Paul L. Caron

Sunday, December 5, 2021

WSJ: This Poker-Playing Orthodox Jew Is Giving All His Winnings to Charity. But Is It Kosher?

Wall Street Journal, Playing an Unorthodox Hand: This Poker-Playing, Bond-Trading Orthodox Jew Is Giving All His Winnings to Charity. But Is It Kosher?:

PokerGershon Distenfeld is competing at poker’s highest level despite playing just a few weeks a year. He’s urging rival professional poker players to give away at least 1% of what they make.

Wall Street is full of would-be poker pros. Gershon Distenfeld, the co-head of AllianceBernstein’s roughly $300 billion fixed-income investing unit, is a little different.

He is a Modern Orthodox Jew who is playing at the highest level of the game despite picking it up just a few years ago. The 45-year-old Mr. Distenfeld made it to the final table of the World Series of Poker main event in 2020 and last month won a coveted golden bracelet in another World Series event. ...

He ... refuses to play against friends in private games citing ethical reasons, donates all of his takings to charity and has launched a campaign urging all winners at the World Series to give away at least 1% of what they make.

Poker 2The Modern Orthodox observe traditional Jewish precepts while mixing with the society that surrounds them, unlike the ultra Orthodox, or Hasidim, who sometimes shun modernity.

While the “1% challenge” has won him fans in Las Vegas, reactions in Orthodox circles have been mixed. “Judaism is not all that happy about gambling,” said Harry Maryles, author of a blog on the Orthodox Jewish community in a recent post about Mr. Distenfeld [Is Gambling Philanthropy Good or Bad?]. “It is difficult to praise someone that won a lot of money at a game of poker—even if he gives all of it away to people that really need it.”

The kvetching doesn’t faze Mr. Distenfeld, who has clashed with others in his community on topics ranging from parochial education to Covid-19 quarantines. “I don’t want to be a role model for anyone in ritual observance,” Mr. Distenfeld said. “I want to see role models out there that are good people trying to make the world a better place.”

Mr. Distenfeld has given away $330,000 of poker winnings and donates at least 10% of his seven-figure income annually in accordance with the Jewish concept of philanthropy, he said. While he donates actively, he took steps this year to reduce tax spending, he said, moving his family to Florida from New Jersey. ...

Mr. Distenfeld leans to the conservative end of mainstream politics—advocating last fall to end quarantine and mask requirements for children. In his religious community though, he has opposed what he calls a shift toward ultra-orthodoxy. Some in the community emphasize ritual observance and spend lavishly on religious celebrations but neglect ethics and spirituality, he said. ...

His poker playing is yet another point of contention. He clashed with some charitable organizations in the Orthodox community because he requires all recipients of his poker winnings to disclose the donations’ origins, he said. “To me it’s not a straight thing to take the money and hide where it came from,” he said.

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