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Posted by on Feb 22, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas, Personal, Sports Betting | 5 comments

20 Years of Online Poker: Star of the Party (2004-2006)



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

Chapter Four — Star of the Party (2004-2006)

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



One afternoon early in 2004, my Motorola flip phone rang and I took a call that changed my life.

Rich Korbin was on the line with Dan Goldman,’s Vice-President of Marketing.  I’d known Dan for years, spending many a boisterous night trading chips back and forth playing Pot-Limit Omaha whilst arguing about bourbon.  Dan and I developed a close friendship and strong working relationship when Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker, during which time he was the up-and-coming website’s point guard.  Dan was arguably the third most powerful mogul at PokerStars, after Isai Scheinberg and his son Mark Scheinberg, the site’s founders and owners.

PokerStars was determined to hire me.  They created a new position to be called “Director of Communications.”  PokerStars upped PartyPoker’s offer by ten percent, plus generous bonus incentives.  One clause stated that if PokerStars overtook PartyPoker as the #1 poker-playing website, I’d receive an extra $100,000.  There was also speculation PokerStars might eventually go public, just as PartyPoker soon did, in which case most execs would likely receive seven-figure packages.  This was a real chance to become a multi-millionaire while doing something I loved.  I had to pinch myself to believe my good fortune.

H.L. Mencken once said, “when someone says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”

Well, it wasn’t about the money.

Despite all the financial perks, PokerStars’ generous offer wasn’t the primary reason I decided to go to work for them.  It was about having a voice and being heard.  It was about having access to the top.  It was about having a seat at the table.  It was about the very real possibility of shaping an industry and making a difference in a multi-billion dollar company.  It was about being in the game.

Everyone in poker talks about “the big game.”  This phrase typically refers to a stratospheric high-stakes cash game going on somewhere, such as Aria or in Macau.  In 2004, poker’s biggest game wasn’t dealt on a green felt table.  The big game was played within the hidden walls of data centers stocked with servers uploaded with cutting-edge gaming software and sophisticated storage systems.  The big game was played over fiber-optic cables carrying a multitudinous number of kilobytes every millisecond.

The undisputed Goliath in this new game was PartyPoker, which by mid-2004 had way surpassed ParadisePoker and had pretty much become the online poker industry’s equivalent of Coca-Cola and Pepsi combined.  PokerStars ranked a distant second.  Other sites were scrapping to increase their own market share — notably Full Tilt, UltimateBet, Absolute, BoDog, DoylesRoom, 888Poker, and others.  Most sites were burning money trying to outspend each other.  Between 2004 and 2006, every luck box who won a major televised poker tournament was signing a deal.  Every D-List Hollywood celebrity who couldn’t get a call back from a studio was endorsing an online poker site.  Online poker wasn’t the Wild West anymore.  It was the Gold Rush.

I made a final decision and picked my team in the big game.

I accepted PokerStars’ offer and began working immediately.

But it wasn’t about the money.



Leaving the Horseshoe and joining PokerStars was like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

PokerStars was growing so fast that no one could keep up.  About the time I started working for them, there were maybe 60 full-time employees in the entire company spread all over the world, and half of those were assigned to customer support.  Isai resided in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto.  Mark lived in London.  Dan lived in Los Angeles.  Rich lived in Denver.  Terrence Chan, hired to oversee Customer Support, lived in Vancouver.  Thomas Koo was also in support and lived in Costa Rica.  Joe Versaci, who handled advertising, lived in Ohio.  Lee Jones, hired about the same time who became Card Room Manager, lived in the Bay Area.  I was the only PokerStars employee based in Las Vegas.  Later, PokerStars set up company offices on the Isle of Man.  But during the early years, most employees worked out of their homes.

Initially, most PokerStars staff were American or Canadian.  That’s because most of the players/customers were North Americans.  We sure as hell didn’t want the operation to resemble some call center based in the Philipines.  That would slowly change during the mid-2000’s, prompted by unforeseen legal obstacles and the explosion of the European poker market, which would ultimately surpass traffic from the U.S. and Canada.  Within five years, PokerStars would go from a tightly-knit cyber confederation of close friends and colleagues unified by a single purpose and a common mission to a vast European-based international company.  But, stop.  Misdeal.  I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Every week was the start of some new project.  Every day was an adventure.  This edginess was totally crafted by design, inspired by the mysterious man at the top.

