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Posted by on Feb 14, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas | 3 comments

20 Years of Online Poker: Flops, Bets, Raises, and Folds (2001-2003)

 

 

Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice: 

Chapter Two — Flops, Bets, Raises, and Folds (2001-2003)

[Note:  Read INTRODUCTION to this series here, and PART ONE here.]

 

4.

Suspicion and skepticism are tools of the poker trade.

Poker players must be suspicious and skeptical at all times, if for no other reason than as a means of survival.  Cheating, collusion, soft playing, and hustling have been part of the poker scene since the days of riverboats and saloons.  Dishonesty, whether instigated by the house or the other players (or sometimes both), has separated many an unsuspecting fool from his money.

This doesn’t mean there’s cheating happening in most public cardrooms, today.  In fact, cheating is rare now.  That’s because casino owners and operators have way too much to lose by running a dishonest or sloppy poker game.  The overwhelming majority of live poker games held in licensed jurisdictions are dealt totally on the square.  That doesn’t mean poker is clean, however.

Collusion is a bit more common, and certainly a threat in both live games and some tournaments.  Collusion occurs when multiple players share information and/or act as a team.   The team (usually two, but sometimes three or more players) may secretly signal cards to each other.  They might whipsaw unsuspecting opponents with extra raises intended to extract maximum value.  They soft play each other to give themselves a better chance to win a big pot.  With so many backing arrangements in tournaments, collusion has been a problem for years.  Collusion goes on in many public cardrooms, and is often difficult to catch.

Whether it’s a reputation deserved or not, online poker has always been fertile ground for cheating, especially during its formative days.  After PlanetPoker.com’s early success, competing poker sites no one had ever heard of began sprouting up and aggressively advertising for players.  Virtually all of these poker sites were “licensed” and based their operations in less-developed countries — including Caribbean Islands such as Antigua, Curacau, Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic, and other places most gamblers couldn’t find on a map.  These government regulators had little or no gambling expertise, and so virtually zero oversight nor consumer protections were provided by authorities.  Most new casinos, sports betting, and poker sites that sprang up during the late 1990’s paid a modest licensing fee, set up computer servers, hired a few support personnel, and then opened their doors for business.  It was a license to steal, take the money and run, and some did (though not so many in poker, which wasn’t potentially as lucrative as other forms of gambling).

From the very first hand ever dealt out online, the losers did seem to have justifiable concerns and suspicions that perhaps they’d been cheated.  After all, unlike public cardrooms — where everyone can see the cards being dealt (and players might even know the dealer) — every aspect of online action took place in the complex algorithms of invisible cyberspace.  Who knew if the player who scooped a $167 pot was really some guy named “Bob” from Chicago?  Perhaps some of the so-called players were robots (i.e.  “bots”), artificial software programs meant to appear very real, but which in reality were specifically-designed shills tentacled directly to the website?  Perhaps it was as simple as hiring a batch of players to play at the site, who were given secret access to everyone’s hole cards.  The ways to cheat are endless.  A dishonest poker site acting unscrupulously could make a fortune cheating its players, with no apparent risks, nor repercussions.  Of course, there would be some risk of slaughtering too many lambs when sheering sheep was the far wiser strategy.  But criminals tend to be greedy, something online poker would demonstrate in spades just a few years later.

If that wasn’t enough of a fear factor, then certainly players had to constantly be on the lookout for the dangers of online collusion.  Given that collusion teams could easily communicate online via instant messaging or by cell phone and relay information, honest players who adhered to poker’s honesty code of “one player to a hand” competed at a marked disadvantage.  It was like fighting with one hand tied behind your back.  Over the years, as online poker sites became more sophisticated and hired experienced security personnel trained in the ways of combating collusion, the problem diminished somewhat, at least relative to the size of the market.  How bad cheating was back in the early years remains a matter of speculation.  But given a Wild West mentality and no sheriff in town, the bandits got away with lots of money from unsuspecting poker players who were just looking for an honest game and a good time — and got nothing in return other than some horrendous bad beat stories, that weren’t bad beats at all.

Oh, and then there were the real devils of the online trade — hackers.  Sometime in late 1999 well into their second year of operations, PlanetPoker.com suffered a major security breach when hackers somehow broke the software code which would have allowed someone more unscrupulous to cheat.  Had they decided to implement the discovery, hackers and their confederates would have been an invincible force.  Even though allegedly no one was actually cheated by hackers, the damage was already done.  Hacking became a serious concern from that point forward, not only for players, but the online sites themselves, most of which were honest and were determined to run honest games.  [SEE CORRECTION IN NOTE BELOW]

While the some online sites later became quite proficient at catching cheaters and minimizing instances of hacking, the bandits also got more sophisticated in their methods of level of brazen audacity.  Online poker was just as much a game of cat versus mouse, as a game of cards.

*****

5.

An abbreviated discussion of cheating is vital here because fears of dishonesty was online poker’s biggest obstacle from the beginning.  Lots of very good players who were most certainly capable of beating most poker games simply refused to play online.  Partially due to poker’s then-primitive demographics — mostly older people with no technological background — a majority of the game’s traditionalists were initially reluctant to accept the inevitable changes that were to transform the game at every level.

So, the void was filled by a surprisingly new demographic of poker players who were much younger, techno-wiser, and more flexible to making adjustments based on the accumulation of new information.  Before 2000, it was rare to see players active in public cardrooms who were in their 20’s.  However, the twentysomethings flocked to online poker games because of easy convenience and an inherent intrigue with new challenges far too profitable to ignore.  Why take up video games or play sports when every laptop inside any dorm in America was potentially a poker game with possible earning potential?

