Michelle Murrell relishes special role as Lubarsky's 'reader'
By Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS – When Michelle Murrell first met Hal Lubarsky, she wanted nothing to do with him. Five months later, the two are practically inseparable.
It all began on a whim back in February at The Mirage's poker room. Since then, the two have formed an incredibly strong bond and a friendship that resulted in plenty of attention from the ESPN cameras at the World Series of Poker's Main Event this week. They also drew an abundance of questions from spectators on the rail.
"Who is that woman?" people would often ask when they spotted Murrell cradling her body up against Lubarsky at the table, whispering in his ear. "What is she doing?"
The answer is simple: Lubarsky, a regular on the professional poker circuit for the last two decades here in Las Vegas, suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, an eye disorder that prevents him from seeing anything more than just a few inches away from his face. After playing poker for more than 30 years, Lubarsky gave it up in 2004 when his condition cost him nearly all of his sight. But last year, he decided to try and make a comeback with the help of a "reader."
The WSOP makes a special exception from the "one player per hand" rule and allows Lubarsky to have someone "read" the table for him. He also uses a reader when he plays in cash games and other tournaments throughout the area.
The story behind the story of how Murrell began reading for Lubarsky, however, is where this tale gets even more fascinating.
A year ago at this time, Murrell was trying to settle in from her move to Las Vegas from Grand Rapids, Mich., where she got tired of the cold weather. She thought she needed a change so she packed up both her personal belongings and her already thriving business – A.B.C. Dog Training – and headed west for the desert.
Last fall she was watching the World Series of Poker broadcast on ESPN when she saw Lubarsky playing in the Main Event, along with his reader. Lubarsky's story was a natural for the telecast and he gave ESPN an even spicier ending by finishing 197th and cashing for $51,398.
"The God's honest truth is that I turned to my best friend Tara as we were watching it on TV and said that being his reader would be the second-best job in the world," Murrell explains. "I have the best job in the world, training people how to train their dogs. But I honestly thought that reading cards for someone like Hal would be really neat."
Then came her impromptu visit to The Mirage a few months later. She had just started playing poker and was faring pretty well. She had never been to The Mirage before, but one night -- for no particular reason -- she decided to give a new spot a try. About 20 minutes after she sat down, Lubarsky – and his reader – came trudging over to her table.
"At first I thought, 'Oh my God, that's the guy I saw on TV,'" Murrell says with a smile. "Then I thought, 'I don't want to be near him at the poker table. I better get out of here before he takes all my money.'"
She got up from the table, but not before going over and introducing herself to Lubarsky and telling him how much she enjoyed watching him on TV.
"She seemed like a real nice person and I immediately knew that this was a woman I wanted to get to know better," Lubarsky remembers fondly.
But before he could do that, Murrell disappeared into the night. In the following days and weeks, Lubarsky hounded his reader – Dane Braverman – to look for "Michelle from Michigan" whenever they played at The Mirage. The big fella's prayers were answered when Murrell made her second visit to The Mirage about two weeks later.
"Dane came running up to me and said, 'Michelle for Michigan! Michelle from Michigan! We've been looking for you!'" Murrell says with a laugh. "He brought me back over to Hal and we got to talking. He had just got a dog so I gave him my card and told him to call."
The friendship began growing when Murrell started helping out with Lubarsky's German Shepherd, Tommy Boy. When she confessed that she thought reading for him at the poker table would be "neat," Lubarsky mentioned that he already had two regular readers, but needed one for the World Series since the other two couldn't make it. She agreed to do it, but only if he taught her how.
Murrell was a quick learner. She spent numerous hours practicing exactly how her partner likes to hear the flop called, when he likes to hear what he's holding and how he likes to hear it.
"I would sit out by the pool all day or be sitting on my couch, flipping cards over and talking to myself," she says. "I knew that if I accepted the job, I needed to be the very best I could for Hal. I didn't want to let him down."
Instead of letting him down, Murrell turned out to be an ace in the hole.
"Right from the start she was the very best reader I ever had," Lubarsky says. "She was a natural. And it doesn't hurt that she's so darn cute."
Murrell is indeed easy on the eyes. On Tuesday at the Main Event, the tanned and toned 30-year-old was sharply dressed with an aqua blue blouse, gray slacks, a black jacket and white high-heeled shoes. Her finger and toenails were perfectly manicured as if she just came out of a spa. The 46-year-old Lubarsky, on the other hand, is a mountain of a man and is probably twice Murrell's size. It's quite apparent that he struggles with an eye disorder.
But while they may be complete opposites on the outside, their personalities are a perfect match.
"As our friendship has grown over the last five months, it really has amazed me just how much we have in common," Murrell says. "It's mind boggling."
After watching the two work together at the table, it's just as mind boggling to think they've known each other for less than six months.
Here's how the routine works. Lubarsky gets his cards and shuffles them around in his hands without turning them over while Murrell very quietly describes what's going on at the table. Most of the players at the table don't even give the odd arrangement a second thought after a few hands. By rule, Murrell can explain to Lubarsky anything that she sees going on at the table, but under no circumstances can she coach or give advice.
When the bet gets to Lubarsky, he curls over the corners just like every other player. Murrell, who sits in a chair right up against Lubarsky and straddles him with her legs the entire time, glances at the cards and then leans in, cups her left hand over his ear and whispers what cards he's holding. It sounds simple, but keep in mind that for the last five weeks she has been going through this routine five days a week, hours upon hours at a time.
She admits that it is draining, both mentally and physically.
"But I love every minute of it," she says convincingly.
Murrell realizes that most of the players at the table watch to she if she is going to give away any tells. She feels the pressure of the game and when a key moment comes, she concentrates on a picture she places on the table behind Lubarsky's chips. It's a photo of her dog, Nexus, a German Shepherd that passed away at the age of 9 ½ years just before she moved to Vegas. With Nexus in the picture is Murrell's 4-year-old niece, Kennedy, who lives back in Michigan.
"Kennedy loved Nexus to pieces and anytime we're in a pressure hand, I just stare at the two of them and they calm me down," says Murrell, who also puts a large molding of Nexus' paw print on the table. "It's soothing for me to see the two of them together."
Murrell is more than just a set of eyes for Lubarsky. When a break in play is announced, he grabs their pink bag of belongings and puts his left arm on Murrell's shoulders as she leads him out of the room. During play, she hands him snacks like pecan nuts or crackers. She helps him with his drink and frequently rubs his back with her right hand.
"I really think that my degree in dog training has really helped me with this job," says Murrell, who received her professional dog training degree at the renowned West Virginia Canine College and has had her own business for 10 years. "I know when he needs to relax, when I should say something or when I should just be quiet. We have a complete connection when we're at the table. He relies on me so much. I love that."
Lubarsky and Murrell, who are sponsored by Full Tilt, made it through Day 1 of this year's Main Event with 70,700 chips. But Lubarsky's quest for a second-straight cash fell short on Day 2 during the late stages of Level 4.
On Wednesday it was back to a regular routine for Murrell and Lubarsky. Murrell had three dog training appointments to make while Lubarsky was planning on hitting the usual cash games he plays in nearly every night of the week. Murrell, who gets a cut of Lubarsky's winnings, says that she'll continue to read for him four nights a week. And she fully expects to be back at the World Series next year.
"We're deeply disappointed that we didn't do better, but overall, for me, it was a tremendous experience," says Murrell, who lives in Henderson with her two dogs, Bacca and Baron. "It was a grind. No doubt about it. But I love it. And I know the more I do it, the better I'll get at it. I'm already looking forward to next year."