One of these days, hopefully soon, people connected to poker will come to know and better understand the monumental contributions made to the growth of the game by Isai Scheinberg.  His personal ambition, his management style, his attention to even the most absurd tiny detail should be the curriculum for courses taught at Wharton or the London Business School.  Blending his background in computers and high-tech from working as a programmer at IBM Canada, Isai created PokerStars in 2001 and until 2014 when he sold his company for $4.9 billion, never seemed to take a day off.

To give a better perspective of Isai, consider that he bought his family home in Richmond Hill sometime during the mid-1980, about the time he immigrated to Canada from Israel.  Years later, after Isai had clearly joined the exclusive billionaires club, despite being perhaps 1,000-times richer, Isai was still living in the same house.  Isai wanted no publicity for himself whatsoever.  To this day, I don’t think he’s ever given a press interview.  Most of the people in company never met him and wouldn’t recognize the man if he knocked on their front door.

This isn’t to say Isai was frugal, nor were there strict reigns on budgets at PokerStars.  To the contrary.  Isai was generous, almost to a fault.  Some of the early programmers who worked with him on design and did preliminary Beta testing were awarded six- and seven-figure packages.  Many deals were done the old-fashioned way, with handshakes.   The man’s word was his bond.  Isai also raised exorbitant amounts for charity and disaster relief, in most cases for causes that had nothing to do with gambling, poker, nor any relation to geography.  A human need was a human need.  To do the right thing was the right thing.  Among insiders at PokerStars, the stories are legendary.

Perhaps the longer story will be told someday.



Things got off to a rocky start.

My first day began with the initial conference call, ultimately kickstarting the bold new venture which was to become the European Poker Tour (EPT).  My preliminary instructions were, “We’re thinking about starting a new televised poker tour over in Europe and we need you on the call.”

Umm, okay.  How exactly does on prepared for that?

PokerStars was the antithesis of a 9-5 job.  You might as well have ripped clocks off every wall in the house and thrown your wristwatch into the garbage.  Night or day — what time it was didn’t mean shit.  I’d been tasked by Dan to be available at any minute, and since everyone was scattered across different times zones — Isai was in Toronto and the other main player in the project was John Duthie, who was based in London, plus a few techies from Sky UK (TV) — lining up all the moving pieces on the chessboard took some doing.  That’s one of the disadvantages of living in the West because late afternoon across the ocean is very early morning here.  Over the next many years, I was on many a conference calls scheduled at 5 am.  At least I could explain the occasional lapse with the excuse, “I’m not a morning person.”  But what I quickly learned was — I was now working for a 24/7 company which was engaged with clients and customers all over the world.

Given my background working for the WSOP which had provided close proximity to ESPN, Isai likely assumed I had intimate working knowledge of television production, costs, and so forth — which certainly wasn’t the case at the time.

Creation and financing of the EPT were to be done with one purpose in mind, and that was to get on television with a regular program that would blanket the European continent.

The pillar of success in the online poker business had been sculpted by our primary rival, PartyPoker.  Just a few years earlier, PartyPoker had been a floundering startup company, very likely to go under and be forgotten had it not been for the exemplary marketing brilliance of Mike Sexton, then their main spokesperson.  [ADDED FOOTNOTE:  Vikrant Bhargava, Party’s Vice-President of Marketing also merits much of the credit]

Mike had dual roles in poker, much like myself, which was quite common back in those days.  He was the announcer for the World Poker Tour (WPT).  He also appeared in most of the commercials which aired during the broadcast for PartyPoker.  Mike famously told the other PartyPoker executives, “Buy all the TV advertising you can!  Buy it all up!  Take every spot you can get!”  That sage marketing advice might not seem so innovative in today’s climate.  But back then, no one knew if television commercials promoting an online poker site would prove successful.  It could have bombed.  PartyPoker could have lost millions.  I’m sure Mike was paid millions for his work at PartyPoker, but whatever they gave him wasn’t enough.  They should have quadrupled it.  Without Mike and his knowledge, the site might have ended up like HighlandPoker or any of the other bumblefuck websites which crashed and burned and ended up in the online scrapyard.

This point cannot be overstated as it bears to the overall  20-year history of online poker.  Anyone watching the nationally-televised WPT, which was drawing about a million viewers a week, would eventually (perhaps inevitably) want to play poker.  So, they’d log onto their home computers, easily download the PartyPoker gaming software, and be soon hooked to the action like bristlemouths netted by a giant fishing boat out in the Pacific.

In short, though he didn’t vocalize it in that way, we were determined to copy the Mike Sexton/WPT/PartyPoker strategy and apply the same model to Europe.  Though PartyParty would be none too pleased, I suppose there’s a truism to the old line about imitation being the best form of flattery.

