Photo by Michael Ventura
In 2007, IJay Palansky, a Toronto native applying for U.S. citizenship, confidently approached his U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services interview in Baltimore. The young attorney had excellent references and a good record at the D.C. law firm where he used to work, so the 30-minute session went smoothly. As Palansky rose to leave, however, the immigrations officer said, “Just one more thing…”
Palansky waited for a “gotcha” moment. “It says here you’re a professional poker player,” the officer said. Warily, Palansky nodded. “That is so cool!”
In his best year as a full-time online poker player, Palansky estimates that he won close to a million dollars. As a litigator, the 43-year-old Rockville resident hasn’t come close to that. A legal crackdown on Internet gambling brought him back to the field of law, but Palansky remains an unconventional figure in a buttoned-down profession. Even his name is a little different.
“My grandfather was named Israel Julius, and I was named after him, just abbreviated,” says Palansky, who’s recovering from knee surgery to repair a torn ACL that he suffered while playing soccer. Like many Canadians, Palansky also loves ice hockey, both as an amateur player and as an accomplished analyst and statistician. His insights appear regularly on the Sports Illustrated website and in the Toronto Star.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1996, Palansky joined WilmerHale in D.C., handling commercial litigation cases that often brought him into contact with economists. In 2004, he started playing online poker and immediately began losing, prompting him to become a student of Texas Hold’em, the dominant poker game online. He used his knowledge of game theory—gleaned from economic experts he’d met—to better his chances of winning.
“I identified some exploitable imbalances in the way people were playing, which was by the book,” he says. “I used a completely different strategy, and it was incredibly successful. I went from playing the $2 and $4 tables to the $200 and $400 tables in six months.”
Palansky denies being a gambler. A gambler only hopes to win, he says—he knows he will. He reduced his risk by using probability, patterns and statistics. After two years, he felt secure enough to quit lawyering. In 2006, with the support of his wife, Beth Biedronski, poker became his profession, albeit as a stay-at-home dad. “I was elated,” says Biedronski, also a lawyer, “because I knew his potential.”
Playing online had its advantages: Palansky could do it from his home office and be around for his young children, and he could play four or five games at a time, which he couldn’t do at a casino.
Friends and family thought he was courageous, he says, “and maybe a little crazy.”
The couple’s two sons, Connor, 11, and Ian, 10, were still in diapers as Daddy dabbled online. And for more than five years, he thrived, winning as much as $18,000 in one hand and incurring the wrath of online poker trolls who scorned his style of avoiding conventional betting techniques and playing probabilities instead of hunches.
“I was literally getting everything from, ‘You’re the luckiest SOB on earth,’ to death threats,” Palansky recalls. Eventually his methods gained wider acceptance, and as winning became more difficult, Palansky began thinking about getting back into law. In 2011, when the FBI shut down major online poker websites, the decision was made for him.
After a fellowship in the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. and a stint at the boutique firm Steese Evans & Frankel P.C., Palansky became a partner at Armstrong Teasdale LLP, based in St. Louis. His playfulness—he once convinced his co-workers that he could yodel—competitive nature and unique skills have made him popular within his firm. Not many lawyers have been immortalized in a Wired magazine comic strip about playing poker against a computer, as he was.
Poker has made him a better lawyer, Palansky says, because he understands the odds of reaching a successful outcome for his clients, and has a sharpened sense of when a case is ripe for an out-of-court settlement. He also moonlights as a writer for his blog, Department of Hockey Analytics, which he hopes will one day lead to a job with an NHL franchise.