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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

(continued from page 1)

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 "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."

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