The phone rang, the discussion began, and then out of nowhere, the questions came….

“Nolan, what do you think of the show’s bumpers?”

“Nolan, are these production costs in line with what you experienced with ESPN?”

“Nolan, should we outsource the entire thing or hire entirely in-house?”

While someone from Sky UK asked me something about poker demographics in Europe contrasted with the network’s distribution, I was furiously Google searching — what in the hell is Sky UK (TV)?

Headlights meet deer.

My first day on the job was a disaster.

Fortunately, things were about to turn around fast.  In poker, this is what we call — going on a rush.



Working as Director of Communications for PokerStars was like being the tour manager of the Rolling Stones at the height of their popularity, only with less heroin and lots more booze.  We lived and played and worked and partied like rock stars.

I never worked harder.  I also never had more fun.  I traveled constantly.  I had meetings at casinos at 2 am.  I never called in sick — because there was no such thing as calling in sick.  I never asked to take a day off nor requested a vacation — because there was no such thing as a day off or a vacation.  You didn’t have to ask permission.  Ever.  So long as the work got done and the mission was advanced, which was to catch PartyPoker, no one gave a damn about your schedule or personal habits.  It was the ultimate in Byzantine libertarianism.

We met with movie stars.  We partied with the Miami Heat.  We hosted Shaq O’Neal’s 33rd birthday party.  We crafted deals with NHL teams.  We sponsored boxers.  We signed comedians.  We paid celebrities to wear our logo.  We went to Le Mans car races.  We even met Donald Trump.

[Read more:  “The Night I Met Donald Trump at Shaq O’Neal’s 33rd Birthday Party”]

We held jam-packed press conferences in New York, announcing the signings of new poker ambassadors.  We made the cover of Cigar Aficionado.  We did a press event in Dallas with a poker game for celebrities, and half the Dallas Mavericks team showed up.  We had a private box at a Mavericks game and owner Mark Cuban came up to see us, eager to meet the new 2004 world poker champion, Greg Raymer, who had just signed a major deal with us.

We even got a feature story aired on 60 Minutes, widely considered the pinnacle of mass media exposure.  The show was watched by an estimated 16 million viewers, making it very likely the single most viewed poker-related television broadcast of all time.  CBS legend Dan Rather was still working as one of the correspondents.  Supposedly sick of interviewing presidents and prime ministers, Rather specifically asked for the assignment (I would find out later when I spoke with him in the CBS studio) and flew back from another story he had been working on in Japan just to interview Chris Moneymaker and do the voiceover for the feature.  It was just about the coolest thing ever in the wacky wheelhouse of my experiences to say I got to stand there watching a story on 60 Minutes being taped at STUDIO 33, inside CBS Studios on W. 57th Street, which was the longtime home of so many iconic programs, including the CBS Evening News hosted by Walter Cronkite.  By the way, the most popular TV show now being shot and recorded at that location is probably Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

More than a few times I secretly thought to myself — I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.  I love my life.

Ignited by Isai and Mark, and kindled by Dan, the spark of a new idea was always welcome in any discussion.  We held phone calls and exchanged e-mails constantly.  No idea was off the table.  Nothing was too crazy.  This “outside the box” thinking encouraged creativity.  Knowing that you wouldn’t be laughed at by your peers (and more important — superiors) was a great investiture of confidence.  I’ve never been a student of business school but if I was giving a lecture of prospective M.B.A.s, that attitude of openness would be at the top of my list.

[One example of PokerStars’ freewheeling management style was my proposal to buy the NFL’s New Orleans Saints right after the Hurricane Katrina disaster.  The Sporting News story can be read here.  My original story, “How PokerStars Almost Offered to Buy the NFL”s New Orleans Saints,” in much greater detail can be read here.]

PokerStars wasn’t a workplace.  It was a culture.  It was a mindset.  While it will sound arrogant and probably piss off rivals who worked at the time for other sites, PokerStars had the superior product.  We had the best game interface.  We had exemplary customer support.  For instance, one strictly-enforced rule at PokerStars was — all customer inquiries, including detailed complaints, were to be addressed within one hour.  With thousands of players from around the globe who spoke dozens of different languages constantly sending in questions about money transfers, operations, the inevitable charges of cheating/collusion, and around the clock threats from hackers and blackmailers, I have no earthly idea how so many good people whose names will not be mentioned were able to do their jobs so well and maintain such a constant level of professionalism.  Similarly, the people who specialized in online security, some who I knew quite well long before we were all working together at PokerStars, truly were the anonymous champions of the company.

