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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 1)

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."


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