Exclusive: PokerStars founder Isai Scheinberg talks poker and business

Simon Young
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Posted on: October 22, 2021 10:22 am EDT

There are few people in business, particularly the business of poker, that cause you to sit up and take notice when they talk. One is, without question, Isai Scheinberg, who, along with his son Mark, founded and ran PokerStars, turning it from a passion project in 2001 into the world’s biggest online poker company. The Scheinbergs sold PokerStars in 2014 for $4.9 billion.

Isai has only ever given one interview before, but against the backdrop of the 2021 World Series of Poker, he now agrees to chat with poker.org about the PokerStars legacy and his views on the current state of poker.

His story resonates with fans of the game because, under his leadership, poker went mainstream. But his views on conducting business apply to any sector, and business students or aspiring leaders would do well to take note.

Now aged 75 and enjoying a busy PokerStars retirement, Isai reveals:

  • He would never have axed PokerStars’ Supernova Elite VIP program
  • Why the players should always come first
  • What online poker must do to thrive
  • His deep affection and appreciation for his staff
  • His plan to play next year’s WSOP in Las Vegas

Not just a poker tycoon

It’s easy to label Isai Scheinberg as the super-rich, former boss of the world’s largest online poker room. But to Isai, poker was not just his business; it was his passion.

“I was a recreational poker player since my days in university, and it led to my view that players of all abilities should be equally respected,” he says. “Poker players are the company customers – and customers should always come first.”

He famously spent hours trawling the Two Plus Two poker forum so that he could see first-hand what players were saying and thinking about the game. If he spotted something about PokerStars that was grinding players’ gears, he would get his team to work on it.

Doing things right for the players was engrained into the PokerStars culture, so Isai was unhappy when, one year after he sold the business to Amaya in 2014, the company suddenly axed the VIP scheme that benefited all customers, high-volume players in particular.

“I think that eliminating Supernova Elite was wrong, and it would not have happened if Mark and myself were still in charge. I never based decisions on just money calculations.”

The way the VIP scheme changed in 2015 was a pivotal moment in PokerStars history. Having exited the company 12 months before, Isai was dismayed to see widespread player unrest from the same customers he had spent so many years trying to please.

From day one, the company was compelled to be a pioneer and best in class. Isai explains: “I spent decades in software development and succeeded in hiring a small team of truly outstanding programmers. We created the site with many innovations in one year and then kept pace through the years ahead.”

The programmers worked for Isai at a company he formed in Canada called Pyr Software, so named because of his love for Pyrenees dogs (not the first time poker and dogs work together).

Isai Scheinberg with his beloved pet Pyrenees dog (hence the name Pyr Software)
Isai Scheinberg with his beloved pet Pyrenees dog (hence the name Pyr Software)

PokerStars specialised initially in online poker tournaments. In 2002, it launched the World Championship of Online Poker with a flagship $1,050 main event. It might seem small fry now, but back then, it was revolutionary. “PokerStars was the leader in full-functioned multi-table tournaments from day one, which players loved,” Isai says.

With customers signing up in ever-increasing numbers, he was keen to develop the PokerStars support team to offer the most informed, helpful, and fastest responses in multiple languages. “I felt that having intelligent and diligent people in support was fundamental to company success. We wanted questions answered quickly and honestly and provided tools from the early days to help to do this.”

The support operation began initially in Costa Rica, but soon employed a “follow the sun” 24/7 support strategy and operations were placed worldwide to cope with language and time zone demands.

Together with outstanding customer service and support, offering players valuable rewards was critical to their satisfaction. The more you played, the more you could earn back. Initially, Frequent Player Points was a currency to exchange for cash or merchandise and goods of all kinds in the PokerStars store. Italian player Dario Minieri, a high volume sit and go starlet back in the day, made history when he became the first player to trade in his FPPs for a Porsche.

“The transparent and generous VIP program was another cornerstone on top of first-class software and great support,” Isai insists.

Doing what was right for the players took an unprecedented turn in 2011 after Black Friday when PokerStars and Full Tilt poker were forced to shutter operations in the US. While PokerStars had diligently kept all its player balances in separate accounts to operational expenditure, Full Tilt had not. When Full Tilt closed, it had no way of repaying its players.

