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Virtual Poker Gets Real

Poker enthusiasts are honing their skills online and taking their game to the casinos
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Alec Baldwin, May/June 2004

(continued from page 2)

Inside a cramped, windowless office near downtown Nashville, Tennessee, a thickly built, squinty-eyed CPA with a small goatee encircling his mouth fires up his computer and heads for one of the dozens of online poker sites on the Internet. A couple of minutes later he lets his incoming calls go to an answering machine as he bullies his way to a pot on one of the site's $10/$20 games of Texas Hold'em. "This guy's got a diamond-flush draw or eights," the CPA says of his opponent. "He hasn't done anything in these few hands to show me that he can bluff worth a flip."

After powering in a couple of bets and raises, the CPA forces the other player to fold and adds 100 or so dollars to his bankroll of $800. Scared as the opponent appears to be, he'd be downright terrified if he knew whom he was up against: Chris Moneymaker, reigning World Series of Poker champion.

But there's even more reason for the opponent to be concerned. Besides being an excellent poker player—better than the sort of guy you'd expect to randomly encounter at a virtual card table—Moneymaker is particularly superior online. He not only stole the World Series crown last year, but the upstart entered the big game by winning an online tournament with a $40 buy-in. "Playing online you are always mixed up in a lot of hands," he says, working the mouse as if it's an extension of his right arm. "You learn to play aggressively and you learn to steal blinds." He makes a big raise and smirks. "But that comes natural to me. I'm an action junkie."

Moneymaker may be the reigning poster boy for online poker—and the real-world glory that a long string of well-played hands can help bring—but he is far from alone in his passion for Internet gambling. According to pokerpulse.com, which, figuratively, takes the pulse of the online poker world, more than $100 million is wagered online in ring games during a typical 24-hour cycle. When this year's World Series of Poker championship event kicks off on May 22 , expect to see many Moneymaker types winning their entries into the big game with tiny investments of cash put up online. At the moment, on just the one site where Moneymaker is playing, a few thousand people from around the world are competing. But that number is low: at peak times, partypoker.com, the most popular site, draws more than 20,000 gamblers.

That's a lot of poker. And it's moving beyond the screens and into the casinos.

On any night of the week, poker rooms across Las Vegas are packed with players who learned the game online and watched the pros on TV ("World Poker Tour" is the Travel Channel's top-rated show). These players now flock to the flesh-and-blood games where they don shades, mull over hands and copy the affectations of TV poker stars such as the thoughtful Howard Lederer, intense Gus Hansen and hard-betting Phil Ivey. "Poker rooms have seen revenue go up 30 percent over the last 12 months," says Mike Sexton, a professional poker player, columnist and co-commentator on "World Poker Tour." Sexton says that online poker not only gets people comfortable with the game, but also shortens the learning curve that previously stopped the hoards from entering casino poker rooms. "Online moves so much faster that you play at least twice as many hands per hour than you do in a casino. Plus, you get to play when you want to, you don't have to drive anywhere, and there are tournaments every hour."

And as it allows players to get in several years, worth of experience in a 12-month period, the online game is creating nothing short of a poker revolution. New players are minted faster than the casinos can put out tables and roll up chairs. Additionally, online play is impacting the overall tenor of the game as well. "People [who are used to playing online] want to play faster in the casinos," says Russ Hamilton, the 1994 World Series of Poker champion and a consultant with the online poker site UltimateBet.com. "You sometimes have to change your style when you play against those guys. They want to gamble, they want to play more hands, and they're young. Poker was getting to be an old game, but when [UltimateBet sponsored a tournament in Aruba], there were all these young people participating."

While it's clear that the online game is as much of a computer experience as it is a card experience, not every Internet player is exactly a loose-chipped wild man, making big bets with dreams. Some of them are meticulous and technologically savvy, taking advantage of online features that allow them to type in notes on players (which pop up whenever you encounter that particular player in the future) and analyze past betting patterns.

Tight and controlled, Scott Buller, a train conductor from Lincoln, Nebraska, has managed to turn online poker into a profitable sideline. He plays $10/$20 Hold'em, three games at a time, and goes against the prevailing style. "I play a lot more conservatively online," says Buller. "Online you can't look for tells, but you can look for

people who play too many hands. That's the best thing for someone like me, who's playing tight but aggressive."

It's enough of a cash cow for Buller that he treats online poker as if it were a part-time job. Just about every night in his home office, he ventures online to find a game where his style of play will be different enough to provide him with an edge. "I have a laptop, and I bring that with me when I'm on the road; I usually log on for one to five hours a day," continues Buller, adding that he actually prefers playing in live games. "I like the interaction and the pats on the back when you win. It's almost anticlimactic to win a tournament online. It's 3 in the morning, you're sitting alone in a room, and you need to spend two hours calming down. Usually I watch TV and hope it,ll bore me to sleep."

Live or online, however, Buller seems to have a knack for winding up in the money. He recently won $29,000 after finishing first in a live tournament at the Bellagio. On a poker cruise sponsored by partypoker.com, he sat at a table full of professionals and still managed to take home $43,000. "In an instant, I went from being a guy playing on his computer to a guy who's competing alongside Phil Helmuth and Chris Ferguson and Kathy Liebert," recalls Buller. "I was nervous, but I knew that I could hold my own."

