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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 PartyPoker.com, 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 fulltilt.com (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."

The fact that this tournament's final table will be televised on the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour brings an extra layer of glitz to the proceedings, personified by the presence of on-air hosts Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten. While Van Patten occupies himself playing high-stakes games of shuffleboard, the perpetually grinning Sexton—who's scored big as the face of both PartyPoker and WPT—makes himself available to an ever-growing cadre of fans. While he has benefited tremendously from the boom in online poker, Sexton seems truly blown away by the degree to which sites like PartyPoker have transformed the game. While he acknowledges that only about one-third of the 668 players who qualified online are particularly good, he is quick to point out that they're improving with the kind of lightning speed that underscores the very nature of computer technology.

"In the past, there were no books, no software, no way for a guy to educate himself and become a great player," says Sexton, sporting chinos and a tropically patterned shirt. "Guys like me had to go out and take bumps and bruises and learn by the seats of our pants. Now somebody can develop technical expertise before he even enters a casino. It's no fluke that guys in their 20s are winning WPT tournaments."

Regardless of skill level, the players here definitely seem to be having a good time. The poker room gets packed as soon as the ship ventures into international waters. Blackjack tables in the casino are invariably SRO, and, judging by boozy partygoers packing the Oosterdam's late-night lounge—a total throwback to the disco days—folks on this boat are not exactly earnest computer nerds. The classic online player is a guy named Dustin Woolf. Based near L.A. and looking like a slacker king in jeans, flip-flops and a baggy sweatshirt, he's actually one of the most fearsome poker studs online. He goofs around with some of his PartyPoker competitors—enjoying the irony over how guys you hate online can be OK in the flesh—but there's nothing goofy about confronting him across a virtual poker table. Woolf, who regularly plays heads-up matches in the $300/$600 range, games in which $10,000 can be won or lost in a few hands, says that he snagged in excess of $1 million in online play last year. In the next breath, though, he acknowledges, "But I lost $700,000 playing live games in the card rooms around Los Angeles."

Sure, he realizes, a $300,000 profit is nothing to sneeze at, but there is something dubious about being acknowledged as "The Internet Legend" by Phil Hellmuth, one of poker's best-known players. He smirkily agrees that his virtual success somehow doesn't transfer to live games—he had two 24-hour sessions in cyberspace where he cleared more than $100,000—even though his online style seems to have been informed by the notorious aggression of Stu Ungar, another poker stalwart. "I'm real good at reading hands when it comes to heads-up online," says Woolf, who's partnered in the Internet blog neverwinpoker.com. "But I'm also real good at reading tells and reading people's emotions. I can see it in how they pace themselves. I can figure that something in a player's mind is out of synch. A guy'll be in a constant flow, but when it changes, it's usually because he hit his card or else he's bluffing. But I continually switch it up, so that other players can't tell whether I'm bluffing or not."

While most of the players on board the Oosterdam probably figure that a poker cruise is something new, veteran poker-pro-turned-WPT-announcer Mike Sexton knows better. These floating poker binges have been around since at least the mid-1980s, and Sexton went on what might well have been the greatest one of all time. "Back in 1985, we took the QE2 from New York to London, played poker the whole way, went to Wimbledon and flew home on the Concorde," he recounts, explaining that the trip was his prize in lieu of cash for winning a special poker tournament. "The top players in the world—guys like Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese—were on that cruise, and it was the greatest two weeks of my life as a player."

Poker being played on the Oosterdam may not be up to QE2 standards, but it's competitive enough that all but one of the pros get knocked out by the final table. Underscoring the degree to which the face of poker is ultra young, half of the six finalists, going for $1.5 million, are either college students or recent graduates. Paul Darden, looking dapper in jewel-encrusted sunglasses, flowing threads and razor-thin facial hair, is the only remaining pro. He's also the best-dressed guy in the room. "I'm black and I grew up in the hood, where even if you don't have bling bling, you still need to look good," he says. "Regardless of the tournament's outcome, I want people to say, 'Damn, at least he looked good.'"