When you get right down to it, being Director of Communications wasn’t hard.  It was a glamor job.  I might as well have been head of PR for Lexus or Apple — highly-respected companies widely acknowledged to produce superior products.  Selling PokerStars to the booming online gambling market was like doing marketing for Guinness beer in Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day — I mean, how hard could this job be?

By 2005, we’d locked up the previous three world poker champions under contract (Chris Moneymaker-2003, Greg Raymer-2004, and Joe Hachem-2005).  We were about to sign two more superstars — Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein.  We were also carpet bombing the airwaves with television commercials just about everywhere.  The EPT was underway.  And PokerStars’ market share steadily continued to rise.

PartyPoker had been so far ahead at one point, they were completely out of our sights.

Now, we could see their taillights.



Sometimes, a believer in a cause can be made into an even stronger believer and when that happens, he becomes a diehard activist.

I became a diehard online poker activist in mid-2005 following a goodwill tour of Washington, D.C. which was designed to rally support for online poker’s legalization inside the United States.

More background is needed here:  Although just about anyone could play online poker in the U.S., outdated federal laws made this a confusing issue.  Online poker sites couldn’t base their operations on American soil, which would have been regarded as illegal gambling businesses and promptly shut down.  All the major online gambling-related sites, including poker companies, circumvented federal intervention by basing servers and day-to-day operations outside the U.S.  Technically, I wasn’t even an employee of PokerStars.  I was a consultant.  Some poker sites were located on Caribbean Islands.  Others were based in Central America.  Malta, an island-nation in the Mediterranean, became a haven for online gambling business startups.  Even tribal lands in Canada, most notably the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, housed some of the world’s most sophisticated and highly profitable servers.  Some shortsighted companies, many with shady ownership, wanted to remain in the dark and quietly go about their business.  Others online poker/gambling companies, including PokerStars, sought total legitimacy and transparency.  They/we wanted to be taxed and regulated.  So, they/we helped to create and partially funded the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), which lobbied for online legalization and a sort of Bill of Rights for all poker players.

I’ve always been a political person.  So, this was a natural calling.  Before relocating to Las Vegas, I’d spent more than a decade living and working in Washington, despising those thousands of the silk-suited lobbyists jerking the chains of lapdog politicians and leading them to the puppy bowl of campaign money.  This was familiar territory.  This time I wore the silk suit.

Our poker delegation was a motley crew.  It was comprised of reigning world champ Greg Raymer, who happened to be an attorney before cashing his $5 million title windfall; Chris Ferguson, certainly one of the game’s most recognizable figures; Howard Lederer, who like Ferguson was a major shareholder in Full Tilt, and myself in the less visible, behind-the-scenes role.

By mid-2005, poker was plastered all over TV, especially sports channels.  Those who appeared on poker shows became the latest mavens of pop culture, with Andy Warhol holding a stopwatch.  With his distinctive cowboy hat and Jesus-like appearance, Ferguson stood out on the steps of the U.S. Capitol like John Wayne riding into town on a horse.  Everywhere we walked, Ferguson (and Raymer to a lesser extent) was recognized and approached for an autograph.  Autograph requests became so common, they began carrying Sharpies whenever they went out in public.

Congress is a beast, its cranky machinery greased by a sizable contingent of super-dedicated and idealistic young people, most in their 20’s who watch sports channels during their off time.  This I know, because I used to be one.  Somehow, the PPA pulled off the political coup of the year when they somehow were able to commandeer an entire congressional hearing room located inside the Cannon House Office Building, which is kinda’ akin to the Times Square of political real estate.  Lobbying groups typically don’t get afforded hearing rooms used for official business on government property.  How they pulled off that feat remains a mystery to this day.  Raymer, Ferguson, Lederer, and myself — we each made brief statements and answered questions — most directed at Ferguson and Raymer, naturally, because they were the recognizable stars everyone wanted to see and hear.  The turnout was a shocker.  The room was packed with perhaps 250-300 press people, congressional staffers and even a few congressmen, such as co-sponsors of some bills to make online poker legal.  During my time in Washington, it was rare to see activities held in committee rooms draw more than a few dozen in the gallery, and here we’d drawn ten times that number.  The poker players were greeted like celebrities.