And so, poker’s seismic demographic shift towards players who were considerably younger began.

Something else contributed immensely to online poker’s early growth in those early days, which is often overlooked given the confluence of disparate forces.  Rounders, a (then) modestly-successful film released in 1998 starring Matt Damon, Ed Norton, Jr., and John Malkovich, was seen by perhaps a few million moviegoers when released in theaters — most of the ticket-buyers were young men with access to money in their 20’s and 30’s.  By the time of that final fateful scene when a taxi carries Damon to the airport to fly away to Las Vegas to play poker for a living full-time, most of those young men in the audience were just as eager to jump headfirst into the first poker game they could find.  And so, they did.

For many, the only poker game available was online.

*****

6.

Stuck $2,000 and suspicious about cheating to the point of paranoia, I’m not sure why online poker remained such a luring temptation.  Recalling the famous gambler’s joke about electing to play in a local poker game known to be dishonest because it was “the only game in town,” online poker proved to be too powerful magnet to pull away from.

ParadisePoker.com led the second generation of new online poker sites, and initiated a new wave that would soon turn onto a flood.  Some of these new sites were comically awful in how they were designed and managed.  Others did a much better job and became poker titans.  Paradise was launched sometime in late 1999.  Within a year, Paradise surpassed PlanetPoker.com in traffic and by 2001 was the world’s largest poker room — even bigger than the mega-cardrooms of Los Angeles, something that would have been unthinkable just a short time earlier.

Paradise’s massive success should have been foreseeable, and perhaps even obvious given the quantum leap in technological advancements.  The site vastly improved imagery, which made the playing experience seem far more real.  Prompts and commands were player friendly.  Paradise also upgraded technology well enough to all but eliminate the annoying site crashes and screen freezes that had constantly plagued rival Planet.

Paradise also offered different poker games than just Texas Hold’em — including Seven-Card Stud and Omaha High-Low Split.  I started playing $10-20 Limit Omaha regularly, and within six weeks time was able to get into the black financially.  The Paradise games seemed effortless.  If there was cheating and collusion happening, I didn’t sense it or see it much in Omaha.  Perhaps given the game plays a bit slower and many pots are split in two, colluders decided to focus elsewhere.  Moreover, Paradise likely began enforcing security.  I don’t know this for sure.  It’s just my speculation, based on some first-hand evidence as I will convey a bit later on.

I played duel roles in poker at the time.  I was a player.  But I was also a writer and journalist  — first for Card Player (1993-2000) and then for a new poker magazine called Poker Digest (2001-2002) that lasted only about two years before folding.

One of the marvelous attractions of writing and reporting is the element of constant mystery, and sometimes solving a puzzle.  From the start, online poker sites were owned by people hidden in the shadows.  No one knew who these people were.  We didn’t know their names.  We didn’t know where they lived.  We didn’t know their nationalities.  We didn’t know their backgrounds.  We didn’t know if they were honest or dishonest.  We didn’t know anything about them.

Anonymity has always been a coveted virtue in cyberspace, especially in online businesses directly connected to gambling, which is illegal inside the United States (and many other countries). No one knew who founded and/or owned ParadisePoker.com.  Here was the world’s largest poker room, likely the most profitable poker-related business on earth, and the owners were mysterious. I was determined to try and learn more and solve the puzzle.

I didn’t get far.  The gauntlet was thrown down.

No poker entity, particularly popular magazines that relied on advertisers for a significant portion of their revenue, wanted to back investigative journalism.  Nolan Dalla wasn’t exactly Mike Wallace  busting into a shady scammers office with a 60 Minutes camera crew.  Nevertheless, curiosity persisted. My thinking was — if these poker sites have nothing to hide, then why not open up?  I thought the public had a right to know, and as a devoted online poker player myself, I was innately curious to learn more.

Sometime in mid-2001, an extraordinary offer arrived in my e-mail box in the form of a written invitation.  ParadisePoker.com invited me and two other poker people (who were far more technical than me) on an all-expenses paid research excursion to Costa Rica (if memory serves — I think it was Costa Rica, but can’t be certain).  The offer was to include a tour of all facilities, interviews with staff, and essentially open access to everything that went on at Paradise in exchange for a lengthy expose intended to show that everything was on the square.

I began looking into prospective dates to travel to Paradise headquarters.  Mid-September was a perfect window for me.  More e-mails were exchanged.  Then, just as final plans were about to be made, came the morning of September 11, 2001.

*****

7.

I heard the explosion.  I saw the smoke, barreling upward from the Pentagon which was blasted by an airliner on the opposite side of my building in Crystal City.  The fire burned for four days and four nights.  The attack happened on a Tuesday.  On Friday, smoke was still faintly swirling into the air from the simmering jet fuel.

9/11 changed everything, especially for those who were impacted in some way by it.

I was lucky.  I don’t recall knowing anyone killed at the Pentagon, though certainly someone there in the rubble was a neighbor or someone I’d likely walked past at the Pentagon City Metro Station.

Such an event changes you.

After 9/11, I didn’t much care about online poker, or Paradise Poker, or poker at all.  Why did poker matter?  What was I doing with my life — wasting it away on such a trivial pursuit, in the shadows of such wanton need and devastation?  Disillusioned and depressed, I didn’t visit Atlantic City again for months.  I didn’t play poker again in any form of fashion, anywhere.  For the first time, I missed writer deadlines at the poker magazines.

Fuck it.

