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Josh Arieh: 2021 World Series Of Poker Player Of The Year

Four-Time Bracelet Winner Tops Hellmuth And Negreanu In Series Race

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jan 12, 2022

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It’s been 17 years since Josh Arieh was on the cover of Card Player Magazine.

The then-29-year-old pool shark turned poker pro was fresh off the biggest score of his career, banking $2.5 million for finishing third in the 2004 World Series of Poker main event. The ESPN coverage that soon followed made him a recognizable face in the poker world, while also not doing any favors for his reputation as a brash and cocky player.

“I look back at that guy and I’m like, ‘Wow, he’s a dick!’ I came from the pool room where everybody was fighting tooth and nail for every dollar,” Arieh explained. “That was me fighting tooth and nail for every dollar, not caring about [the cameras]. I was playing for my life.”

Those watching at home may have gotten the impression that Arieh was a product of the Moneymaker boom that began the year before, but the Atlanta-based pro had already been making the annual trip to Las Vegas for some time and even won his first bracelet back in 1999.

“I won $200,000, and I was broke three months later,” he admitted. “I bought a new car, and two weeks later I was at [the dealership] to sell [it back].”

He was off to a bumpy start, but the $2.5 million score alleviated his financial concerns. With a proper bankroll, he could now attack the tournament circuit.

“I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder,” Arieh told Card Player back in 2004.

And he spent the next several years proving he wasn’t.

First, he took third in the WPT Borgata Poker Open. Then the year after his main event final table run, Arieh won bracelet no. 2, the first of his three pot-limit Omaha titles. A runner-up finish in the WSOP Circuit championship was followed by another second-place finish in the WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic worth $950,000.

Then, about a decade ago, Arieh decided to pump the breaks, telling poker media that he had basically retired from full-time play. He still made the trip to Vegas every summer, and even on his limited schedule he made plenty of noise. There was a runner-up finish in 2014 for $390,000 and a third-place finish in 2017 for $216,000. In 2019, he finished runner-up in the $50,000 Poker Players Championship for $680,000.

But Arieh was still a dark horse to be competitive, much less win 2021 WSOP Player of the Year honors. In fact, he even went back home to Georgia during the series for a quick visit, and only started to really grind for the points after winning his third career bracelet, pocketing $204,766 in the $1,500 pot-limit Omaha event.

“I used to think I had a chance at Player of the Year because I do play all the games. But over the past years, I stopped trying. It wasn’t a realistic goal.”

Arieh would go on to earn his fourth bracelet in the $10,000 pot-limit Omaha eight-or-better event, along with $484,791. That win came just a couple days after final tabling the Poker Players Championship again, adding another $161,422 to his totals.

“It was definitely grueling. I wasn’t focusing on it at all until the series was halfway over. I thought, ‘If I’m ever going to win it, this is my chance.’ That’s when I started to really overload my schedule, and I was playing 14 hours a day, every day from then on.”

The 47-year-old cashed 12 times overall, with seven top-10 finishes, for a total of $1,168,126. Moreover, he did it in a multitude of ways, cashing in both hold’em and mixed game events, smaller buy-ins and high rollers. Arieh even managed to make a final table in an online bracelet event.

As a result, he beat out both Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu for the title, overcoming Hellmuth’s record seven final tables and Negreanu’s 18 cashes.

“It’s just really cool,” Arieh told PokerNews. “My whole life and my career, whatever I do, I build momentum. So when I’m going good, I’m really good. When I’m going bad, I go really bad. [Winning Player of the Year] means a lot because my daughters will be really proud.”

While he’s still not going to be putting in the volume that he once did on the tournament circuit, Arieh has managed to stay involved in the poker world thanks to his position at PocketFives, helping to launch their brand-new staking platform.

Arieh recently appeared on Card Player’s Poker Stories Podcast to talk about his incredible series run to Player of the Year, his start in the gambling world, and his time playing high-stakes with sports stars such as Michael Jordan. You can listen to the full episode on Spotify, iTunes, YouTube, or any podcast app.

Card Player: You have a pretty great record with pot-limit Omaha events at the WSOP. Three of your four bracelets have come in the game and you have an additional five final tables. Is this something you do a lot of work on?

Josh Arieh: I’ve been playing PLO for a long time… 25 years. It’s just very natural to me, I get it. I am able to pick up on mistakes that my opponents make, and it allows me to target certain players. I like it better… I like playing more hands.

CP: You finished runner-up in the $1,500 PLO to Johnny Chan back in 2000. This year you won it.

JA: Yeah, he completely abused me at that final table. I was left in shock with what happened to me there. (laughs) It would have been cool to beat Johnny Chan, but I didn’t stand much of a chance at the time.

It’s weird. I had the $1,500 PLO event circled on my calendar. I had come home to hang out with my daughter, but I told my girlfriend Rachel that I had to be back for this event. I don’t know why, but I just had to be back for it.

The tournament started on a Wednesday, and I flew back to Vegas that morning. Ended up winning it.

CP: What about the $10,000 pot-limit Omaha eight-or-better event? You had also previously taken third in that back in 2017.

JA: At the beginning of that tournament, I had just gotten knocked out of the $50,000 [Poker Players Championship in sixth place], so I wasn’t in the best frame of mind. I was kind of just goofing off in the beginning.