If one moment represents how Isai respects poker players, it’s his decision that PokerStars should repay Full Tilt customers the hundreds of millions of dollars they lost when the site went under. It’s an unprecedented gesture of goodwill that will likely remain an historic moment in business where a company turned an existential threat into massive customer loyalty.

Isai was thinking as much about the survival of the whole industry as he was about PokerStars. “We felt that leaving players losing hundreds of millions of their money was devastating for the poker industry overall,” Isai recalls. “PokerStars, as the leader of this industry, had to do the right thing.”

PokerStars handed over $547 million to the US Government and purchased Full Tilt assets and paid hundreds of millions back to Full Tilt players around the world.

The Moneymaker effect

In its early years, although it’s hard to believe now, PokerStars was not the top dog of online poker sites. Early front runners were Paradise Poker and then PartyPoker, which linked up with the World Poker Tour and seemed to book every television ad spot available.

It wasn’t until 2003 that everything changed, when Chris Moneymaker, a PokerStars online qualifier with a brilliant name, went on to win the WSOP Main Event (besting an 838-strong field for a $2.5 million prize). The victory, seen by millions on TV and repeated continually on ESPN, created what became a tidal wave of interest in online poker. New players saw Moneymaker’s success and said collectively: “Well, if he can do it, so can I.”

Isai Scheinberg with his son Mark at a PokerStars event
Isai Scheinberg with his son Mark at a PokerStars event

Isai and his son Mark were quick to spot the opportunity. They wanted to sign up Moneymaker as an ambassador for the site. Many people assume he was the company’s first member of Team PokerStars. But actually, he was the second. Tom McEvoy was already on board (and remained so for many years). A contemporary, in age at least, of Isai, McEvoy had won the WSOP main event back in 1983.

Back to Moneymaker, who tells me: “When I won in 2003, Stars was not a big poker company. It put loads of marketing dollars into getting people to the WSOP, but it was a small fish at the time.

“Let me tell you a story about Isai, which is really a mark of the man. We sat down after I won, and he told me he wanted me to be the face of the site. So, we had a conversation about my compensation.

“I had absolutely no idea what it should be and naively asked for a piece of the company. In hindsight, that would have been nice! But in the end, we agreed instead on a two-year contract. It soon was clear to me that it was a bad deal, it was so small, and that became more apparent as the poker boom took off in the next 12 months.

“I thought it sucked, but I was under a two-year contract, and it wasn’t fair for me to go back to Isai and try to rip it up. In the event, I didn’t have to. Without me asking, he came to me after 12 months and said, ‘Let’s renegotiate’.

“I knew then that I would be with PokerStars for a long time. I soon had the opportunity to go to Full Tilt as an early investor, but Isai’s generosity in coming to me that day stopped that. He took care of me, just as he wanted the best for all players.

“He’s an outstanding businessman. No nonsense, certainly, but a sweetheart.”

Team PokerStars Pro soon got a shot in the arm when Greg Raymer won the WSOP a year after Moneymaker, followed by Joe Hachem in 2005. Both were also PokerStars qualifiers and signed up as ambassadors. Suddenly the site became known as the Home of World Champions. The three travelled together not just in the US but throughout Europe and beyond, promoting the site.

Team Pro then exploded in size, with reps from multiple countries joining the roster, before the marquee signing of Daniel Negreanu in 2007 (he remained with the team until 2019).

Isai was a big fan of how ambassadors could help the industry. He says: “The sponsored pros idea came from the belief that poker is a sport, and that players are inspired by top poker stars, either from their own country or international players.

“Chris (Moneymaker), Raymer and Hachem all qualified on Stars. Daniel was, and still is, an amazing poker player with an incredible ability to read opponents; perhaps in the league of poker greats like Stu Ungar and Doyle Brunson.”

An enigma in the office

It’s interesting to hear Moneymaker describe Isai as a sweetheart. He was formidable to those employees – and there were more than 1,400 staff members by 2014 – who did not work directly with him. Those based in the Isle of Man, the company headquarters, at least knew what he looked like. Most of the rest, like the customers, had no idea. There was not even a picture of him on the internet for many years.