[Read more detail about my remembrances and reflections of 9/11 HERE]

******

8.

My life changed completely after 9/11.

Though totally unrelated to the terrorist attack, I left my job working for an Islamic nation (I’d been a writer-editor at the Turkish Embassy in Washington for seven years).  Completely fed up with politics and frustrated by life in D.C., I decided to pack up and move to Las Vegas.  Marieta was less than thrilled with my sudden decision.

Sometime early in 2002, separated and living alone in Las Vegas, I had lunch with three of my favorite people — all who remain dear friends to this day.  Linda Johnson, who I basically owe everything to for what she has done for me accompanied by Jan Fisher, who remains my compass of moral rectitude (“what would Jan Fisher do”— that’s usually the right answer to any quandary).  The merry trio was complete with Mike Sexton, who has been a constant course of inspiration and confidence to me for more than two decades.  Together, as three — Linda, Jan, and Mike brought along a bag of goodies with several hats and t-shirts.  The bag was for me.   The items were branded with a name I’d never heard before.

The new brand was something called “PartyPoker.com.”

Linda, Jan, and Mike informed me they were promoting a new poker site that was about to launch.

Party Poker?

I didn’t say anything at the time, but I thought that was the stupidest name I’d ever heard.  What the fuck does “Party Poker” mean?  Oh well, if Linda, Jan, and Mike wanted to waste their time and blow their reputations on a website that sounded more like a kid’s birthday party, who was I to stop them?   What next, a package of free balloons?

“Party Poker didn’t stand a chance of being successful,” I thought to myself chuckling at what fools they were.

*****

9.

All by myself in the winter months of 2002, and living in an apartment near the corner of Sahara and Decatur, I didn’t even own a car.  I rode a bike everywhere in town, to poker games at the Horseshoe, Mirage, and the Bellagio.  I biked it at 3 pm and 3 am, sometimes with $4,000 in my pocket, other times — $4.  I lost 25 pounds and got into the best shape of my life.  I refused to even own a television, which I considered a monumental waste of time, ironic that I was spending all my days and nights playing poker and betting sports..  All I had in my apartment was a bed, my clothes, and a giant desk with tons of papers and a couple of desktop computers.  I tried to finish the long-awaited Stu Ungar biography, but couldn’t.  The words didn’t come.

Most nights were spent in the smoky sportsbook at Palace Station, sweating ball games where I usually had $100 or $200 riding on the outcome.  I also played poker 50-60 hours a week.  The Horseshoe offered me a job, which I turned down a few times.  Eventually, I accepted the offer because making $75,000 annually and being allowed to come and go as a please and drink and gamble on the job was way too tempting a career move to decline.

Late one night, I logged in at home and received an e-mail from Paradise Poker support.  They had investigated some long-ago forgotten incident from many months earlier, came to the determination that I was cheated out of some money by colluders, and credited my account for something in the neighborhood of $150.

Wow, what a pleasant surprise.  A gift.

So, I signed on and played the “free” $150 for a while.  In the upper right-hand window of the main lobby at Paradise was a tiny meter.  The meter kept a constant track of the number of poker games and players currently active on the website.  The meter showed 5,100 players were signed on and playing poker at Paradise.

Five-thousand players.  That’s like taking the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, which was the world’s largest live poker room and quadrupling it’s busiest night.  Since I’d been away, Paradise Poker had become a mammoth beast.  No one was going to touch them.  Ever.  Paradise Poker might as well have been a bank.  The were poker’s Federal Reserve.  They were a printing press for profit.

Party Poker?  That new site didn’t stand a chance.

 

Coming Next:

Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice:  Chapter Three — Poker’s Sonic Boom (2003-2004)

 

Photo Credit:  The photo above shows a typical game at ParadisePoker.com, which dominated the online poker market during the years 2000-2002.

Correction:  A previous version of this article contained an error, stating that players were cheated by hackers at PlanetPoker.com.  This is incorrect.  As evidenced in the comments section, “hackers” uncovered a flaw in the shuffle algorithm that allowed them to figure out opponents’ cards.  Their discovery was published online, resulting in PlanetPoker.com immediately suspending operations.  Although the problem was addressed and software was upgraded, the public trust’s was broken and the site never recovered.

 

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Posted by on Feb 13, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker | 1 comment

20 Years of Online Poker: The Early Years (1998-2000)

 

 

Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice: 

Chapter One — Discovering a New Planet and Finding Paradise

[Note:  Read INTRODUCTION to this series here]

 

1.

Where or when exactly, I can’t remember.

Where and when did I first learn about this new thing called online poker?

My best guess is — I first read about “online poker” at an old user internet newsgroup, called Rec.Gambling.Poker (better known as R.G.P.).

R.G.P. had a cult-like following of perhaps 500 or so active posters, and far more passive readers certainly numbering in the thousands.  R.G.P. discussion and debate wasn’t for the weak or timid.  Feedback could be brutal.  Every wacko and conspiracy-theorist able to spell P-O-K-E-R showed up there and lunatic-ed the loyalists.  There were trolls.  Some people just relished being pricks.  And they were all attracted to R.G.P. like wasps to honey, stingers which grew substantially from the early 1990’s by the time I began reading and posting regularly, sometime in 1995.  By 1998, it was poker’s lobby, university, frat house, and break room.  Long before social media and text messaging and Twitch were even conceived of, R.G.P. was the bulletin board, the strategy forum, and the rumor mill of everything that happened in the poker world and lots of stuff that didn’t really happen, but sure made for great discussion.  Unfiltered and unstructured content would eventually turn R.G.P. into a sewer, but hey — that’s a whole different story for another time.

