“He was very much a political person. He knew who his allies were. He knew who the people were who disagreed with him.” – an acquaintance speaking about Isai Scheinberg.
Isai Scheinberg was born in Lithuania (1946), the son of a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor. The finer details of Isai’s earlier life are scarce, but he did graduate with an M.Sc in Mathematics from Moscow University before immigrating to Israel. There he served in the Israeli Defense Forces. After serving his time, he began working for IBM in their Israel offices before moving to the Canadian branch. He started to make his mark at IBM in the 1990s when he developed a self-standing code-named UNICODE. This code remains an industry-leading code today, and in a testament to Schoenberg’s character, there is minimal attribution to the role he played in its development when browsing through the history of UNICODE.
The mid to late 1990s saw a rapid increase in the development of gaming software to allow poker to be played online. Isai was a passionate player and fan of poker (25th in a WSOP event in 1995), so perhaps it was inevitable that he harnessed his computer knowledge and developed an idea for a poker site. Along with his son Mark, they hired programmers, some whom he worked with at IBM to produce the best poker experience available. Terrence Chan, one of the company’s first employees, says that Scheinberg was absolutely convinced that with world-class software and a high standard of customer service, he could be successful.
After a successful play money launch in 2000, they soon launched into real money gaming with Mark running the Costa Rica office where the tax laws were beneficial for them. PokerStars was considered to have the best software in the online poker industry, but they didn’t dominate the player market until 2006, having shifted their main offices to the Isle of Man, again for the generous tax laws.
In 2006, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was passed, which was a transitioning period for poker. The rulings were up for interpretation, meaning some online poker sites left the US market, and some didn’t. Party Poker decided to leave the US market, which made up a significant percentage of their active real money players. With that, PokerStars took the mantle of the most popular poker site in the world.
The decision to keep serving American players was not a decision taken lightly by the conservative Scheinberg. In extensive talks with legal advisors, he came to believe they would not be breaking federal legislation by continuing to serve the market. He was able to successfully argue that because poker was a skill based game, rather than a game of chance like other casino games, that PokerStars was not doing anything illegal under the US law.
The PokerStars brand kept on getting bigger and better after 2006. They continued to implement improvements in gameplay and usability, all while ensuring their customer service remained the best in the business. While many owners can be accused of losing touch with their customers as their companies grow, Scheinberg could not. Employees often mentioned he would read the TwoPlusTwo forums regularly to listen to what PokerStars users were talking about and would consider implementing new features as a result.
The poker world’s Black Friday occurred on April 15th, 2011. Out of nowhere, the United States seized the domains of all poker sites operating in the US. The shockwaves went on for months, and news regarding what was happening was slow to filter out. PokerStars managed to get through the ordeal with many of their customers staying loyal. They took proactive measures to ensure everyone was treated fairly in regards to their bank balances when the situation was resolved.
Eventually, all of their American players were returned the funds they had in their accounts when Black Friday hit, and PokerStars was able to build on a reputation of looking after players first. Full Tilt Poker, on the other hand, had a nightmare after Black Friday, with many failings in the business coming to light. As a result, PokerStars went on to earn more brownie points with people involved in the poker industry and was, in fact, able to purchase all of Full Tilt Poker’s assets to create an even larger juggernaut in the online poker world. When all the dust settled after Black Friday, 11 people in the poker industry were facing criminal charges, including Isai.
In 2014, the poker world again went into a slight state of panic as it was announced that PokerStars’ parent company, Rational, would be selling PokerStars to fellow Canadian company Amaya. After the “player first” mentality espoused by Scheinberg and the other PokerStars decision-makers, many feared what would happen when Amaya took ownership. Would they continue to make decisions in the best interest of the players, or would decisions be made on the most profitable option at the time? Apparently many think it’s the latter, as there is currently a protest, with over 800 players scheduled to abandon playing on PokerStars for 48 hours.
The sale of PokerStars was worth $4.9 billion, which is not bad for a company less than 15 years old. There was immediate speculation that the sale would enable a deal with the Department of Justice to be made. With a settlement total likely in the millions, Isai may be able to get the criminal charges dropped, allowing him to re-enter the States without fear of being arrested.
While Isai has avoided the spotlight both on and off the felt, he has been traced to the occasional poker tournament. Occasional may be an overstatement, as his most recent four cashes were recorded in 1996, 1998, 2008, and 2014. That latest cash, however, brought about a lot of attention when he took the title. On October 4th, 2014, Isai entered the £2,200 UKIPT 4 High Roller Event in the Isle of Man. The tournament only gathered 15 entrants, but it was a very rare opportunity for the media to get a photograph of Scheinberg. Even when the winner’s photo was taken, Isai is not prominent in the photo. The only way to recognize him amongst his friends and fellow poker players is by searching for the slight glint of the trophy. The £13,850 he won for first place won’t register high on his bank transaction list (thanks to his massive bank balance resulting from the sale of PokerStars), but it is apparent to see he still enjoys poker to this day.
Each year, the Poker Hall of Fame lists a number of nominees who can be elected to be inducted into the Hall. When any list is produced, there will always be varied opinions, but this year the exclusion of Isai Scheinberg inspired Chan to speak up. He stated, “In my opinion if the man who has done more to grow poker than any other individual in the world in the past 20 years (at least) is not in the Poker HOF, it is illegitimate.”
Chan was one of the early employees of PokerStars and helped them earn their status as the poker site with the largest following. While he may be seen biased to some, he posted a thread on TwoPlusTwo, which has received nearly unanimous support. Unfortunately, it seems that politics plays a role in who is or isn’t elected. One of the members of the nominee selection committee is Caesars Palace, who have had disputes with Scheinberg in the past. They are seen as the largest barrier to getting Isai on the Poker Hall of Fame nomination list.
In late 2015, Isai maintains an intensely private life and it is unclear where he spends the majority of his time. Many speculate he still lives on the Isle of Man, but this hasn’t been confirmed. Regardless of personal opinions of Isai, there is no doubt that millions of people around the world have him to thank for growing the game and making it more accessible to the masses.