George Epstein has taught engineering courses at UCLA and for NASA, and he developed military defense systems for the Air Force, Navy and Army.
These days he’s become a master at poker.
After giving a talk on the merits of the game, he was asked to teach at the Claude Pepper Senior Center in 2005.
“Gee, what a great idea,” he recalls thinking at the time. “I had no idea it was going to work out like this. It’s just incredible,” the 86-year old area resident said of his classes’ 250 membership.
“He’s the pioneer behind all of this,” recreation facility director Gregory Glenn said on a recent Friday afternoon when the center is packed with some serious players.
Studies have shown activity keeps you young. It keeps the brain’s synapses firing, Epstein explains, adding none of his poker students have developed Alzheimer’s.
He refains from playing with his students. Instead he travels to area casinos. He tested his luck recently at Texas Hold ‘em till 2 a.m. at Hustler.
“I couldn’t leave, I was winning,” he smiles.
He started playing cards as a child when he helped his dad deliver laundry in a Boston suburb. During World War II, stationed in Virginia on a destroyer, he played to pass the time.
He was also head of radar, and became a hero on the ship, when he found the cause of recurrent failures.
He finished his graduate studies at MIT, and in 1991 he retired from engineering management at The Aerospace Corp., when he considered a second career. Poker was interesting and challenging, so the answer was simple.
He wrote his first book, “Poker for Winners,” and, following some wrangling at the city, started teaching. Some people think it’s gambling, he explained.
It is a game of chance, but, like real estate hinges on “location, location, location,” poker’s “three critical requirements are patience, patience and patience.”
He takes notes and sizes up his opponents’ body language. “It gives you an edge.”
He wins 70 percent of the time, folding five out of six hands. Starting cards are key, as is the game’s algorhythm; he even wrote a book about it. His third book is on the art of bluffing, inspired by his now 17-year old granddaughter.
A multi-award winner, his most recent honor was being named a fellow with the Society of Plastic Engineers. Last year he was elected to the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame, and he consulted on U.S. drones in the Middle East.
Early on he thought making $10,000 a year would be the key to happiness. As the years passed, and he eventually led a department with 100 physicists, chemists and lab assistants, he found money was not as important as giving back more than he received.
He started a scholarship program at Fairfax High in his and his late wife’s name, Irene, 17 years ago. “She believed every kid should have the opportunity for higher education.”
And, he plays his favorite game with war vets at the CalVet facility in West L.A.
You can’t beat poker, he says.
Claude Pepper Senior Center is at 1762 S. La Cienega Blvd. George Epstein’s poker classes are limited to 20 students and meet on Fridays from 1:30 to 4 p.m. The next session is scheduled in the fall. Call 310-559-9677.