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Whispers At Poker Table: The Blind Guy's Winning

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Las Vegas Sun, Nevada, July 7, 2007.

One Qualifies for the Main Event of the Game's World Series

Hal Lubarsky lifts his three gold rings an inch from his face; two are stone-studded, one is a fat band hammered flat and carved to look like a playing card. The ace of inlaid diamonds.

It's about all he can see. Lubarsky is legally blind, which complicates his near-nightly poker games at the Mirage, where the sightless gambler guesses he's up about $20,000.

Not bad for an utter underdog, a blind man trying to beat a game that rides on reading not just cards but faces. This in a city with religious reverence for poker, where one complaint from fellow card players can get you banned from the green felt fields, as Lubarsky has been in the past.

People get prickly when the blind man bags their money, he says.

But Lubarsky's not the only player stacking chips he can't see. Jason Holbrook, a blind Bakersfield, Calif., man, entered the World Series of Poker Main Event today. He won the $10,000 buy-in at a satellite tournament in June. He's gambling that a "sixth sense" will guide his hand.

A sixth sense and a reader, a person paid to murmur into his ear the suit and the number or the face of every card that comes across the table. This is the whispering world of blind poker.

Holbrook is enamoured with the game.

Lubarsky likes to think it's given him his life back.

The 46-year-old Brooklyn-born gambler moved to Las Vegas 17 years ago. At the time, Lubarsky could see cards if he held them next to his nose. Playing this way, he set records and won 12 poker tournaments, the biggest for $64,000.

Mason Malmuth, an author of several books on gambling theory, knows Lubarsky's style and calls it "loose," meaning he plays more hands than most.

"The better players can play a few more hands," Malmuth says.

But Lubarsky's eyes have been slowly failing since birth. The condition he inherited, retinitis pigmentosa, an affliction shared by Steve Wynn {a Las Vegas developer}, is killing his rods and cones. His field of vision has whittled down to a single floating spot. Like looking through binoculars you can't put down, he says. Until there's nothing before you.

Three years ago, Lubarsky quit poker. He couldn't make out the cards. He was calling flushes he didn't have.

Lubarsky retired to the home he can't leave without assistance. He played online poker when he could persuade someone to read the computer screen aloud. Sometimes he would accompany a friend to the poker room, where he would sit for hours, listening.

That was the real torture.

"To be honest, I was really depressed," he says. "Losing your vision, it's not easy."

It was a friend who came up with the idea of whispering Lubarsky's cards. Working this way for the first time five months ago, he played a casual charity tournament and beat more than half the competition. A week later, he played a slightly more serious game at Red Rock Resort with a friend hunched quietly over his shoulder.

Lubarsky won $5,600 in eight hands. He's been playing about six times a week since.

Holbrook, 37, lost his sight 16 years ago, after a car accident that could have killed him. (A truck landed on his head. He was in a coma for a month and woke to darkness.)

Holbrook decided to start playing poker four years ago, on a whim. He placed an ad in the paper for a reader and found the woman he still works with, Michelle Espinoza.

"Me and her are one," Holbrook says. "We are not a team whatsoever."

Holbrook says this to stress, as Lubarsky does, that he makes game decisions on his own. Readers do nothing more than their title suggests, the men say. Still, there are grumblings that gambling with assistance is breaking the rules.

Lubarsky has been told twice that he couldn't play at certain casinos--places where poker room managers and irate gamblers couldn't tolerate the whispering pair at the end of the table.

The casinos' ban was illegal because of his disability, of course, and was always eventually rectified. Still, it says something about the frosty climate a blind player sometimes suffers.

Anger isn't the only emotion Lubarsky has encountered. He's overheard gamblers gloating that the blind man's an easy beat.

Once or twice, poker players have tried to take advantage of him.

And the readers do let little details slip through. When Lubarsky's reader told him two young men across the table were doing chip tricks, flipping the disks through their fingers, Lubarsky knew he was dealing with hot shots. Amateurs. Showoffs. He took this into consideration when he played his hand, and beat them both.

His reader then told him the men didn't look very happy. Lubarsky didn't need to see it to know.

"A lot of times these players act. They hee-haw and don't know what to do," he says. "I'm much faster than them in making my decisions. They bother me because they take so long."

Lubarsky doesn't make much of tells, the subconscious ticks said to blow a bluff. He'd rather follow the cards, figure out who has what and how they'll use it.

Holbrook, however, says more metaphysical sensibilities are on his side--such as an extrasensory ability to read the air around him while keeping his face slack.

"Every one of them thinks I have a disadvantage, but I have a sixth sense working," he says. "I can't really see them, but I can feel what they are doing. And I feel like they can't see me."

On Thursday, Holbrook played video poker for the first time. He won $1,500 almost immediately.

"That's my luck for the game," he says, cackling. "Watch out for me."

At the World Series of Poker, Holbrook will keep the players clear in his mind by assigning them imaginary faces. Say, assorted Flintstones cartoon characters.

Does anyone complain? "Just the guys that are losing."

And many people, Lubarsky says, can expect to lose.

"I've always thought of myself as the best player, no matter what game I played in," he says. "No matter who I played against."