888 Holdings was formed in 1997, as Virtual Holdings, by two pairs of Israeli Brothers. Avi and Aaron Shaked and Shay and Ron Ben-Yitzhak. The twins were responsible for founding the company that has gone on to become one of the largest online gambling operators in the world. None of them are actively involved in the business today, but they were instrumental in its success.
The four founders have largely kept their lives very private, and they don’t disclose much information to the public. However, we have compiled what is known about them and on this page including brief biographies of each of them.
For a detailed history of 888, please click here.
Of the four founders of 888, Avi Shaked is the most prominent. This is due in part to his involvement in politics. He was born in Netanya, Israel. As a student, he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemical Engineering from the prestigious Ben Gurion University in Beersheba. He went on to build a successful career in the early 1980s. He worked as a representative at MCI, Inc. until he founded Virtual Holdings Limited with his brother, Aaron, and the Ben-Yitzhak brothers.
Shaked is an astute follower of politics and used his business connections and talents to try and push for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. He was one of the main contributors to the creation of the Geneva Convention in 2003, which would serve as the basis for further peace talks between the two sides. In 2005 he sought election to public office in Israel. Running under the banner, “Proud Socialist Millionaire”, Shaked guaranteed far reaching reforms and changes in social welfare. Despite all his efforts, he wasn’t elected.
Shaked’s involvement in the political sphere didn’t stop there. He continued to believe in viable peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and recalled in an interview with Reuters that he offered the Palestinian Prime Minister $1 billion if he would sit down with his Israeli counterpart and reach a peace agreement. “The killing must be stopped,” Shaked said in the interview. “My initiative is to both leaders: please sit down, start negotiations, and try to reach an agreement.” His offer was turned down.
In 2007, Avi Shaked announced plans to expand into the food industry and, together with his son Eyal, invested in a chain of coffee shops named Chitta Café. They successfully opened up 130 cafes in China over the following years. He retains an ownership interest in 888 Holdings today through family trusts.
Aaron Shaked was also born in Netanya and studied to be a dentist after leaving school. Aaron has always been credited as being the 888 founder that first came up with the idea of creating an online casino. The idea first came to him when he was attending a dentist’s conference in Monte Carlo, which happened to take place in a casino. Aaron took the idea to his brother Avi and, after many discussions, the two decided to set up a casino site on the internet.
The problem was that neither were gamblers and their knowledge of the basic rules of classic games such as blackjack and poker were virtually non-existent. Not ready to give up on their idea, the brothers spent some time in casinos and tried to understand the rules of the different games. The two of them subsequently approached Sha and Ron Ben-Yitzhak, who were acquaintances of theirs, to consider the option of a joint investment. The four of them took out a loan after mortgaging their homes and founded Virtual Holdings Limited.
Besides investing in the gambling world, Aaron made a name for himself as a property tycoon. Even prior to the launch of 888 Holdings, the brothers owned a small hotel in Netanya. In 2005, a hand grenade was thrown into the home of the Shaked family in the prestigious neighborhood of Ramat Poleg in Netanya. This wasn’t the first time the family had been targeted, and the police investigated whether the crimes were connected to Avi Shaked running for parliament with the Labor Party, or whether it was connected to Aaron’s property deals.
Aaron became well known for his philanthropic activities, having built homes and schools for the poor in Israel. His modesty stood out, even in interviews. When asked by Financial Times reporter, Matthew Graham, about the millions he was about to receive through the flotation of 888 Holdings Aaron said: “I already have a lot of money. I’m not going to eat in a better restaurant or buy a new car. I’ve already done all those things.”
In January 2010 Aaron Shaked passed away. He was 58 years old and had been battling health issues for several years.
Shay Ben-Yitzhak holds a BS in computer science from the Israel Institute of Technology. He worked as a software engineer for companies including Tower Semi-Conductor Limited before forming Virtual Holdings with the other three founders. He was responsible for writing the software used during the gambling company’s early days, despite a limited knowledge of gambling.
Shay served as the Chief Technical Officer and was in charge of the research and development center the company opened in 1998. He was the last of the four founders to be involved in day to day operations in the business and only stepped down in 2006, when he took a non-executive position on the board. In 2010 he left that position to spend more time with his family.
Very little is known about Ron Ben-Yitzhak. He is two years older than his brother, Shay, and left Israel many years ago to live with his family in the United States. Ron has been credited for encouraging his brother to join him and the Shaked brothers in founding Virtual Holdings in the 1990s. The two of them are now believed to be worth around $250 million in joint assets.
In 2007, the Ben-Yitzhak brothers announced that they were selling a significant part of their shares in the business. From a position of holding 57.5 million shares (17% of the company), 13.6 million shares were sold. Many of the shares were sold to a large European fund and the brothers made approximately $31 million from the sale. It is believed that the two brothers currently own about 11% of the company, through a family trust.