Note to Self:  Do an R.G.P. article sometime.

A few posters at R.G.P. began touting the world’s first legitimate online poker website, known as PlanetPoker.com.  To establish legitimacy, Planet immediately hired Mike Caro, then one of the most respected advocates and strategists in the game.  Caro, who lived in Los Angeles, ran something called “Mike Caro University,” and went by the moniker “The Mad Genius of Poker,” was plucked to be the face of the new site.  He served as Planet’s front man.  Thus, Caro became the first online-endorsed poker celebrity of hundreds to come much later.  His enthusiastic endorsement of Planet gave the website instant credibility.  Roy Cooke, another highly-respected mid-stakes poker player from Las Vegas and fellow Card Player magazine columnist, was hired as the site’s first cardroom manager.

To truly understand the impact of Planet’s arrival on what was a then-dormant poker scene, one has to understand how bleak and barren the prospects were for most players in those early days during the 1990’s.  Poker might was well have been Bridge, a dead game played mostly by old men with no life at all.  Legal casino-style poker was available to players in only a handful of states.  Except for in the West, the only three states where live casino poker was offered were Mississippi, Connecticut, and New Jersey (Florida allowed very small-stakes games). Where I lived, in Washington, D.C., the closest legal poker rooms were in Atlantic City — a four hour drive away.  For millions of American poker players, there were zero viable safe options to play the game we loved close to home, other than private games which were so often slow and provided virtually no opportunity to make much money.  Online poker meant that for the very first time, millions of people just like me could log in on a home computer, make a quick deposit with a major credit card (which was easy back then), and start playing poker.  Best of all, the games usually went 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week.

Online poker was a life raft in a dead sea that would turn into an ocean liner.  And no one dared to imagine the icebergs to come.

*****

2.

The lights often burned late into the night from my 9th-floor condo overlooking the Pentagon.

I wasn’t making nearly enough money working 9 to 5.  Government jobs are interesting.  But they don’t pay shit.  Plus, I’ve always had a bad habit of spending more money than I make.  I needed a second, part-time job.  Or, maybe this poker thing might work out.

During the previous five years, on most weekends, I Amtraked back and forth for $42 round-trip from Washington to Atlantic City, which legalized live poker in 1993.  Grinding out a big bet an hour in limit poker games — it was all limit poker back then and mostly Seven-Card Stud — meant I needed to play an average of 25-30 hours to make each trip worth my while.  Eventually, this grind became like punching a factory time clock.  At first, weekends spent in Atlantic City were fun.  Then, they became like work.  Finally, I started looking forward to Mondays rather than Fridays.  Atlantic City wasn’t a fun place to hang out, jitney-ing for $1.25 between casinos in the frigid winter rains, dodging drug peddlers and prostitutes where you couldn’t find a decent meal past 10 pm.

Back then, the biggest name in Atlantic City was Donald J. Trump, who plastered his name across three casinos that all eventually ended up going bankrupt, despite having 70 million East Coast gamblers by the balls.  But as much as Atlantic City tried to be like Las Vegas, it was not.  Atlantic City was Pottersville.

Hence, the prospect of spending my weekends at home instead of blowing those dissipating Saturdays and Sundays in Atlantic City was suddenly like having my cake and eating it, too.

*****

3.

I can’t believe I was so dumb.

Poker is beatable and can be profitable because of one thing only — the mistakes of your opponents.  The more mistakes your opponents make, the more money you’ll earn, at least in the long run.  The short run is far riskier, one reason why even the greatest poker players suffer losing sessions and sometimes hit bad streaks.  Sometimes, very good players turn into terrible players when they go on what’s called “tilt.”

I began playing at PlanetPoker.com — mostly $5-10 and $10-20 Limit Hold’em.  Since I now had the option of playing as many hours per week as I wanted, marathons became the norm.  If I’d earned $15 an hour in Atlantic City as a routine, then putting in 30-40 hours per week at home should have been easily worth an extra $2,000 a month.  Probably more, since online poker dealt many more hands per hour.  Plus, there were no commuting costs, no dealer tipping, and the rake was cheaper.  What wasn’t to love about online poker?

Moreover, online poker allowed for easy multi-tasking.  You could play online while watching television, or reading, or eating dinner, or drinking a beer.  Then, there were the simple comforts of simply staying at home.  No smelly pricks in the next seat telling bad beat stories or slow, lazy dealers.  Online poker should have been heaven.

Instead, it was hell.

I lost my ass.  I got killed.  I couldn’t beat the games.

What the fuck!?!?!?

For five years, I’d kept meticulous cash game records.  For 18 months, I even recorded every single live poker hand I played — numbering in the thousands — and exchanged strategy discussions with Larry Peters, an obsessive poker-playing Canadian from Thunder Bay who became a confidant and sounding board.  I was never a great player.  I know this.  I freely admit this.  But I was good enough.  Good enough to beat really, really bad players, and Atlantic City was packed with bad players, no make that shitty players, many with far more cash than brains.  Mining for poker gold was as easy as picking the seeds out of a watermelon (to be completely factual, Atlantic City’s poker games got much tougher later into the 1990’s than when it first started, when just about everyone was terrible).

Why was I losing online?

Recollections of how much I lost are but an invisible fog now.  Perhaps a couple of thousand dollars — probably four deposits of $500 each.  Not a fortune.  But I should have been making money, instead of losing it.