But everyone would agree that he was always fair. He never swore, and if he did get angry with someone, it was for a good reason. And despite being something of a mystery man to many staff, he attracted incredible loyalty from every one of them. Maybe that was down to his insatiable work ethic and determination to be across every facet of the business.

I ran the PokerStars content teams for ten years and recall sitting at a work table in the tournament room at EPT Monte Carlo one year, leading a team of live tournament reporters. As I tapped away at the keyboard, I felt a presence behind me. It was Isai, peering over my shoulder, taking a keen interest in what the blog was reporting that day, who my team members were and how the website visitor and page views numbers were stacking up.

It was the first time I had actually met him (although we had spoken on the phone a few times). It was not dissimilar, and certainly equally unnerving, to the day in my previous career working on The Sun national newspaper, when Rupert Murdoch crept up behind me when I was running the newsdesk, “just for a chat”.

Despite his outstanding record of achievement, Isai says the success of PokerStars is down to the staff. “There is absolutely no doubt that the incredible team of PokerStars employees, at all levels, was the major reason for the company’s success,” he says.

Talented individuals in the company’s early days were especially crucial. I put it to him that the pioneering spirit of the sector attracted and encouraged a particular dynamic and personality to the company. It was an era to be brave, innovative, to work hard and play hard.

“Your description is exactly on,” Isai replies. “I prefer not to name names as I would need to name many hundreds out of fairness. However, one important thing to add is that we had very important criteria for hiring – and that was a passion for poker.

“Of course, I was worried about missteps, but that could not stop us from taking bold steps. We were not afraid to admit to mistakes and reverse decisions.

“When the company became much larger than I ever envisioned, we contemplated and were close to creating a special anti-bureaucracy team.

“I am incredibly proud of the team we had at Stars, with very smart and hardworking people who made the company what it became.”

Not only attentive in their support, but the Scheinbergs were also incredibly generous financially to staff. Pay and conditions were excellent by industry standards, and there was a remarkably generous annual bonus scheme. And when the company was sold to Amaya in 2014 for an incredible $4.9 billion, staff were rewarded with a lump sum, amounting to one month’s extra pay for each full year served.

Staff adored the company culture, where individuals were encouraged, and there were plenty of opportunities to progress and develop.

Isai recalls: “I think people respected the culture where the only criteria for the decisions were to do the right thing – for customers, employees, and partners, and to be 100% transparent no matter how hard it could be.

“Mark was very instrumental in creating and nurturing this culture.”

PokerStars staff celebrate with Isai Scheinberg after he won a high-stakes tournament in the Isle of Man

Where does poker go now?

Today, Isai spends time on chess as an advisor to chess.com, where Mark is a large shareholder. Isai is still a poker player at heart. Like the rest of us, he has views on what the game needs to do to survive. But, unlike the rest of us, what he says carries a lot of weight.

Regulating the game in the United States is priority number one. “I hope there will be many more states joining or, even better, a federal bill,” he says. “For the new poker boom, the US needs to open and join worldwide player liquidity.

“You may recall one time we had a banner at PokerStars, ‘Poker Without Borders’. Well, beyond the US, we need to have Asian countries fully open up to poker.”

An assault on the WSOP next year

Isai admits he does play online poker – “but rarely these days”. There are probably many players who have battled against him online in recent years, quite unaware of the giant of the game sitting across the table. But live poker is what he particularly loves.

Being a PokerStars executive and the company-related legal issues (now fully resolved) with US authorities, which are well documented elsewhere, meant Isai could hardly have rocked up to the Rio in Las Vegas to play the World Series.

But assuming the COVID situation improves sufficiently, that’s about to change.

“Indeed, I would love and plan to play at the WSOP next year,” he says.

In the sea of humanity that is a main event field of the WSOP, Isai would be like the invisible man, just another punter looking to get lucky and make a deep run. But any young gun thinking they can take advantage of the old-timer will be in for a shock. He’s more than a decent player (as our picture of him winning a live high stakes poker event, with many pros playing, in the Isle of Man shows), and he’s fearless.

After all, it’s not as though he’s playing for the money.