The great irony (and tragedy) of this story is the hypocrisy.  Some percentage of those young bright-eyed congressional staffers who gathered inside that room, who couldn’t wait to get autographs and cozy up for pictures with Ferguson and Raymer, would end up implementing the dirty work for the very same legislators who ultimately passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which was the Pearl Harbor surprise attack on our industry a year later.  On the clock, they were dutiful cavalrymen who muscled the bloody raid to stamp out online poker.  Off the clock, many of these staffers were playing online poker on their home computers next to framed pictures of themselves with poker champions.

My resolve on this issue was about to turn into zealotry, and I don’t use that word hyperbolically.

The day following our press conference on Capitol Hill — Raymer, Ferguson, Lederer, and I paid visits to the Walter Reed Medical Center and Armed Forces Retirement Home both located on sprawling estates in suburban Maryland.  We’d developed some close contacts with American military personnel, in many countries.  A sizable contingent of America’s military force, including those on active duty serving in war zones, were avid online poker players.  This was no surprise to us since military life comes with lots of downtime and poker has been a tradition with soldiers since the Civil War.

Nothing could have prepared me for the interactions I was about to witness.  Many residents and long-term patients of the facilities were combat veterans who had suffered indescribable physical deformities and mental anguish.  Some were unable to live and function in society, at large.  They needed physical and emotional support.  Arms and legs were missing and in some cases, their faces were blown off during battles in frightening, faraway places like Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars which had begun three years earlier and were still going full throttle.  These were proud men who may have been confined to wheelchairs but who still stood tall.  Without exception, they wanted to live their lives with some resemblance of normalcy.  On the outside, they may have looked broken.  But inside they were strong, even spirited.  And many we met and saw that day were dedicated online poker players eager to meet the poker celebs.

When we arrived, these resident ex-soldiers — many in rolling wheelchairs, some hobbling on crutches, others resting in contorted positions — greeted our delegation with appreciation, when the sick irony of all ironies was, we should have been the ones bestowing our appreciation to them.  Raymer spent hours talking poker strategy with wounded vets.  Ferguson did some really cool magic tricks.  Lederer told poker stories of what it was like to play for millions of dollars.  The heroes who had toppled Saddam Hussein were just like everyone else, excited to be around famous poker people.

Soldiers shared their remarkable stories with us, but they didn’t want to talk about war.  Their stories were unexpected and unrehearsed, told in various ways that online poker had helped them to recover.  Confined to medical units in some cases for months or even years, poker enabled them to use their minds, compete with their peers, and have fun.  It was a chance to feel alive again.  No one knew the player with the screen name “Tommy1981” from Silver Spring, MD was covered in skin grafts confined to a burn unit at Walter Reed Medical.  In online poker, there are no deformities.  There are no handicapped people.

Most of those we met played small-stakes poker in .25-cent-.50 cent games.  Some played in $5 or $10 poker tournaments where a few bucks provided many hours of entertainment and enjoyment, with a chance to make a few bucks or perhaps win a trip to a live event.  In most cases, these wounded warriors couldn’t play sports or visit a live casino, but they could compete in an online poker game and have just as much fun as anyone else because it was so convenient.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, that’s when I realized the work I was doing wasn’t just “about the money,” as H.L. Mencken cynically proselytized nearly a century earlier.  It wasn’t just protecting my self-interest.  Working for PokerStars and becoming a tireless advocate for online poker’s legalization had become a calling, and a mission.

Coming Next:


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

Chapter Five — After UIGEA, the Party’s Over (2007-2010)


Photo Credit:  With Dan Rather in New York at the taping of a feature story on online poker, which aired on “60 Minutes.”


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Posted by on Feb 15, 2018 in Blog, Essays, General Poker, Las Vegas | 6 comments

20 Years of Online Poker: Poker’s Sonic Boom (2003-2004)



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

Chapter Three — Poker’s Sonic Boom (2003-2004)

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



The story could be told — and perhaps someday will — on the colossal clusterfuck that was the Binion’s Horseshoe casino and hotel during the final two wild wacko years while I worked there as the often graven and always half-shaven public relations man hired to faithfully apply lipstick on the frowning face of a pig.