With nary a bit of hesitation, Buller explains that online poker is a perfect testing ground—and one with limited financial risk, as plenty of tournaments require buy-ins of only $10—for anyone looking to hone his flesh-and-blood poker skills. "There are tournaments online with 1,400 people," he says. "To survive in a tournament that big, money management skills are critical. I've learned to hang in there and not change my playing style when I'm low on chips. That helped when I played in the Bellagio tournament. I was the low stack of the final 20 people left in the game and I managed to win the whole thing."

For all its advantages, however, online poker does have its drawbacks and pitfalls. There's no substitute for the real rigors of playing live with tells and ticks and physical bluffs (you know: a guy looking at his cards, looking at you, looking at his chips, even though he's got a lock on the hand). And a reputation as a great online player will not buy you a lot of respect at a table full of flesh-and-blood opponents.

"During the World Series, when I sat down with Johnny Chan and Phil Ivey, I was an Internet player and perceived as easy money," says Moneymaker. "I was wearing a T-shirt with the pokerstars.com logo and that tattooed me as a sucker." Initially, the other players treated him precisely that way. "I remember having a pair of 10s and raising $6,000, Chan moved all in with $20,000, I had $180,000 in chips and folded. I wasn't going to get mixed up in a hand with Johnny Chan, a guy I'd watched on TV." Moneymaker shakes his head ruefully, making it clear that Chan clearly bluffed him out. "He and the other pros played into me like I was afraid."

Then there is the very real fear of collusion: two or three guys playing as a team, keeping in touch via instant messaging or telephone, and working together to raise and bluff and draw money into the pot when one of the team members has what promises to be a winning hand. Just about everybody who plays online fears that some collusion is happening. And they all agree that it is virtually impossible to stop. Vikram Bhargava, the CEO of partypoker.com, insists that he and his company do what they can to minimize risks for their players.

In fact, he insists that cheating is more efficiently monitored online than it is in flesh-and-blood games—conversely, of course, it's a lot easier to collude online where you don't have to communicate by silently signaling, so, broadly speaking, his point does not quite hold up. "Online you have logs of how people play," says Bhargava. "If people are winning more than they should, red flags go up. We look at their play and issue warnings. If the behavior is repeated, then people get kicked off the site for good. Almost every day we bar people from sitting together. There are scores of people on our site who are not allowed to sit at the same table."

Bhargava, who has worked at partypoker.com for two and a half years, has witnessed the online poker boom firsthand. Six years ago, planetpoker.com was launched, becoming the first site to offer poker online. Initially, the concept made potential players nervous. After all, who wants to send their money or credit card number to some potentially sketchy operation that exists offshore or on an Indian reservation in Canada? But, gambling being what it is, some players were willing to take the chance. Things proved to be on the up-and-up. Slowly, planetpoker, with its once unwieldy interface, grew and improved. It attracted competitors who brought enhanced technology to the game and helped the industry grow to the point where it's not unusual for there to be more than 50,000 people online playing poker. Planetpoker is no longer the leading site, and competition for the ever-growing pool of players is fierce.

In spite of that, online poker is basically a parity product—one site's interface and technology is not all that different from another's—and the rake, or the house's take, is standard, capping at $3 per hand. Like a lot of things on the Internet, the point of differentiation for online poker is marketing. "Our banners are on more sites than those of our competitors," says Bhargava. "We pay for that. What matters at the end of the day is visibility."

When Chris Moneymaker won the World Series last year, pokerstars.com, the site from which he earned his Series entry, received an unprecedented degree of visibility in the print media, on TV and online. "Pokerstars got very lucky," states Bhargava. "They took $150,000 [in Series entry fees] out of their system and got lucky." Sounding a bit bummed, he insists, "I felt good for them but not so good for myself. They took a risk, but I don't think it was calculated."

Maybe not, but it's not unlike telling Moneymaker that he was lucky to have won the World Series. Although he hears it all the time, Moneymaker still smiles and replies, "Fine. I was lucky." He's quick to acknowledge that everybody who wins a poker tournament needs some luck. "But you've got to give a person credit for winning the World Series."

It was an amazing achievement for Moneymaker and for online poker. His victory showed that the Internet has completely leveled the playing field, allowing stone-cold neophytes to beat the professionals. Since winning the big one, Moneymaker has competed in a few major tournaments, and recently managed to outplay a bunch of pros to make a final table—but, alas, he failed to win. No matter, as acing the series has irrevocably changed his life. After winning the $2.6 million first-prize, Moneymaker gave half of the winnings to his father and a friend (who had kicked in a total of $5,000 to buy a piece of him), purchased a new house and car, paid off credit cards, curbed his sports-betting habit, amped up his poker skills, and gained a kind of fame among the game's top players. "I don't know if they respect me," he acknowledges as he eats a slice of pizza at his desk while screwing around in a $200 buy-in tournament. "But they talk to me. If I hadn't won the tournament, they wouldn't even do that."

Moneymaker has no interest in being the Internet champ who turns pro and blows his winnings. He says he likes his job as a CPA and his life in Nashville as it is. Pokerstars.com will sponsor him in this year's World Series and he,ll surely get a lot of TV exposure in his sweatshirt and baseball hat.

Although he's accomplished something extraordinary, Moneymaker accepts the daunting odds that are stacked against him ever winning the World Series again. "People keep telling me that I need to win another big tournament to prove that it wasn't a fluke," he says before making a statement that clearly differentiates the new breed of poker player from the old. "That doesn't mean much to me. Right now I'm more interested in holding on to my money." v

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.

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