Isai Scheinberg is a brilliant man who was motivated by his love of poker to
create one of the most successful online poker sites in the world: PokerStars.
His innovative ideas and willingness to take risks is what made PokerStars the
industry leader it is today. Some risks he took did come at a cost, though.
To discover more about Isai Scheinberg, his contributions to PokerStars, his
risky decisions that backfired, and to see what he is up to today, please feel
free to read through this comprehensive biography. We bet you’ll learn something
you never knew before.
Isai Scheinberg was born in Israel in 1946. Just a year after he was born,
his family moved to a small town in Lithuania. His father didn’t make enough
money to support the family, so Scheinberg was forced to clean a local
distillery on the weekends to help them make ends meet. He was the oldest of 5
children, and all of his younger siblings looked up to him. Since there was a
10-year age gap between him and his other siblings, they viewed him as more of a
father figure than a brother.
Not wanting to let them down, he worked very hard at both his part-time job
and school. He would often pick up extra shifts at the distillery and would
spend any free moment he had studying. He excelled in school, earning himself a
4.0 GPA. When it came time to choose what college to attend, the answer was
easy; he had earned himself a full-ride scholarship to Moscow State University
He originally was pursuing a business degree, but he ended up changing his
mind towards the end of his freshman year. After doing exceptionally well in a
couple different math courses, he chose to major in mathematics instead. He
earned both his bachelor’s and master’s in mathematics from that university.
Before he entered the workforce, he was drafted into the Israeli Defense
Force. He served for 3 years during the War of Attrition. He was one of the
soldiers responsible for the production of Israel’s first custom-made weapons.
His background in mathematics helped him design weapons that were known for
Developing a Love of Poker
It was during his time serving in the military that he first learned how to
play poker. He played in the evenings with the other soldiers in his barrack,
quickly becoming an excellent player. He developed his own strategies for
winning and was known for his aggressive style of play and his willingness to
Once he left the Israeli Defense Force, he accepted a job as a programmer at
IBM’s office in Israel. He was so successful at his job that they sent him to
their offices in Canada to train the programmers over there. His first week in
Canada, he met a woman named Libby while playing poker at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s
The couple got married just 1 year after they started dating, purchasing
their first home together in Richmond Hill, Ontario. They had a son named Mark
in 1973, who they loved very much. Despite having a young child at home,
Scheinberg still made time to play poker on a regular basis. He competed in
local poker tournaments regularly and was always looking for ways to improve his
Over 20 years passed before Scheinberg finally decided to put his poker
skills to the test. He entered the World Series of Poker main event in 1996 and
managed to take 25th place. While he didn’t perform as well as he was hoping to,
this experience did persuade him to consider making a career change.
Founder of PokerStars
Once he got home from the WSOP, he decided to start working on his very own
poker site. He quickly realized this was a project he was not going to be able
to accomplish on his own, so he started recruiting his team. He invited some of
his co-workers from IBM to join him. He also got connected with a man named
Terrance Chan through an online poker forum; his in-depth poker knowledge made
him a perfect asset to the team. His last recruit was his son, Mark, who would
eventually become the company’s CEO.
In 2000, Scheinberg founded PYR software, which would become the software
provider for their poker site. The company was located in Toronto and is where
the team would meet to brainstorm ideas. Their goal was to create a poker site
that offered a personalized experience, advanced software, and vibrant graphics.
They were able to accomplish all this and more through the development of
They did a soft launch of the site in 2001, where players could test out all
of the site’s features using only play money. This was a huge success. Players
were impressed by the site’s easy-to-use interface and the unique atmosphere the
online casino had. Just a few months later, the site was ready to start
accepting real money wagers.
The company continued to flourish and started to bring in millions of dollars
worth of revenue. To boost the site’s popularity even more, Scheinberg decided
to host two poker tournaments where the winner would receive a paid entry into
the WSOP main event plus an all-expenses-paid trip for 2 to travel to Las Vegas.
He was continually looking for ways to improve the site and offer a more
rewarding experience for his players.
Thanks to Scheinberg’s efforts, PokerStars became known for offering
high-quality customer service. All customer service agents had to undergo
strenuous training before they were allowed to join his team. He wanted to make
sure they were not only knowledgeable about poker and the ins and out of the
PokerStars website, but he also wanted to make sure they knew how to communicate
well with customers. PokerStars had a faster customer service response rate than
other poker sites that outsourced their customer service to third parties.
Scheinberg made a bold decision in 2005 to relocate the company’s
headquarters to the Isle of Man because they wouldn’t charge him any corporate
taxes over there; this saved the company a significant amount of money. It was
also the year that Scheinberg added a blog to the PokerStars site, making them
the first online poker site to have one. Scheinberg was continually looking for
ways to stay ahead of the competition, and his innovativeness paid off. By the
end of the year, PokerStars became a billion-dollar enterprise.
In 2006, the United States passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement
Act (UIGEA), making it illegal for gambling transactions to take place. Many
online casinos and poker sites chose to close their doors to US customers as a
result. Scheinberg took a different approach. He made a deal with several small
banks that were facing financial difficulties and agreed to invest millions of
dollars into them if they were willing to process his customer’s gambling
transactions. This was a risky move, but Scheinberg would do whatever it took to
keep serving his US customers.
This worked for several years, until April 15th, 2011, the day that would
later become known as Black Friday. This is the day that the United States
seized PokerStars’ domain name because they were still catering to US customers.
Scheinberg was also charged on accounts of money laundering and bank fraud at
PokerStars was forced to pay the Department of Justice a hefty fine of $765
million in order to get their domain back. Also as part of the settlement, they
agreed to buy out Full Tilt Poker
and pay US players the funds that were owed to them, as Full Tilt Poker did not
have the necessary funds to do so. After all this was said and done, PokerStars
started to flourish again. Scheinberg’s personal charges were never dropped,
however, and he still refuses to take care of them.
As long as Scheinberg avoids entering the United States, he will not have to
face any jail time or pay the Department of Justice any fees. Scheinberg has
stepped down from the day-to-day operations of PokerStars, but he still
influences the board’s decisions when it comes to technological advancements.
Since he is not as involved with PokerStars, Scheinberg has more time to
spend with his wife. The two of them travel together often, with their favorite
places to visit being in Europe. While traveling, they have paid to restore
several different historical buildings in both Madrid and France, as they
believe in the importance of preserving history.
Scheinberg donates money to many different charities, including One Acre Fund
and Living Goods. One Acre Fund supplies impoverished farmers with the training
and equipment they need to grow food for their communities. Living Goods trains
health advocates to go door to door in third-world countries to educate people
on how to stay clean to prevent the spread of common diseases. Scheinberg is
passionate about helping those less fortunate than him.
As of right now, Scheinberg would consider himself to be retired. Does that
mean he will never make things right with the Department of Justice and take an
active role in PokerStars once again? Of course not; anything is possible. We
will be sure to update this biography if Scheinberg makes any drastic decisions
regarding his career in the years to come.
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