An entire chapter could be filled with prose recounting dealings I witnessed during the first online-live casino negotiations, a contentious exchange that would foreshadow a constant tug-of-war between brick and mortar establishments and the new kids on the block loaded with money — the online sites.  We were struggling to keep the doors open and the lights on, reading meanwhile about online poker companies doubling in size every few months.  The Horseshoe couldn’t pay the employees’ health insurance coverage (yes, the insurance company got stiffed), and here were these arrogant online sites with virtually no overhead or regulators tossing around cash like it was confetti at a Mardi Gras parade.  The uneasy truce between brick and mortar hardliners versus the online sites would occasionally be broken by threats and flash points.  They were bitter rivals, when it seems so obvious now — they should have been partners working together.  Old school poker rooms and Las Vegas casinos (specifically — their owners) hated the online poker sites., was a U.K.-based poker club in London and affiliated website that desperately wanted to partner-up with the World Series of Poker, the biggest and most respected brand in the game.  So, Gutshot’s executives flew across the Atlantic to try and negotiate a deal.  We had glorious dinners with open bottles of Grand Mariner on white tablecloths maestroed by Horseshoe strongman Nick Behnen, peppered with dialogue seemingly taken straight out of The Godfather.  Wedged in between Nick, who I directly worked for and reported to….and Barry Martin, one of the execs who owned and ran Gutshot, and Derek Kelly being the other, I felt like a fly on the wall trapped in between Hyman Roth, Michael Corleone, and Tom Hagen.

I introduce this chapter with the Gutshot story because it so painfully reveals the U.S. land-based casino’s (and my own) utter embarrassing and unequivocal cluelessness about online poker and the rapidly changing future of the game.

Even though I’d been an active online player for years, even at this later stage of poker evolution, I was still skeptical.

At one point during our conversation which was increasingly contentious and turned into more of an argument, Barry Martin flat out insisted that if we (the Horseshoe) gave Gutshot our blessing — which meant Gutshot could use our name in promoting satellites for the upcoming World Series of Poker — they would guarantee to ship us 100 players into the next year’s tournament.

I told Barry he was insane.  Straight to his face.  I think I even laughed.

Barry couldn’t have handled my insult with more class.  Derek, too.  The took turns calmly explaining the Horseshoe was sitting on an absolute gold mine, which was its proud tradition and the powerful WSOP brand.  They conveyed that by granting (essentially licensing) online poker rooms to run satellites and other tournaments connected to the WSOP, we’d all come out way ahead.

Still, Barry’s boastful calculations seemed optimistic, if not absurd to me.  The previous year, the WSOP Main Event Championship drew 631 entrants.  Barry’s claim that Gutshot could ship in another 100 players into the pool amounted to what would have added another 1/6th of the field.

Preposterous.  No online poker site can deliver that kind of traffic to a live poker tournament.  The Gutshot execs were crazy.

Of course, Barry and Derek saw the future.  They knew what was to come.  And we did not.  We were still wearing blinders and the race was already on.

The stunning and spectacular events of the 2003 WSOP would rip that blindfold off in a big way, fortunately leaving no scars.

[There’s far more to the Gutshot negotiations, of course.  But some stories will have to wait for another time.]



I didn’t play much online poker during 2003 and 2004.  I didn’t have the time.  I was too busy.

Funny that poker pro David Bach (a.k.a. “Gunslinger”) made an interesting comment about yesterday’s chapter.  Bach stated he regretted spending so much time playing online poker during its formative days.   Instead, Bach asserts, he wished he’d worked on the house side of the equation, or perhaps owned a piece of the action.  That might seem like an odd comment from someone who has risen to the top of his profession and earned more than $4 million in poker tournaments, to date.

I say Bach’s comment is odd, because — many of us who worked on the house side of poker for many years and dedicated much of our adult lives to working and running games and tournaments quietly wonder where we might have ended up had we applied our talents and spent all those hours becoming more proficient at poker.  Might we have become the Raymer’s and Hachem’s?  I suppose the grass is always greener….

As I said, there was no time to play online poker, anyway.  My “come and go as you please” and “gamble and drink on the job all you want” dream gig somehow metastasized into a 70-hour-a-week job with no bonus paid for overtime, and a notepad of headaches.

One afternoon (my hours were typically noon ’til midnight), I went into the Horseshoe and saw Warren Schaeffer, who ran both the poker room and the sportsbook, but was really a close confidant of the Family.  He told me about a meeting later that day with a couple of executives from  Like the earlier pitch from Gutshot, Party also saw the enormous potential of partnering with the WSOP for promotional purposes.

Four of us met, including Warren, myself and two executives from PartyPoker, including Vikrant Bhargava (I can’t recall the name of the other person). CORRECTION:  A previous version of this text incorrectly identified the second executive as Anurag Dikshit, who was later charged by the U.S. Government for violating the 1961 Wire Act, resulting in the payment of a whopping $300 million fine.  Thanks to former Party exec Michael O’Malley for identifying this error. had gone bonkers during the span I was putting in crazy hours at the Horseshoe.  The site no one had ever heard of with a kiddie-sounding name and seemingly level of seriousness that came with popping a bag of balloons flourished into the General Motors, the Apple, and the Chase Bank of the global poker scene.