About four months into my online poker experiment, after a fourth buy-in evaporated, that’s when it hit me:  What kinds of poker players signed up in those first few months at the world’s only online site?

Answer:  THE BEST PLAYERS!

Of course!

Who else but the best players would even be aware of something called online poker, except for the most hard-core, dedicated, and experienced poker players in the world, mostly those leather asses who hung out on R.G.P. and posted 18 hours a day, people like me had exchanged poker hands and engaged in tireless discussions about the intricacies of when to three-bet and how to spot a bluff?  The initial months of Planet games were dominated by solid, highly-dedicated players with multiple years of poker playing experience.  Even the weaker players at the site weren’t all that bad.  After all, they were spending time at online chat forums and reading Card Player, which carried the advertisements for Planet, and later the other sites.

Fact was, lousy players weren’t going to accidentally stumble upon a new poker site, pony up a $500 deposit, and enjoy the humiliation of getting hammered by online pros.  Even the few suckers who managed to somehow find Planet didn’t seem to last very long.

Desperate to play in only the nest game with soft players, I kept notes on the names of terrible players, the weak-tight “calling stations” which are so emblematic of mediocrity in limit poker.  Trouble was, they never stuck around for very long.   They went bust and never came back.  My poker results on Planet got worse over the four months when I played what amounted to nearly full-time hours.

Oh, and then there were the episodes of intense frustration, the occasional technical glitches, which could drive even the most emotionally stable player utterly insane.

Most people connected to the internet during the late 1990’s were using old-fashioned dial-up modems.  That’s an archaic communication network by today’s standards, but which seemed like something from a N.A.S.A. space shoot back in 1998-1999.  A weak dial-up link, or worse an unexpected disconnect, risked the possibility of losing a massive pot.  Sometimes, the screen froze and you couldn’t log back in for an hour.  It was madness.

Just about every online poker player has at least one nightmare story of holding a monster hand, getting multiple callers, and then having the screen freeze up like a fuckhouse during the middle of the hand.  Plenty of creative cruse words were shouted at computer screens indifferent to passion.  Mice were broken.  Once, I slammed by hand so hard on the desktop, that I cracked a half-inch glass (my left wrist didn’t feel very good afterward, either).

Cats on the keyboard was another constant risk for those of us who were/are pet parents.  More than once, I mis-clicked some ridiculous poker move because one of the cats decided to use my lap as a scratching post.

The craziest common routine happened when the entire Planet site went down, and would crash.  No one could blame Planet for the glitch.  The technicians simply couldn’t handle the high volume of traffic at peak playing times, so their servers crashed and everyone in the middle of hands with hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars on the virtual poker table were left with their dicks in their hands staring a continuous spinning symbol.

Sometime in the summer of 1998, I said enough of this piss-my-money parade. So, I went back to playing weekends in Atlantic City.  That fall, I enjoyed one of my best NFL football betting seasons, winning about $20,000 over the course of four months.  Hence, online poker became far less a priority, nor was it a passion any longer.

Sometime early in 1999, R.G.P. began a discussion about a new online poker site that was rumored to be much better than Planet.  They would offer sign-up bonuses.  The software was supposedly improved.  It was called ParadisePoker.com.

I was intrigued.

PlanetPoker.com rightly deserves to be remembered as a poker pioneer.  They established an early benchmark which came to define the essence of what an online poker site should be.  I do feel sad that those fine people who were connected early to Planet didn’t all get rich and write their own stories of fame and success.  They probably should have done much better and deserve far more credit than they are given by those who write history, including yours truly.  Planet is but a faded footnote, now all but gone from memory.

Stuck about $2,000 for the short duration of my online poker career at this point, it was time to make a much-needed table change.

There was a new game in town.  True to its name, it was called Paradise Poker.

 

Coming Next:

Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice:  Chapter Two — Flops, Bets, Raises, and Folds (2001-2003)

 

Photo Credit:  The photo above shows one of the first online poker lobbies, at PlanetPoker.com.

 

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Posted by on Feb 13, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Personal | 1 comment

20 Years of Online Poker: Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice

 

 

INTRODUCTION (A NEW POKER SERIES)

Twenty years ago, the first online poker cash game was dealt.

January 1st, 1998 marked the roll-out of the first real money poker site, at PlanetPoker.com.

For those who are still connected to the game two decades later, most of us remember those good old days and bad-ass nights of fast money, wicked beats, and broken mice.

Online poker has toasted booms and weathered busts.  It has spearheaded soaring highs and withstood devastating scandals.  It has busted an untold number of player bankrolls.  It has broken up marriages.  It has created millionaires, and even spawned a few billionaires.  It has hatched a quirky subculture of heroes, villains, and scoundrels.  It has attracted celebrities, forged criminals, and made fugitives out of heroes.  It has been played in more than 150 countries around the world, some places legal, more often not.  It has thrived.  It has defrauded.  It has survived.

If “poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great,” as American playwright Neil Simon once penned, then online poker is the witches brew of economic and social Darwinism.  Indeed, online poker isn’t just the manifestation of the laws of natural selection.  It has been the 52-card test tube which confirms survival of the fittest.  And yet sometimes, even the very fittest ended up being cheated and were ultimately destroyed.  Online poker has often been as cruel as invigorating.

The upcoming multi-part narrative to be posted this week encompasses a reminiscence of my online poker experiences from 1998 to present.  The next several chapters, yet unnumbered because I”m writing them now, will relay (at least some) of the details of my marginal role in the game and global phenomenon — as a low-stakes player, a grinder, a political advocate for its legalization, and insider-executive.

