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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

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."


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