In 2002 Hal Lubarsky would lose his sight to a degenerative condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited condition that causes the photoreceptor cells of the retinal portion of the eye to gradually decay. This drove him to despair as he was convinced that he would have to give up one of his major dreams. Little did he know that years later he would not only be able to follow this dream, but he would become a featured individual on ESPN as well as a first in his craft. Hal Lubarsky is the first blind individual to finish in the money rounds at the Main Event of the World Series of Poker.
Lubarsky moved to Las Vegas at the age of 29 where he quickly became a regular at Limit Hold ’em and H.O.R.S.E. (a variation that cycles through five different forms of seven-card stud from hand to hand) game tables. But in 2004, when he was invited to play at a charity tournament to be held at the Mirage Hotel and Casino, he initially declined stating that he could not see the cards anymore. But the casino manager insisted that he come stating that he could use a “reader”; someone who could stand by him and whisper the cards and bets of the players into his ear. With this new option Hal was back at the tables once again.
Being admitted to the 2007 World Series of Poker, however, would still present him with obstacles. When he contacted Harrah’s Casino where the tournament was being hosted that year to let them know that he would be participating with the aid of a reader, he was initially denied entry. Management stated that tournament rules prohibited players from having any outside assistance.
But Lubarsky had a precedent on his side. In 2005, William Rockwell, who had lost the use of his arms in a motorcycle accident years earlier, was allowed to participate in the tournament with an assistant by his side to help with the more mechanical aspects of the game; all strategic decisions would still be left up to Rockwell. This fact combined with his suggestion that he could, in theory, get more money from the casino by suing them than he could possibly win in the tournament ultimately won him his seat at the table.
The Main Event at the 2007 World Series of Poker began with 6,358 players each putting up a $10,000 buy-in. Out of this field, Lubarsky placed 197th earning just over $51,000. He returned to the tournament again in 2008 and was later signed up to Full Tilt Poker, an online poker site, where they provided him with special speech software that reads the cards and chat messages on the screen.
Any math nerd will tell you that poker consists of two elements. The first element is mathematical; a skilled poker player must be able to calculate probabilities and adopt a flexible strategy for resource management. The second element is psychological; the best poker players are essentially able to read minds. This is done largely by being able to spot “tells”, subtle subconscious actions by the other players that might suggest that a player is pulling a bluff.
Tells are often visual in nature such as the frequent scratching of the nose or sudden fidgeting in the seat. Given this fact it would seem that Hal Lubarsky would be at a distinct disadvantage; he does not have access to these tells and therefore has the least amount of information at the table to work with. Yet he was still able to participate in the World Series of Poker to the point where he won money. His story truly shows that it is possible for those with vision impairments to beat the odds.
“2007 World Series of Poker”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_World_Series_of_Poker.
“Hal Lubarsky Bio”. http://pokerdb.thehendonmob.com/player.php?a=b&n=88614.
“Retinitis Pigmentosa”. http://www.blindness.org/retinitis-pigmentosa.
Wise, Gary. “Seeing the Good Side”. September 4, 2007. http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/poker/columns/story?columnist=wise_gary&id=3003776.
Michael P. Hill is a native of Elysburg and currently lives in Exeter. He has an Associate’s Degree in Specialized Business and a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting. Due to the difficulty that people with visual impairments have finding employment, Michael is currently working in a sheltered workshop alongside people who are living with multiple physical and mental disabilities.