Enough with my introduction.  It’s time to log in, shuffle up the memories, and deal out the stories.

CLICK TO READ PART ONE HERE

CLICK TO READ PART TWO HERE

CLICK TO READ PART THREE HERE

CLICK TO READ PART FOUR HERE

 

Photo Credit:  The photo above was taken about 20 years ago in a cash game at about the time online poker began. It’s the only photo I have of Marieta sweating me at the table.  So, it’s kinda’ special to me.

 

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Posted by on Jan 11, 2018 in Blog, Book Reviews, Essays, General Poker, Movie Reviews | 3 comments

Movie Review: Molly’s Game

 

 

After seeing Molly’s Game, which is writer-producer Aaron Sorkin’s much-anticipated directorial debut, I’m thoroughly convinced he could script his next film based on the Yellow Pages and somehow make it riveting.

A partially-true tale constructed on the weak foundation an almost painstakingly unreadable narrative published in 2015 of the same title, Sorkin manages to do what I’d have deemed next to impossible — making sweet lemonade out of sour lemons.  He transforms a brassy Heidi Fleiss-like protagonist into a highly-sophisticated and even sympathetic role model/movie hero.  She coaxes our minds and wins over our hearts.  Sorkin’s engaging screenplay, rapid-fire staccato dialogue, and convincing performances throughout ends up coercing us to cheer her rise and console her inevitable downfall.

Most unexpected, this is a stunning achievement.

Molly’s Game, the book written by so-called “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom really wasn’t much of a read.  It was a gossipy, TMZ-tinged blog littered with dirt and scandal plastered between two peak-a-boo covers hustled quickly to press in order to hemorrhage every last dollar out a clump of rumors with the shelf life of last week’s tabloid trash.  Sure, scandalous tell-all resuscitation has become popular fodder for every genre of American life — from the Mafia to the White House.  Dirty revelations of what happens at by-invitation only, high-stakes poker games frequented by popular entertainers and sports figures is entirely consistent with this lengthy confessional catalog of cattiness we’ve come to digest, and frankly — often enjoy.  I suppose there will always be an salacious audience anxious to peak through shuttered windows and cross rope lines, eager to read and learn what celebrities are really like behind the scenes in real life.  Hostess-banker-confidant Bloom’s narrative tell-all shattered the firewall protecting several celebs who participated in her weekly poker games — including Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Alex Rodriguez, and other luminaries who frequented the world’s most exclusive man-cave, first in Los Angeles and then later in New York.

Yet for all the lurid details, given the shallow subject matter seemingly better suited for the inside pages of the National Enquirer, Sorkin shocked just about everyone in Hollywood when he announced his intent to direct his first film based on such petty triviality.  Given Sorkin’s haughty pedigree, Bloom’s book made for a baffling starting point.  After all, he’s penned some of the most memorable monologues in recent memory, including television excerpts which have attracted millions of hits on YouTube.  Evidence: “America is not the Greatest” (from HBO’s The Newsroom) and “Based on the Bible” (from NBC’s The West Wing).  Sorkin has also authored a few movie gems you might have seen — including screenplays for A Few Good Men, The American PresidentCharlie Wilson’s WarMoneyball, and Steve Jobs.  He also won an Oscar for writing The Social Network.

With this expansive resume of ultra-seriousness, Sorkin, a champion of progressive causes and unapologetic proponent of overt liberal activism, could have picked any topic and likely transformed the subject matter into must-see social commentary.  Hence, Sorkin’s decision to turn a blabbering tattle-tale of rich and famous people acting like scumbags into a movie seemed like a misguided decision and squandered opportunity for something far greater given the times we live in.

Well — call me converted and label me now a believer after seeing a marvelously-crafted movie with a brilliant script bolstered by standout performances from Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba.  The two lead characters and steady elevation of intensity absorbs the audience and never lets us stray.  Consistent with the previous character-driven biographies within Sorkin’s creative wheelhouse, Molly’s Game employs no special effects nor cue music instructing us on how to feel.  The story and characters reveal themselves.  It’s up to us to draw our own conclusions as to how we react and what to believe.  Judgement becomes subjective.

With yet another convincing film role, Chastain once again elevates her well-deserved reputation as one of the most credible actors working in Hollywood today.  She’s “credible” in the sense that every film she appears in — is solid.  Chastain never disappoints.  There are no superhero sellouts, nor blockbuster bombs in exchange for a big, fat paycheck on her movie resume.  Credit Chastain for displaying personal and professional integrity that’s uncharacteristic for most movie stars.  Molly’s Game is a worthy addition to an already fruitful IMDB listing of impressive work from the ginger-haired actress, including Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian, and A Most Violent Year.

Matching Chastain in every single scene is British actor Idris Elba, who plays her attorney.  He’s initially reluctant to represent Bloom in the criminal lawsuit, especially since she can’t pay his hefty legal fees.  But Elba becomes increasingly sympathetic to her plight and ends up convinced Bloom is being railroaded by the Department of Justice with trumped-up charges intended to make her roll over on Russian mobsters who have infiltrated Bloom’s weekly poker games (whether she knew about their real backgrounds is fodder for speculation).  Elba is simply outstanding.  In any other year, he’s probably be a lock for a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar, but will likely face stiff competition given some other excellent work in film this year — most notably by Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World).  The back and forth scenes and battle of wits between Chastain and Elba steal this movie.

