Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice:
Chapter Two — Flops, Bets, Raises, and Folds (2001-2003)
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 with 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, Curacao, 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 1990s 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 some online sites later became quite proficient at catching cheaters and minimizing instances of hacking, the bandits also got more sophisticated in their methods combined with 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 were 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 make 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 a 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 into 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 were 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 dual 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.
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.
[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 “PartyPoker.com.”
Linda, Jan, and Mike informed me they were promoting a new poker site that was about to launch.
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 its 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. They were poker’s Federal Reserve. They were a printing press for profit.
Party Poker? That new site didn’t stand a chance.
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 was broken and the site never recovered.