

One of the your poker blog’s highlights, in my opinion, is its interviews. If you had to choose a few favorites, which ones stand out?

Thanks for the compliments! I take a lot of pride in the interviews as quite a bit of research goes into conducting each one. It’s a little tough to choose a favorite as I’ve gotten so much joy out of so many of them, so I’m going to have to choose three that stand out to me in particular:

The Negreanu interview was the longest one I’ve ever done. Months of research went into my preparation (again, remember I did all my work on nights and weekends) because I wanted to ensure that I was asking him new, unique questions while at the same time ensuring it would remain an interview people would enjoy watching/listening to/reading for a long, long time. Also, my brother Marty helped put a lot of post-production work into it to make it look as finely-tuned as possible. Daniel was kind enough to give me 90 minutes of his time, plus he’s one of my poker heroes and we did the interview on my birthday. So, that will also hold a special place in my heart.

I also had the distinct pleasure of interviewing PokerStars Head of Blogging, Brad Willis. His is the gold standard in poker writing, and I’ve always looked up to him with tremendous admiration and appreciation for his talent and the work he has produced. To have his words grace my site with their presence was a true honor, and it was an absolute pleasure getting to know more about him and his life through the interview.

The last one I’ll list is actually one of my most recent, when I got to interview World Poker Tour CEO Adam Pliska. It’s rare to have the opportunity to speak with the CEO of a top poker company. It’s perhaps even rarer to encounter an individual holding that title who is so incredibly and genuinely down-to-earth. Adam fits the description perfectly. So humble and gracious, he granted me half an hour of his time in the midst of the WPT’s biggest event of the year, the Tournament of Champions. I did boatloads of research on him and it was simply awesome to witness him enjoying himself so much while answering all my questions about his fascinating career as well as his personal life. At some point, he even said something to the effect of “I see you really did your homework,” which is one of the highest forms of compliments I feel an interviewer can get.

You’re involved in a running/charity poker fundraiser, right? How’s that going?

Indeed; thank you so much for asking! It’s called “Running Well,” wherein I’ve challenged myself to run 1,000KM in 2017 and donate $1 per kilometer to Kids Kicking Cancer, an international program using martial arts therapy to ease the pain of very sick children by empowering them to heal physically, spiritually, and emotionally. A number of people have stepped forward to also make per-kilometer pledges, which helps motivate me that much more. I’m unfortunately a little bit behind the pace I’m shooting for, having completed a shade under 415KM as of this writing, but hopefully we’ll remedy that situation and be back on or ahead of pace soon.

There’s a bunch more info about the challenge and the charity on my site’s Running Well page, plus you can keep track of my progress with the Twitter hashtag #charitypoker1000km.

Born and raised in LA, you’ve been living in Israel since 1998. Since then you married your wife, Miriam, and had three kids, Abby, Ami, and Shira. How would you compare life in the U.S. to life in Israel?

Wow! That question is so broad and complex that I don’t know if it’s even possible to fully answer it or even make a proper comparison. I often say that I’ve lived two lives because they’re so drastically different. My formative years were spent in Los Angeles. I was fortunate to have received a phenomenal education at a private Jewish school and have lived a charmed life where I truly wanted for nothing. My parents taught me to work hard and play hard; that’s always been my motto, and those were the years in which my personality was formed around that precept.

My family moved to Israel — we call it “Aliyah” in Hebrew — for religious, Zionistic reasons, believing that it’s our ancestral Jewish Homeland, where we all belong.

I feel like I really became an adult the moment I landed in Israel, at age 16. Learning a new language and culture, having to adapt to a completely different reality, and make new friends from scratch is a tall order. A move like that can really scar you if you’re unprepared to properly accept and face the challenges, so I was lucky to be young and open enough to make it through the gauntlet of tests that it posed for me. Also, I was fortunate enough to meet Miriam just three weeks after arriving in Israel. She’s been my anchor, my rock, and my everything through it all. We married at 20 and will be celebrating our 15th anniversary this summer.

I’ve been blessed with three of the most incredible children. I’m grateful that as “natives” they’ll never have to go through the difficulties I did in my move. I’m further grateful that, now that I’m self-employed, I get to spend more time with them; as a parent I feel that their childhood represents the most important years I have with them, so I want my presence to be felt in their lives.

It might sound crazy to say this, given how Israel is usually perceived in the world media, but I feel like, in retrospect, settling down here is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Our population is growing and getting younger. Our economy and our currency are flourishing. Israel is where my people’s future lies and it’s incredible to be taking part in building and contributing in some small way to my young country’s history. With all of our troubles, travails, and missteps, with every passing year I feel that — overall, on the whole — we’re doing more and more to be a light unto the nations, which represents our Biblical calling.

How’s the market and enthusiasm for poker in Israel?

I’d say that there’s a hardcore poker fan base in Israel whose enthusiasm for the game will never wane, but will only grow. The waves and ripples of the Moneymaker Boom reached Israeli shores, too, and poker has attracted quite the following from all the TV coverage over the years broadcast onto our screens (with Hebrew subtitles). While there are no casinos or cardrooms in Israel, there’s a thriving home game scene in cities all over the country as well as an underground scene where much larger sums of money are won and lost at the felt. Of course everyone knows of Eli Elezra’s poker achievements; he’s kind of like a “King” here, but there are plenty of other Israeli poker players who have seen great tournament and cash game success at the tables. Believe it or not, we’ve even got an Israel Poker Academy, which not only helps train players to improve, but also helps bring new players into the game who’ve had no prior exposure to or experience with poker.

Online poker was never explicitly legal here either, but anyone who wanted to play could basically do so until last year. Israel was sort of a “gray area” country as far as many online poker rooms were concerned. Sadly, however, acting upon advice received from their legal departments, many sites pulled out of the Holy Land in mid-2016. I hope that things will somehow change on that front someday… too many people enjoy playing for it to forever remain illegal; better to tax and regulate it in my opinion. And, of course, if a legal cardroom ever opens up here, I want to be the first one standing in line for a seat!

What are your plans for this summer’s WSOP?

Last year, after 13 years of “waiting,” I finally had the chance to attend the WSOP for the first time. Living so far away with a wife and young kids, it’s certainly not something I can take for granted. Fortunately, I’ll have another chance to return this summer (thank you, Miriam!) and I’m absolutely ecstatic! I’ll be there for about two weeks, from June 6–21. In terms of plans, there’s nothing concrete at the moment, but I intend to use the opportunity to the fullest, hopefully put together some great articles and videos for Cardplayer Lifestyle fans to enjoy, and meet and network with tons of people. So, if you see me around the Rio hallways (or anywhere else around the city), please come and say hi!

*originally published in the June 2017 issue of Two Plus Two Magazine

Ben Saxton

Written by

reading, writing, teaching, pokering @McGovernCenter

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