“Molly’s Game,” is supposedly a poker movie, but really it’s not.  Poker serves as the stage, but the surrounding arena could just as easily be any setting where an unsuspecting victim gets in way over his (make that her) head, an infectious trap from which there is no escape.  The “game” played here isn’t about cards, at all.  It’s about the people who play them and those who hold the power and always ending up raking in the most chips.  Money might be just a way of keeping score, but in Molly’s Game the ultimate victory comes in achieving unconditional surrender, and even humiliation.  

One segment of poker sequences is extraordinary, one of the best portrayals of what this game can do to normal people than anything I’ve previously seen in film.  It shows a wealthy businessman, a player typically adverse to taking large financial risks, a rock-solid poker player going on full-blown tilt after taking a brutal bad beat in a high-stakes game.  Films with poker scenes rarely capture the emotional intensity of the experience of losing.  When this man crumbles right before our eyes, we see a sight all poker players have witnessed countless times before.  The longer we play poker, the more meltdowns we’ve watched, and profited from.  And, if you’ve played poker for a really, really long time, you’ve probably been that decomposing player who emotionally disintegrates into a defeated soul.  Guilty.

Some poker notables have publicly criticized a few scenes (Mike Sexton foremost in the crowd — to his credit, Sexton actually participated in some of the Hollywood poker games portrayed in the film).  Indeed, certain scenes do grossly violate the standard rules of the game.  There’s even been some discussion on social media about why the detail-obsessed Sorkin would get so many things accurate about the real story, but then totally blow it on the poker scenes (mostly, the betting actions are incorrect).  The most convincing rebuttal to this legitimate criticism can be read in poker journalist-writer Robbie Strazynski’s recent article at the website Card Player Lifestyle.  Strazynski’s excellent one-on-one interview with Josh Leichner, who served as the poker consultant for Molly’s Game goes into considerable detail about how various scenes were filmed and why creative decisions were made.  Read the exclusive first-hand account here (“Interview with Molly’s Game Poker Consultant Josh Leichner“), complete with some on-the set photos.

To be clear, Molly’s Game doesn’t merit listing among the pantheon of revealing poker films, nor even great movies about gambling, although it will inevitably be compared to its iconic forebears.  While every bit of compelling as Rounders (1998), but not nearly as then-groundbreaking The Cincinnati Kid (1965), there simply isn’t enough poker shown in the movie to group amidst its cinematic brethren.  Rather, this is a story about our quirky legal system, about those who get caught up in the web of hypocrisies, and the unlikely paths we’re forced to take which ultimately shape our lives and determine at our inner core who we really are.

Two minor quibbles with the movie are worth mentioning.  First, Erba’s character wasn’t real.  Bloom was not represented by legal counsel like the attorney portrayed in the film.  Sorkin thought that adding this character was absolutely essential, and he was right to take artistic licence.  Without Erba in the room to ask the necessary questions and restore some balance as a moral guidepost, this movie wouldn’t have been nearly as watchable (perhaps one of many reasons the book isn’t nearly as good).

Second, the conflict between Bloom and her father as portrayed in the movie didn’t really happen.  A total fabrication gets added to the mix by Sorkin, presumably to enhance her psychological profile and illicit some sympathy.  Kevin Costner in the role of Mr. Bloom does spice up the drama playing a stern father pushing his daughter to the very limits.  Some critics have taken issue with this emotional padding since it adds perhaps another 30 minutes or so to a movie that clocks in at an unusually long 2 hours and 25 minutes.  However, I thought the fictionalized addition enhanced Bloom’s persona.  I chose to overlook the criticism and think it’s unfounded.

After loathing the book but loving the movie, I remain conflicted as to whether I like or respect Molly Bloom.  But this movie doesn’t concern itself with winning over my affection.  While told entirely from Bloom’s point of view, and therefore subject to obvious bias, I did gradually find myself rooting for this tough-minded female trying to scratch out a role for herself operating within a wicked world of chauvinism, determined to make it on her own terms and preserve who she is.

Poker can be a game that provides rich rewards far beyond just money when we least expect them, on junk hands that bloom into gold.  In real life, often what we reap is not necessarily what we sow.  Winning can come in different forms, in places where we never expect to taste victory, in the most unlikely settings.  Then and there, we do find ourselves in these crucibles of profound awareness and ultimately, self-discovery.  Just as with a good movie based on a bad book, there’s no such thing as a great poker hand, that is, until well after we’ve seen the flop.  With Molly’s Game, we initially get dealt two unplayable cards, which end up catching a favorable flop followed by a miracle catch on the turn and river, morphing into the unbeatable nuts.

“Molly’s Game” receives an 8 out of 10 score and is very likely to be included on my list of the year’s ten best films.

 

 

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Posted by on Sep 27, 2017 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas, Travel | 3 comments

Memories of the Las Vegas Club

 

 

The Las Vegas Club in downtown Las Vegas was a smelly armpit of a casino, coated in a mix of disgusting bodily fluids and cheap booze, the dingy carpets dusted in cigarette ash.  And I adored every sick square sentimental inch of all that rotten residue and loved blowing every dumb dollar I wasted there.

The outer skeleton of the Las Vegas Club is crumbling, barely standing now because the building’s torso keeps getting pummeled by the constant blows from a wrecking ball swinging from a big crane.  Like a bruised boxer in the 12th round hanging on the ropes, what remains might soon be a giant pile of dust by the time you’re reading this.  And so, the Las Vegas Club is destined to decay into an antiquity that eventually disappears, except for what retreats into the deepest recesses of our memory alongside the bygone Dunes, Stardust, Riviera, Castaways, and so many other once-thriving monuments to a city’s past.

