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All Hands on Deck

A tournament on the high seas attracts the new breed of poker players young, hungry and bred on online play
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Michael Jordan, July/August 2005

Everybody's heard of a floating craps game you know, the kind that operates under the radar and moves from location to location lest the authorities find out about it.

The ms Oosterdam might house the modern outgrowth of such an operation, although this one is completely legit and considerably more difficult to miss.

The Oosterdam is a 951-foot-long ocean liner, filled with high-stakes poker players, 735 of whom are participating in a $7.43 million tournament, sponsored by the online site, with a first prize of $1.5 million.

A dining room on the ship has been reconfigured to accommodate 50 or so cash games; table talk at any given meal is invariably about who wins how much online; and the players are surprisingly young. Forget about cigar-chomping rounders with potbellies and grizzled demeanors. More often than not, the crowd on board the Oosterdam makes this look more like a seaworthy fraternity party than a serious poker tournament held on the high seas that run along Mexico's coastline.

But then, the youthfulness of the players shouldn't be too surprising. On college campuses across America, online poker is the hottest thing since portable beer kegs. And considering the sponsor, it only makes sense that most of the participating players qualified via the Web, competing in tournaments with small buy-ins and massive fields. They represent the future of poker—never mind that they're chasing pixilated flushes instead of studying for their MCATs and MBAs.

Driving the point home is one of the tournament's front-runners, Matthew Cherackal, a slender, modest molecular biology major at Princeton University. A senior now, he explains that he actually took time off from school a couple years ago when poker playing overrode his studies, and that he boarded the Oosterdam for the weeklong event in March against the wishes of his non-gambling parents. "My father is not happy," says Cherackal. "He offered me $6,000 to stay at school and not come out for the tournament."

Notice that he calls it a tournament, and not a cruise. For most of the people on this boat, poker is the thing. Sure, they don't mind floating along the so-called Mexican Riviera, hitting a couple of seaside towns, and enjoying the never-ending parade of edibles that seems to define every cruise. But just about all the people on board are here to play poker, not to swim in the indoor/outdoor pool, soak in the Jacuzzi, watch movies or take in the nightclub performers (including a Vegas-based, sweet-voiced male vocalist who can't fight the lure of the game: by the middle of the weeklong voyage, he buys into a low-stakes tournament). Mingling with the pros is an added benefit for the players. Because the tournament takes place in a contained space, with nowhere to go after the games to wind down, there is a level of proximity that simply does not exist in a bricks-and-mortar casino.

Poker stars Paul Darden, Barry Greenstein, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and Erick Lindgren circulate among the online players, initially causing heads to swivel and jaws to drop. Eventually, however, they mix easily with the others and seem to be on the same planet as the rest of us mere mortals. The interesting moments, of course, come at the poker tables when well-known players with big reps and even bigger TV profiles have to square off against the nobodies who qualified online and lack notoriety, but have great instincts—augmented by an advantage in their very anonymity. "Playing online helps your game," says baby-faced Lindgren, one of the hottest young pros on the circuit. Hanging out in the boat's computer room, Lindgren looks up from checking his e-mail and recounts, "On the Web I learned about betting patterns and figured out how to focus on the little things. There's an ability to get a hand history online and to know what a player had [when he executed a particular move]. I'd see that someone tended to call me down with king-high or queen-high, so I would value-bet more against the guy. In terms of betting patterns, the online sites can teach you to play perfectly."

Lindgren enjoyed his first big success as an online player and is famous for having won $10,000 while driving from his home near San Francisco to a tournament in Los Angeles. For most of the ride, he used a thumb-mouse to play on a laptop. He spends about 10 hours per week competing online, mostly on (he is a part owner of the site), but he is quick to insist that online players have not quite caught up to their flesh-and-blood counterparts. "The entry fee was $10,000 for the [Oosterdam] tournament," says Lindgren, who, like most of the pros in attendance (and unlike nearly every amateur), paid his way in rather than messing around with time-consuming satellites. "But," he adds, "I believe my equity is $40,000 or $50,000."

Similar sentiments are shared by fellow pro Steve Zolotow, a self-proclaimed fan of poker tourism—thus far, he's played tournaments in Europe, the Caribbean and Australia. Sitting on a deck-side chaise lounge, enjoying the salt air, the slender, mustachioed Zolotow says, "There are players who are great online, but terrible live. You know when they're ready to fold and see them sitting there, calculating how much to raise." On the other hand, he acknowledges, "Technically, a lot of the Internet players are very tough. They play thousands of hands and learn to make very quick decisions with nothing circumstantial to go on."

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