Thanks to its affiliation with the weekly-televised World Poker Tour, incessant and clever advertising, and hyper-aggressive marketing savvy in numerous countries all over the world, Party became a giant.  It turned its owner, Ruth Parasol, into one of the world’s richest women.

Party was eager to have it all and own everything.  Not content with displacing Paradise at some point during 2003, Party not only wanted to be the “go to” site for the millions who were tuning in to watch the WPT on television.  Party also sought an alliance with the Horseshoe, the WSOP, and by association — ESPN.

What they were really going after was something later to be called a “strategic partnership,” which is just an MBA’s fancy way of saying — “I’ll  scratch your back if you scratch mine.”  Years later, “strategic partnerships” would become standard business practice between major poker competitors when the online companies crafted deals with land-based casinos all over the world.  But long before there was cooperation, there was suspicion and war.

The meeting went well, incredibly well as things turned out.  Party’s execs must have thought they’d succeeded, by plucking the final prized jewel in the poker power crown.  Warren and I expected to return to the Horseshoe, explain a possible new deal with Party that could have brought in some cash, and receive hearty congratulations from the Family.

Instead, we were told –no.  All deals were frozen.  No more negotiations would take place.  We were not to have any more meetings with anyone.

Talks were underway in another part of Las Vegas.  On another subject.

Discussions to sell the Horseshoe were underway.



Much has been written about the 2003 WSOP and I’ve contributed to some of that famous legacy.  That series was surely the turning point.  It was a demarcation.  It made careers.  It changed lives. There was an era pre-2003 WSOP, and the era post-2003 WSOP.  For the modern poker era, it might as well be B.C. and A.D.

Shortly after Chris Moneymaker won, I made an off-hand comment with absolutely no forethought to a reporter who happened to be working for the Associated Press.  The AP was the gold standard of print journalism.  Being “picked up by the AP” meant your name would appear in hundreds of newspapers.

I labeled Moneymaker’s shocking victory “poker’s sonic boom.”

That line was plastered everywhere.

The description isn’t hyperbole.  If poker before Moneymaker had been a propeller plane, his David slaying Goliath victory shown on ESPN that summer during a dead TV time because there was a Major League Baseball strike was essentially breaking the sound barrier with a rocket.


Traffic at online poker sites, particularly, which had jettisoned a somewhat reluctant Nashville-based accountant to fly to Las Vegas and play in the WSOP, exploded as reports began to air and stories were printed.  Party was still king, but Stars began making a major move and would soon become the second-largest online poker site, surpassing Paradise.  Stars’ niche was multi-table tournaments, which increasingly became an attraction for new poker converts caught up in the excitement of seeing poker on TV for the first time and wanting in on the action.  Moneymaker’s victory and the successive fallout also set off a second wave of new online poker start-ups, some of which were tragically flawed and stood no chance of succeeding.  Others withstood growing pains and carved out their own niches in the perpetually bustling new online poker market.

In the coming months, casinos that had previously considered poker the gambling industry’s step-child, a common mindset which had all but made poker a dead game in Las Vegas by closing down rooms, began re-opening and marketing poker to traffic on The Strip.  B.C. (make that “B.M. — before Moneymaker”) there were only a handful of busy rooms in the city.  A.D. (make that “A.M. — after Moneymaker”) poker room opened up at Bally’s, Flamingo, MGM, Las Vegas Hilton, Golden Nugget, Union Plaza, Hard Rock, Tuscany, and several smaller properties.

Online poker wasn’t cannibalizing the poker market.  It was creating it.

Online poker planted millions of seeds all over the world.  During the next few years, those seeds would become a jungle of an estimated 15-20 million active online players.



Evidence that poker was in the midst of a tornado, aimlessly headed to destinations unknown, became abundantly clear when a bizarre thing happened at a poker tournament held a few months later in Atlantic City.

Matt Savage, the WSOP’s tournament director joined Barry Shulman, Card Player’s CEO who were consultants on what was to be the first (and only) major poker tournament ever held at the Sands, which would be imploded by a demolition squad just a few years later.  The Sands wanted in badly on the poker action.  So, Sands’ owner Carl Ichan (the investment titan, then the 15th richest man in the world) and his casino management team hired Savage and Shulman to run their event — and they brought me in to handle the PR.  The Sands was going all out.  They even worked a deal with NBC to televise the poker championship, which was to be called “Showdown at the Sands.”