Even with all its plentiful scars and blemishes, I have fond memories of the Las Vegas Club.  I recall the unusually large $22/night hotel rooms, many with a window alcove overlooking noisy Fremont Street.  I recall the spooky-dark steakhouse ringed with red-leather booths with a smell of the old criminal underworld that sat empty most of the time, but the Maitre’d still always insisted on having a reservation (they once turned away a party of three — which included Mike Sexton, Stu Ungar, and myself).

Sure, the Las Vegas Club was a dump.  Everyone agreed.  I went back and read some of the old reviews posted on Yelp.  Many are as comical as they are cringeworthy.  Reviewers complained about everything — from the dank smell of cigarette smoke to the loud noise.  They bitched about the parade of hookers in high heels ramping up and down hallways that echoed like a wind tunnel piercing through the hopelessly outdated decor that hadn’t seen renovation since the mid-1970’s.  Sorry for my lacking any sympathy.  What the hell did anyone expect for $22-a-night?  A hooker holding a sixpack, I guess.

Opened in 1949, the Las Vegas Club went through as many different owners as blackjack shoes.  They tried various gimmicks and new branding campaigns most of which failed, but all the crusty old joint really ever ended up being was a great place to gamble, get a stiff drink, and perhaps end up crashing in a bed bug infested hotel room, provided you still had $22 left in your pocket.  The hotel was so notorious towards its ending days, they wouldn’t rent to locals.

Sometime around 1990, the Las Vegas Club decided to adopt a sports theme.  Walls were knocked out and replaced.  The sportsbook tripled in size.  A huge aluminum grandstand like you’d see at a high school football game was installed for gambling fans.  For a buck you could get a beer and a hot dog.  The walls were tackily decorated with sports memorabilia, probably 95 percent of it fakes and forgeries, but nobody gave a fuck.  So, that’s the baseball bat Mickey Mantle used when he hit his 500th career home run?  Yeah, right.  Step right up, folks.  We also got the loosest slots in town.  All that was missing was the cheap carnival barker in a striped coat chomping on a cheap cigar while swinging a cane.

During the poker boom which happened about a decade ago, the Las Vegas Club opened a new poker room.  The first day I showed up, all eight tables were filled to capacity and there was even a waiting list.  A few months later, the empty room closed down for good.  I think half the dealers who worked in that room are dead now.

When I was working as Public Relations Director of the old Binion’s Horseshoe across the street, the Las Vegas Club might as well have been my break room.  Both on the clock and off it and plenty of days and nights before work and after — I bet plenty of sports there, had a few drinks there, made a few friends there, made a few enemies there, got into some fights there, and most of the time had the blast of my life.  It was the kind of place where you walked up to the bar and the barkeep asked the simple two-word question, “the usual?”

The Las Vegas Club even had its own karaoke spot.  Upstairs on weekends right atop the sportsbook, a melting pot of human gumbo cracked plenty of eardrums, all in good fun.  One night when I showed up late, the karaoke bar was closed.  So, tagging along with Dan and Sharon Goldman (and her mom), we were later joined in the casino by two of Britain’s finest — Simon “Aces” Trumper and “Mad Marty” Wilson (yes, those are their real names).  This motley crew decided to perform our own version of karaoke at the casino bar, sans the musical accompaniment.  Half the casino looked at us like terrorists.  The much drunker half laughed and some even joined in the singing.  The bartender let us get away with it all because we tipped like crazy.  “Mad Marty” talked me into playing a trivia contest for $100 a question.  I finally left broke after maxing out my hits on the ATM machine.  Some advice:  Never engage in trivia on classic English literature with “Mad Marty.”  He’s a hustler.  [PROOF:  WATCH THIS VIDEO]

I have no idea if the Las Vegas Club a pool.  I never checked.  But I doubt it would have been safe to dive into the water, anyway.  It would be like swimming next to the drain pipe from a lead smelter.

There wasn’t any fancy showroom either.  No headliners.  No celebrities.  No paid entertainment.  Hell, the gamblers and the hustlers and the hookers and the hustlers were the show.  And it was free at the Las Vegas Club, all the time.

The last few years of the Las Vegas Club were not kind to its memory.  The deterioration was gradual.  Burned-out light bulbs weren’t changed.  Sticky floors got mopped less and less often.  Stained carpets rarely felt the tickle of a vacuum.  Felts on the worn out gambling tables faded.  The steakhouse closed.  Valet service was discontinued.  The hotel shut down.  But amidst the decline and fall, as so so often we see when times aren’t so good, the people turn out to be so very good indeed and they even surprise you.  Those loyal employees who worked there towards the end stayed cheerful.  They almost always smiled.  They were good people.  They were hard-working people.  And sadly, they were the last voyagers on the teetering deck of a sinking ship.  Like the band that played on during the frigid night when the mighty Titanic plunged to the depths of the Atlantic, the people who gave the Las Vegas Club its memories despite all its defects kept their pride and worked until the fateful final hour.  The casino closed in 2015.

The Las Vegas Club didn’t try to be nice.  Carnivals aren’t nice either.  Neither are amusement parks nor state fairs nor sports stadiums.  Hell, a sleazy strip club called “Girls of Glitter Gulch” was just 25 feet from the main entrance, front door to the right.

The Las Vegas Club never pretended to be Paris or New York or Venice or a Mirage.  It was exactly what it advertised.  It was Las Vegas.

__________

JOIN THE DISCUSSION OF FAVORITE LAS VEGAS CLUB MEMORIES HERE ON FACEBOOK

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