A legend of poker that most poker fans simultaneously both knew and did not know passed away last Thursday. Joel “Bagels” Rosenberg, the inspiration for the character Joey Knish in the seminal poker film, Rounders, suffered a heart attack at the age of 58.
Rosenberg was the classic poker grinder, plugging away to pay the bills in the underground clubs of New York City, most notably the famous Mayfair. In an article on Grantland.com, Rounders writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who got to know Rosenberg during their years researching for the film, eulogized their friend, saying, “…two things set Joel apart from most of the other men and women grinding it out at the Mayfair. The first was his kindness: Although he’d gut you at the table, away from it, he wanted the best for you, encouraged you.”
“The second was his worldview,” they added, “which was absurdist and hilarious. Bagels knew that this whole life thing was a con; he was in on the joke, but he was still going to play it for all it was worth.”
In the film that we all love, Rosenberg’s attitude about poker was conveyed brilliantly by John Turturro in what was perhaps his most famous line when Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) came to him asking for money and then criticized him for not having the “stones” to play for the big bucks:
Stones? You little punk. I’m not playing for the thrill of fuckin’ victory here. I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat. I got stones enough not chase cards, action, the fuckin’ pipedreams of winning the World Series on ESPN.
But arguably the most famous line in poker circles was delivered by Worm, Edward Norton’s character: “In the poker game of life, women are the rake man. They are the fuckin’ rake.”
Thing is, though, that was something Rosenberg told Koppleman and Levien, just matter-of-factly, at three in the morning at the Mayfair. It was just one of a great many lines that he would utter on any given day.
In the Grantland article, the writers told the story of what was perhaps Rosenberg’s “greatest moment:”
He was in a hand with an obnoxious card player in a yarmulke, Irving. Irving bluffed, Bagels raised (also bluffing). When Irving folded, Bagels showed the bluff.
Irving, acting all offended, said to Bagels, who was also Jewish, “How could you do that to one of your people?” As he was raking the pot, Bagels looked at him and said, “Your people? C’mon, Irv, you’re the only Jew I know who took Germany, plus the points!”
There were and are scores of poker players like Joel Rosenberg, grinding away, making money to pay the rent, alimony, child support. But there was only one Bagels and we were all lucky to get to know him, even if we didn’t know him personally.