How a Russian poker player took over Elon Musk’s $5.7 billion charity fund
That FBI examined the role of a Russian-born professional poker player in Elon Musk‘s charity foundation, which is investigating concerns about possible foreign influence, according to a new report.
Igor Kurganov, 34, briefly became a key figure in Musk’s inner circle, overseeing vast sums of pledged donations until the billionaire’s top fixer and moneyman, Jared Birchall, called for his ouster in May, according to a Wall Street Journal report on Saturday.
Citing interviews with more than a dozen people close to the Musk Foundation and stakeholders, the report chronicled Kurganov’s unusual rise to become Musk’s top advisor until his rivalry with Birchall apparently boiled over.
The final straw for Birchall, who manages Musk’s $219 billion fortune and officially runs his charitable foundation, came when an FBI agent began asking questions about Kurganov.
The agent tasked with investigating possible foreign influence on US companies was curious about Kurganov’s rapid ascent into Musk’s inner circle, and Birchall worried that Musk could be drawn into a widening investigation, the Journal reported.
Igor Kurganov, a world-class professional poker player, briefly wielded tremendous power over grant distribution at Elon Musk’s personal charity foundation, a new new report reveals
Kurganov first met Musk through his longtime girlfriend, fellow poker pro Liv Boeree (with him above in Venice on Wednesday). Boeree is close friends with Grimes, Musk’s ex-girlfriend
Musk’s top lieutenant, Jared Birchall, who officially heads the Musk Foundation, asked his billionaire boss to cut ties with Kurganov after the FBI knocked
Kurganov was not charged with any wrongdoing and could not be reached for comment.
Born in Russia, Kurganov moved to Germany with his parents at the age of 4 as an engineer, he said in interviews with poker podcasts.
Kurganov rose to prominence as a professional poker player in his twenties, winning huge pots in tournaments in Las Vegas. His total winnings are said to exceed $18 million.
But in recent years he has retired from professional gambling and turned to philanthropy, co-founding a group called Raising for Effective Giving.
The group embraces a utilitarian philosophy, which it calls “effective altruism,” and aims to maximize the lives saved by every dollar donated.
Kurganov first met Musk socially through longtime girlfriend Liv Boeree and bonded with the billionaire through their shared love of Burning Man, according to the Journal.
A fellow poker player, Boeree is close friends with singer Grimes, who began dating Musk around 2018. Kurganov and Boeree began spending time with Musk and Grimes, to the point that they soon followed when Musk moved to Texas.
Musk was apparently intrigued by Kurganov’s philosophical thoughts on charity and gave him a job reviewing grant applications for the Musk Foundation.
Musk was apparently intrigued by Kurganov’s philosophical thoughts on charity and last year gave him a job reviewing grant applications for the Musk Foundation
Liv Boeree kisses boyfriend Igor Kurganov on June 3, 2017 after they won gold as a team at the World Series of Poker. The pair became close to Musk in recent years
Grimes (left), Elon Musk’s ex-girlfriend, posted risqué photos with her friend Liv Boeree on November 30, 2020. The two women remain close following Grimes’ split from Musk
Over the past year, Kurganov’s influence on the foundation had apparently grown to such an extent that potential grantees viewed him as the “everyday decision-maker.”
At the foundation, Kurganove managed $5.7 billion in Tesla stock, which the CEO pledged late last year to eventually donate to charity.
Still, Birchall remained the legal head of the Musk Foundation — and may have been outraged when Kurganov’s growing influence first became public knowledge Bloomberg in February.
Birchall, a 47-year-old married father of five, has worked for Musk since 2016.
Birchall is known as Musk’s top lieutenant behind the scenes, runs his family investment office, his charitable foundation, and even serves as the CEO of Musk’s brain implant startup Neuralink.
He also appears willing to intercede for Musk on non-business matters as some sort of all-around fixer.
For example, when Musk called a British caver a “pedo dude” during a Twitter spat, the caver sued him for defamation.
In the subsequent trial, it emerged that Birchall had hired a private investigator, using the pseudonym James Brickhouse, to dig up dirt on the caver. Birchall told the court he had an “instinct to protect Musk.”
Birchall, a 47-year-old married father of five, has worked for Musk since 2016. A devout Mormon and teetotaler, Birchall grew up traveling the West as part of a family singing group
Insiders say the straight Birchall clashed with the gentle, free-wheeling Kurganov
Poker champion Liv Boeree poses with boyfriend Igor Kurganov in a recent photo
A devout Mormon and teetotaler, Birchall is an Eagle Scout who grew up traveling the West as part of a family performance troupe called The Birchall Family Singers.
After graduating from Brigham Young University, he joined Goldman Sachs in New York right after graduation and worked as a financial analyst, according to his LinkedIn.
In 2000, he joined Merrill Lynch in Los Angeles, where he worked as an asset manager for about a decade.
Merrill Lynch fired Birchall in 2010 for “conduct that resulted in a loss of trust in management,” including “sending correspondence to a client without management approval,” according to records from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). Less than a month later, Birchall began working as a wealth manager at Morgan Stanley.
A spokesman for Morgan Stanley told Reuters that Birchall was well respected when he worked at the bank and left on good terms join Musk’s family office after six years.
Poker player Igor Kurganov poses with athletes Jesse Richman and Nick Peter Jacobson at the Ocean Gala December 3, 2016 in San Francisco
Grimes and Musk are seen together in 2018. The musician, whose real name is Claire Boucher, is friends with Kurganov’s girlfriend and introduced him to the billionaire for the first time
For the past few months, Birchall has stood by Musk and acted as top advisor in his tumultuous attempt to buy Twitter.
In May, Birchall confronted Musk and demanded that Kurganov be removed from his role at the foundation, and Musk agreed, the Journal reported.
A foundation representative confirmed to the outlet that Kurganov was fired, saying no money from Musk was ultimately spent on projects related to effective altruism.
Musk is the richest man alive, but his charitable giving pales in comparison to other top billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
Musk’s personal foundation gave away $23.6 million, or 0.02 percent of his net worth, in fiscal 2020, the most recent year for which data is available.
Musk’s donation of $5.7 billion worth of Tesla stock to his foundation in November marks a significant step in charity for Musk, but he hasn’t revealed which charities will ultimately support those funds.
Musk has previously said he doesn’t focus on philanthropy because his business ventures like Tesla and SpaceX are “doing good things for the future of humanity.”
Musk signed the Giving Pledge in 2012, a commitment by some billionaires to donate at least half their wealth to philanthropy during their lifetime or after their death.