The other pros are in somewhat lower spirits—and it has nothing to do with being knocked out of the tournament (they're used to that). It's more due to being stuck on a boat where the biggest cash games ($200/$400) are lower than what they are accustomed to playing. Lindgren, for instance, got eliminated by such a stunning series of bad beats that the steaming pro finally warned players at his table, "If you keep this up, I'm gonna have to call Phil [Hellmuth, that is, who's notorious for berating amateurs with what he perceives as the temerity to bluff into him]." That line may have been a joke, but a couple days later, an obviously antsy Lindgren is not kidding when he says, "Yesterday, I would have paid $20,000 to be airlifted off of this boat. Today, I'd pay $15,000. Tomorrow, it'll be 10. As we get closer to shore, the amount that I am willing to pay keeps going down."

One night before the cruise ends in San Diego, the final table convenes under the hot lights and cool fog machines of the World Poker Tour. Being that the game played here is limit Texas Hold'em, as opposed to the much faster paced no-limit (which is what's normally seen on the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker telecasts), the action moves slowly, as players chip away at opponents' stacks in a prescribed manner. Sitting at one end of the table, ghostly Adam Csallany, a University of Minnesota senior who's starting out with the smallest reserve of chips, quickly establishes himself as poker's equivalent of Pac-Man, sucking up every plastic disk in his orbit. Darden, who understands the importance of aggression, comes out swinging as well, but he fails to get the necessary cards and winds up leaving with the $300,000 fifth-place prize. "I don't look at it as winning $300,000," he half-grouses. "I figure that I lost $1.2 million."

Eventually, Csallany gorges on one chip too many and winds up spewing them all back. He gets eliminated with a $500,000 fourth-place prize. The college kid on the lam, Matthew Cherackal, also makes the final table, and he does well enough to take home $700,000 after getting knocked out of the event in third place. Surely, one imagines, at this point, his dad doesn't mind that he skipped school for a few days to play? He considers the question and gently shakes his head in the negative. "I don't know about that," Cherackal says. "I haven't told my father yet. I'm going to let it be a surprise."

As usual, the tournament comes down to two players with all the chips: a retired military man named David "The Colonel" Minto and Michael Gracz, a recent college grad from North Carolina State. Minto's never previously been in this position and seems so happy about it that he's a got a permanent grin plastered across his face. Gracz, on the other hand, looks completely relaxed and in the zone. And he has been here before: he netted a six-figure prize at Atlantic City's Taj Mahal in December and played deep into recent tournaments at the Commerce in L.A. and Horseshoe in Tunica, Mississippi. His skill level is such that seasoned pro Darden believed Gracz to be the most dangerous player at the table. "I knew that kid was the one to watch," says Darden, claiming he was uninfluenced by the fact that Gracz sat down with the second smallest stack of chips at the final table. "He played aggressively, he played well, he was unafraid. Then he got hit by the deck, and that made it oh, so easy."

Maybe yes. Maybe no. What's indisputable is that Gracz did indeed punch, jab and feign his way to the $1.5 million first prize—bulling through the first hour and a half, from $600,000 to $1.8 million in tournament chips. As he raked in his final pot, Gracz practically leaped off the stage and into the arms of two friends. They were happy for him, but probably even happier for themselves. "They had half of me," Gracz later explains. "They're my friends, and I'm happy to help them. I find no joy in doing something like this alone."

The next day, as the ms Oosterdam chugs toward San Diego, Paul Darden still seems a little sore over his failure to capture the first-place prize, but he makes it clear that he will leave the ship a wiser man. "I haven't played online as of yet," admits the old-school gambler, who learned the rudiments of poker in the back room of his father's Connecticut pool hall. "But when I get off this boat, I am buying a laptop. It seems like there are a lot of good opportunities online. I want to start taking advantage of them."

Michael Kaplan is co-author of Aces and Kings

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