The first day of the 2006 World Series of Poker is minutes away from starting, and I'm standing at table 171 in front of two of the most nervous people I have ever seen in my entire life. Hands shaking, sweat beading from their foreheads, they look like they've just ran a marathon and a single hand has yet to be dealt. "Is it too late to get my $10,000 back?" groans one to another. The reason they're so sick?
To these hapless souls' left is arguably the most feared tournament poker player in Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi. Mizrachi has won over $5 million in tournaments within the past two years, and is regarded by many as the best no limit hold'em tournament player in the world for his two WPT titles and consistent cashes in the tournament circuit. He is an absolute bulldog, and has ran over thousands of players with his aggressive style throughout the years.
To their right sits none other than possibly the biggest winner in cash games in the past year, David Benyamine. Benyamine has become a regular at the $4000/8000 Big Game, the biggest cash game in the world occurring nightly at the Bellagio, and has been reported by many of the players as the biggest winner in the game the past year. Numbers like $20 million are casually bandied about as his rumored winnings – in the last month, alone, that is. For these two fellows at table 171, who admit they have never played in a game for over $1000, let alone the $100,000 that pots reach regularly in Benyamine's game, they look at me as their beacon of hope. I nod consolingly and tell them, "Welcome to the World Series of Poker."
Grinder is known as an extremely intimidating player, forcing action and exerting maximum pressure on his opponents through gutsy bluffs and big bets when he has the best hand. I'm hoping for a show, but throughout the beginning of the tournament, he hardly enters a single pot. In fact, I begin to wonder if this is really The Grinder at all.
The dealer slips a card slips underneath the rail, and Grinder jokes, "Don't worry, there's a hole card cam under there." The table bursts out in laughter. Grinder talks about his kids, his wife, and chats amicably with Benyamine. Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi, the man with the steel glare, silent tongue, and fiery eyes, is making friends with the table, and I can't believe it.
Midway through the first round, two amateurs get into it on a board of 8-9-10 rainbow. After multiple raises and re-raises, the player to Grinder's left clearly flashes his cards to him, a 6-7 for the dummy end of the straight, and looks into his eyes pleadingly, as if begging for Grinder's advice on what to do. Grinder returns the glance helplessly, knowing that the man is dead but facing a penalty if he offers his advice. The player calls, and watches as his opponent turns over the J-Q for the nuts. Grinder tries to console him, and tells him, "That's a tough spot, buddy."
Is this really the same ruthless Grinder that Mike Matusow claimed plays in $1000 tournaments not for the pittance of prize money, but rather "to ruin people's dreams," I wonder?
Benyamine, on the other hand, looks disinterested throughout the entire tournament. He gets up, walks around to chat with other players, and gazes around during hands, failing to pay any attention to the action. He eventually goes out with a whimper. Perhaps there was a big side game waiting for him – back when the prizes were never above a million, players of his caliber were known to bust out early, using their time to earn more in the cash games than they ever could by winning the tournaments. With the main event prize estimated at over $12 million, Benyamine might be the only man in the world that this old-school logic still applies to.
Midway through the second level, though, something clicks with the Grinder. Under the gun, Grinder glances down at his cards and limps in. A player to his left pops it to 525 and another one calls. Grinder's chips hit the felt immediately for the call, too. The board comes A-J-8, and Grinder checks. The original raiser makes it 1500, and the player in-between calls. Grinder looks the man down, takes off his headphones, puts his ipod in his pocket and mutters, "raise." He tosses 5 yellow chips, good for a $5000 check-raise, and glares at his opponent, smacking his lips. His opponent quickly folds.
The very next hand, Grinder is in again. He calls small preflop and flop bets, and as the pot grows in size on the turn, the man who was shaking before the start of the tournament puts in a weak bet of 175 into a pot that has somehow become over 1500 in size. Grinder takes a deep breath, and immediately raises another 1500. "It was a good turn card for me," he says, reeking of facetiousness. The player thinks, turning bright red and passing the chips through his hand before mucking.
Grinder comes into the next pot as well. He says on the river, "I can beat A-10." Grinder shows A-J, good for no pair, A-J high. His opponent begins to muck, then disgustedly decides to show the A-10 for no pair, A-10 high as Grinder stacks his chips even higher.
Mizrachi has turned on the switch now, and there's no stopping him from playing his fourth pot in a row – it is a stark contrast from the man who played less than a dozen hands in the first hour. A player in late position, fed up with Grinder's nonsense, raises the pot preflop after Grinder tries to limp in. Grinder immediately calls. The flop comes J-J-5, and Grinder checks. His opponent bets and Grinder quickly calls again. The turn comes a Q, and Grinder check-calls a bet again. The river comes a 9, putting J-J-5-Q-9 on the board, and Grinder immediately fires a huge bet, taking the lead in the pot for the first time all hand. "See, you're a thief, but I'm a bigger one," he says, smiling.
His opponent mulls the meaning of Grinder's words for a minute, tossing them around in his mind. Grinder smiles and begins to make a mucking motion with his hands. Once he sees this, his opponent makes up his mind and decisively utters, "call!" Grinder calmly flips over a pair of nines in the hole for a full house. His opponent gasps and mucks his cards, trembling from shock. Grinder turns his hat down low and rakes his chips in. Seeing me, he looks up, motions with his eyes over at the crestfallen man whose face is now buried in his hands and winks at me, grinning from ear to ear.
Mike Matusow was right. The man plays to ruin other people's dreams.
Ed note: The Grinder plays online poker at Absolute Poker.