Then 30 minutes in, I realized that I had a 3x stack and thought, ‘Holy crap, I guess I got to play now.’

I haven’t played much PLO8, but once we got deep and the stacks got deep, I was able to put a lot of my PLO experience to work.

CP: You mentioned the Poker Players Championship, which you had to watch play out while you were winning your second bracelet of the series. You finished runner-up two years ago and sixth this year. Obviously, that’s an event you look forward to every year.

JA: I think I’ve played in that tournament six times, and I’ve made the final two tables every time. [Cashed three times] and was the stone bubble one year. Another year I was two or three off the bubble.

I like competing against the best. I don’t play the limit games near as good as the high-limit players do, but I play them good enough to where I can take advantage in the big bet games. I’m giving up a little in the limit games, but I’m making up the difference in the big bet games.

You look at somebody like The Grinder (Michael Mizrachi), whose record in that tournament is unbelievable. (He’s won it three times and finished fourth.) He does the same thing where he’s got a huge edge in the big games.

CP: By winning Player of the Year, you gave Phil Hellmuth his fourth runner-up finish in the 16 years the contest has been held. How did that feel?

JA: It’s definitely cool seeing me in first with Phil in second and Daniel [Negreanu] in third. It makes it more valid for the non-poker people.

Both Phil and Daniel sent me a really nice message congratulating me. Daniel has helped me so much my whole life. He’s always been there for me, for so many years, with more than just poker. There were times when Daniel backed me for a while and when I’ve gone through rough patches, he led me in the right direction. Daniel’s just an awesome dude.

So yeah, there’s been no shit talking. I mean, there could have been. Phil is an easy person to talk shit to. But they were both genuinely happy for me.

CP: Because the series was held in the fall, your reign as Player of the Year will be a lot shorter than others have had.

JA: I love it, though. I only have to wait six months before I get to go battle again. It’s really exciting for me. ♠

Highlights From Poker Stories Podcast Episode No. 124

On Getting His Start In The Gambling World

JA: I think the earliest I remember gambling was in eighth grade. I used to cut grass. I was always independent, making my own money. I would cut grass to buy the nicer clothes that my dad couldn’t afford. A bunch of kids would all spend the night at one guy’s house and he had a pool table. And I lost all the nice clothes that I had purchased for myself.

J Crew has stores in the mall nowadays, and every time I see it, it brings back horrible memories. Back then it was catalog purchase only, and I still remember the pullover hoodie that I paid $80 for. And yeah, I lost it to the guy. My leather wallet, too. I didn’t enjoy seeing him wearing my jacket to school.

There was a pool hall within walking distance of my house, and I would just try to make like five bucks so I could buy a pack of cigarettes and a 40-ounce beer.

CP: Is it true your dad had to come and bail you out when cops raided the pool hall?

JA: Yeah, we were playing for $2 a game and it was a really bad area. I guess I was playing a drug dealer. The guy had put $2 in the pocket because I beat him, and I reached in to get the money. When I looked up, there were badges in my face. I think I was 14 or 15 at the time, but they made a big scene about it and had me up against the glass storefront before my dad came to pick me up.

CP: You discovered poker in those pool halls, right?

JA: Every time the pool hall would close, the bartender would deal poker to everybody. He would play as well. I would see these people that were the tightest pool gamblers ever, just giving their money away, losing all their money playing poker.

The math behind it was always pretty simple to me, and I was able to think outside of the box and figure things out. Eventually I was just sitting around the pool hall, not gambling on pool, just waiting for the poker game to start. After that, I found a few of the smaller home games around Atlanta. I would build up a bankroll of a couple thousand dollars, and then I would go down to the Grand Casino in Biloxi with my brother’s fake ID. I would go broke quite often, but I left there really wanting to be good enough to play with [those guys].

On High-Stakes Poker With NBA Players

CP: What’s the biggest pot you’ve ever won or lost?

JA: We were playing $200-$400 no-limit at Bellagio back in 2006 or 2007, and I was playing with [three-time NBA All-Star] Antoine Walker.

I think I was losing in the game and had just rebought, so I had something like $108,000 in front of me. I had two aces and got it all-in preflop against his two queens. The door card was an ace, so it was like the easiest, stress-free $225,000 pot ever.

CP: You play with a lot of athletes, right? I know you are friends with John Smoltz and even caddied for him a few times in some golf tournaments.

JA: John is an amazing human. I’ve had life questions that I’ve been able to bounce off him, and he always gives me a really good perspective. And no matter what the [game] is, whether it’s golf, poker, or shooting free throws, he is the most intense competitor I’ve ever [seen].

I’ve played some Chinese poker with Brian Urlacher, and I’ve played a lot of cards with Chipper Jones. He’s a good dude who lives here in Atlanta.

I also played with Michael Jordan, and it was a horrible experience. I grew up with Jordan being the end-all, the GOAT. A friend of mine called me and asked if I wanted to play golf with Jordan with some poker afterwards.

And it was a miserable experience. There were probably 15 carts of people following us around. Everybody told their buddies about it, and they were all watching. He was just this big, over-the-top alpha male.

But then we played poker, and that was more my element, so I thought it was going to be different. But it wasn’t. The stupid jokes just kept on coming. Every time he said anything, even if it wasn’t remotely funny, the whole place would erupt into laughter. I didn’t enjoy it a bit. ♠