The event turned into a sideshow and a circus.  At one point, I spotted Doyle Brunson, who’d flown across the country to play, sitting in the back of the room shivering in a blanket.  There were licensing issues and problems with the New Jersey Gambling Control Board.  Staff got into fights.  Then, the television crew came up with a crazy idea to place heart monitors on each player at the final table in some poorly-conceived attempt to add to the poker drama by showing the players’ heart rate when shoving all-in with a bluff.  The only problem was, the heart monitors didn’t work because players kept scratching themselves, giving off false readings.  The tournament was a disaster.

Even more interesting — Ben Affleck was dating Jennifer Lopez at the time.  Both were scheduled to show up and stay at the Sands because Affleck decided he wanted to play.  Affleck was in the middle of his poker phase at the time.  J-Lo knew she’d be bored to tears for hours if not days while Affleck was downstairs competing in the championship.  So, she invited her mother to come down from New York City and join the celebrity power couple.  While everything else was going on, Affleck, Lopez, and her mom were seen hanging out in the poker room, the two Lopez’s were none too pleased with the arrangement.  Hounded by autograph seekers, Affeck and Lopez openly argued.  Eager to get away from the swarms of gawkers, Lopez’s mother started playing $25 slots, and hit a jackpot.  That brief moment of ecstasy likely bought Affleck a little extra time and a temporary reprieve from J-Lo’s nagging.  Still, Affleck busted out on the first day.

What was even more bizarre was the obscene bidding war that broke out between rival online poker sites when the final tablists had been determined.  Eager to get their logos on national television, the bidding started at $20,000.  Some players got $50,000.  The chip leaders negotiated their price all the way up to a staggering $100,000.

$100,000… wear a fucking patch.

Poker had indeed changed.  Nothing was the same.

The world had gone crazy.



When I returned to Las Vegas from Atlantic City, I received an interesting phone call.  Apparently, my previous meeting with Mr. Dikshit had made an impression.  Dikshit, speaking on behalf of Party Poker’s management team, informed that they wanted to hire me.

The offer on the table was $120,000  per year to start, plus a nice year-end bonus.  I’d be a consultant.  And, Party wanted me to continue working at the Horseshoe and for the WSOP.  It was a stunning moment.

Officially, I’d be writing content for Party and their website.  I’d established a pretty decent reputation as a fast and prolific writer, especially on the subject of poker.  I privately wondered if Party’s generosity a payoff disguised as a job, but I learned that was not the case.  Dikshit genuinely liked my work and thought I could add to Party’s position as the world’s preeminent poker site.

I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know what to do.

As 2003 came to an end, I found myself at the apex of the poker universe.  A bi-weekly column in Card Player.  Director of Public Relations for Binion’s Horseshoe.  Media Director for the World Series of Poker.  A paid part-time consultancy for Shulman Media.  And now, an offer was on the table to work in media for the world’s biggest and richest poker company.

I almost accepted the position but decided to wait until after the holidays and the coming new year.  My concern with the odd arrangement (not to mention the conflict of interest) was — I didn’t know what the Family would say.  By that, I meant Nick and Becky.

Those concerns were obliterated on the morning of January 9th, 2004, when Binion’s Horseshoe, the crumbling ruin of a former empire and the final vestige of the Old West that had once transformed dusty Las Vegas into a neon-lit magnet of vice, shuddered its windows and was padlocked by U.S. Marshalls in a legal struggle that would become the final nail in a coffin filled with memories.

Suddenly out of work and no place to go, I was about to gleefully accept Party’s offer.  But by some accident, I ran into a dear friend who took an immediate and unexpected interest in my career and future.

When told of my intent to go to work for Party, Rich Korbin begged me to hold off and apply the breaks.  “Give me 24 hours,” he said.

Korbin was the Director of Marketing for

Entirely out of friendship and my respect for Rich, I agreed to wait 24 hours before calling Party with my final decision and acceptance of their generous offer, made even more attractive now by the sudden realization I was unemployed.

I wasn’t sure exactly what Rich was up to.

And so, I waited.

It was a long 24 hours.


Coming Next:

Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice:  Chapter Four — Star of the Party (2004-2006)


Photo Credit:  The photo above was taken by Eric Harkins (ImageMasters) at the 2003 World Series of Poker.


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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.]



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’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, 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.



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.



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. 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 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  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. 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.



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]



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 “”

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.



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, 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  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 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]



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  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.



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.



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 — 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?


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

I was intrigued. 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


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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




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

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.






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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