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Blind Poker Player Being Featured on ESPN

Las Vegas' Hal Lubarsky Was First Blind Person to Cash in Main Event

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It was only about three years ago when Hal Lubarsky's failing eyesight made it impossible for him to play poker. Thanks to a disease called retinitis pigmentosa, the darkness slowly closed onto the center of his eye, and it led him to a point he knew was coming - his eyesight had been deteriorating basically since he was born. He would soon be blind, and one day Lubarsky said to himself that he couldn't play poker anymore, something he'd done since he was a boy in Brooklyn. It was a sad day among sad days when he decided to give it up.

ESPN's broadcast of the World Series of Poker has always featured several players who stand out, whether it's for the clothes they wear, how they smell, or the fact that they don't have any arms. This year, American poker fans are going to be introduced to Lubarsky, who had the best summer of his life after finding a way into the WSOP main event. But because Lubarsky and his seeing-eye card reader - Jason Williams, a man who used to serve Lubarsky drinks - stuck around until 197th place, cashing in the main event for $51,000, he will likely be featured more than others this year.

Lubarsky has been part of the Las Vegas poker scene since he moved there from New York when he was in his late 20s. During his nearly 20 years in Las Vegas, Lubarsky played limits as high as $150-$300, but when his retinitis pigmentosa reduced his vision to a tiny window in the center of his eye, he had to quit. That was three years ago.

Rewind to six months ago. A good friend of his, a manager at the Mirage poker room, had become sick and would soon pass on. A charity poker tournament was arranged to help out his family with finances, and Donna Harris, another manager at the Mirage, called.

Harris knew Lubarsky's spirits were low - this was a man who, for the most part, had the ability to see for his entire life, but who always knew that he'd eventually have to live the life of a blind man. He now was that blind man, and Lubarsky was depressed and he couldn't even play poker to keep his mind off of it. Harris wasn't having any of it. She told Lubarsky that a blind player who played at the Mirage with a partner who whispered the cards into his ears had just come in. He lost a whole rack playing $3-$6 limit hold'em, but he still played. She not only requested Lubarsky's presence at the charity tournament, she demanded that he show up and play.

Lubarsky and his friends spent the next few days trying to figure out a way to let him know what cards he held and what action was taking place. They tried to trace the numbers on his back. They tried whispering in his ear, but they thought the whispers were too loud. Once they got to the poker room, though, the noisy casino masked the whispers, and Lubarsky and his gang decided they could do it. He ended up lasting a good while, and he had a blast. It had been three years since he had last played at the Mirage and he felt fantastic.

After the tournament, Harris took him into her office and asked him how he felt. She told Lubarsky that he's always welcome there. They would make room for his helper, and it was good to have him back. A few weeks later, Lubarsky ended up with a friend at Red Rock. He played $2-$5 no-limit hold'em and came out of that session with a rack of $2,300. He was back.

The WSOP

Lubarsky now wanted to play in the WSOP, but when he called the Rio, he was told that he couldn't play because rules stipulated that players can't use any kind of aid. It sounded ridiculous to Lubarsky. He thought back to former WSOP participants, those who needed someone to hold their cards, those who needed a wooden block to help lift their cards, and so on. The management on the phone wouldn't budge. Lubarsky then said he'd call back tomorrow and hoped for the right answer, but if he didn't get it, he'd bring down the local news, the Nevada Gaming Commission, a civil liberties union, and whoever else he could get his arms around to support his case. When he called the next day, he was told that Harrah's legal department hadn't yet gotten back to them, so he could go ahead and sign up. Lubarsky could play. So, he signed up for one of the $1,500 no-limit events and played, getting knocked out far from the money.

Lubarsky then found his way into the main event. Because Lubarsky started on the final of four day ones, he wasn't the first blind player to take a seat in the main event. Jason Holbrook, an Internet qualifier, played, but he didn't make it through his day one. When Lubarsky started his day one, he was determined to last. With his card reader behind him, cupping his mouth over Lubarsky's ear to tell him his holdings, and then announcing the action as it flowed around the table, he slowly accumulated chips and made it deep into the tournament. The people he met along the way will always stick with him.

"The main thing is, I'd like to say thanks to the 6,300 people that played in the tournament. I'll never forget it as long as I live. I haven't had a great life. Going blind is not an easy thing to do," Lubarsky said. "This was definitely, without a doubt, the greatest week of my life. I just can't stop talking about it or thinking about it. And it wasn't the poker. It was amazing to me how nice all the people treated me."

All along the way, Lubarsky came across people who were thrilled to play with him. Every player who was eliminated - except one, in all four days that Lubarsky played - shook his hand when they had to leave. He often ended up in the room in which ESPN was filming profiles, and already has appeared on the broadcast. He received so much goodwill in those four days that it's enough to sustain him through the winter and beyond.

When Lubarsky was eliminated in 197th, WSOP Media Director Nollan Dalla stopped play and made an announcement. The Amazon Room erupted with applause as the players gave him a standing ovation. It turned the bitter moment of getting knocked out of the WSOP main event into one of the best in his life. He was a blind man in a room full of people who could see, and they were all looking at him and cheering.

Lubarsky can be found playing no-limit hold'em in cardrooms all around Vegas. Tune into the ESPN WSOP main event broadcasts every Tuesday to catch a glimpse of Lubarsky and the rest of the players who played this year.