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 PlanetPoker.com. To establish legitimacy, Planet immediately hired Mike Caro, then one of the most respected advocates and strategists in the game. Caro, who lived in Los Angeles, ran something called “Mike Caro University,” and went by the moniker “The Mad Genius of Poker,” was plucked to be the face of the new site. He served as Planet’s front man. Thus, Caro became the first online-endorsed poker celebrity of hundreds to come much later. His enthusiastic endorsement of Planet gave the website instant credibility. Roy Cooke, another highly-respected mid-stakes poker player from Las Vegas and fellow Card Player magazine columnist, was hired as the site’s first cardroom manager.
To truly understand the impact of Planet’s arrival on what was a then-dormant poker scene, one has to understand how bleak and barren the prospects were for most players in those early days during the 1990’s. Poker might was well have been Bridge, a dead game played mostly by old men with no life at all. Legal casino-style poker was available to players in only a handful of states. Except for in the West, the only three states where live casino poker was offered were Mississippi, Connecticut, and New Jersey (Florida allowed very small-stakes games). Where I lived, in Washington, D.C., the closest legal poker rooms were in Atlantic City — a four hour drive away. For millions of American poker players, there were zero viable safe options to play the game we loved close to home, other than private games which were so often slow and provided virtually no opportunity to make much money. Online poker meant that for the very first time, millions of people just like me could log in on a home computer, make a quick deposit with a major credit card (which was easy back then), and start playing poker. Best of all, the games usually went 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week.
Online poker was a life raft in a dead sea that would turn into an ocean liner. And no one dared to imagine the icebergs to come.
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 PlanetPoker.com — mostly $5-10 and $10-20 Limit Hold’em. Since I now had the option of playing as many hours per week as I wanted, marathons became the norm. If I’d earned $15 an hour in Atlantic City as a routine, then putting in 30-40 hours per week at home should have been easily worth an extra $2,000 a month. Probably more, since online poker dealt many more hands per hour. Plus, there were no commuting costs, no dealer tipping, and the rake was cheaper. What wasn’t to love about online poker?
Moreover, online poker allowed for easy multi-tasking. You could play online while watching television, or reading, or eating dinner, or drinking a beer. Then, there were the simple comforts of simply staying at home. No smelly pricks in the next seat telling bad beat stories or slow, lazy dealers. Online poker should have been heaven.
Instead, it was hell.
I lost my ass. I got killed. I couldn’t beat the games.
What the fuck!?!?!?
For five years, I’d kept meticulous cash game records. For 18 months, I even recorded every single live poker hand I played — numbering in the thousands — and exchanged strategy discussions with Larry Peters, an obsessive poker-playing Canadian from Thunder Bay who became a confidant and sounding board. I was never a great player. I know this. I freely admit this. But I was good enough. Good enough to beat really, really bad players, and Atlantic City was packed with bad players, no make that shitty players, many with far more cash than brains. Mining for poker gold was as easy as picking the seeds out of a watermelon (to be completely factual, Atlantic City’s poker games got much tougher later into the 1990’s than when it first started, when just about everyone was terrible).
Why was I losing online?
Recollections of how much I lost are but an invisible fog now. Perhaps a couple of thousand dollars — probably four deposits of $500 each. Not a fortune. But I should have been making money, instead of losing it.
About four months into my online poker experiment, after a fourth buy-in evaporated, that’s when it hit me: What kinds of poker players signed up in those first few months at the world’s only online site?
Answer: THE BEST PLAYERS!
Who else but the best players would even be aware of something called online poker, except for the most hard-core, dedicated, and experienced poker players in the world, mostly those leather asses who hung out on R.G.P. and posted 18 hours a day, people like me had exchanged poker hands and engaged in tireless discussions about the intricacies of when to three-bet and how to spot a bluff? The initial months of Planet games were dominated by solid, highly-dedicated players with multiple years of poker playing experience. Even the weaker players at the site weren’t all that bad. After all, they were spending time at online chat forums and reading Card Player, which carried the advertisements for Planet, and later the other sites.
Fact was, lousy players weren’t going to accidentally stumble upon a new poker site, pony up a $500 deposit, and enjoy the humiliation of getting hammered by online pros. Even the few suckers who managed to somehow find Planet didn’t seem to last very long.
Desperate to play in only the nest game with soft players, I kept notes on the names of terrible players, the weak-tight “calling stations” which are so emblematic of mediocrity in limit poker. Trouble was, they never stuck around for very long. They went bust and never came back. My poker results on Planet got worse over the four months when I played what amounted to nearly full-time hours.
Oh, and then there were the episodes of intense frustration, the occasional technical glitches, which could drive even the most emotionally stable player utterly insane.
Most people connected to the internet during the late 1990’s were using old-fashioned dial-up modems. That’s an archaic communication network by today’s standards, but which seemed like something from a N.A.S.A. space shoot back in 1998-1999. A weak dial-up link, or worse an unexpected disconnect, risked the possibility of losing a massive pot. Sometimes, the screen froze and you couldn’t log back in for an hour. It was madness.
Just about every online poker player has at least one nightmare story of holding a monster hand, getting multiple callers, and then having the screen freeze up like a fuckhouse during the middle of the hand. Plenty of creative cruse words were shouted at computer screens indifferent to passion. Mice were broken. Once, I slammed by hand so hard on the desktop, that I cracked a half-inch glass (my left wrist didn’t feel very good afterward, either).
Cats on the keyboard was another constant risk for those of us who were/are pet parents. More than once, I mis-clicked some ridiculous poker move because one of the cats decided to use my lap as a scratching post.
The craziest common routine happened when the entire Planet site went down, and would crash. No one could blame Planet for the glitch. The technicians simply couldn’t handle the high volume of traffic at peak playing times, so their servers crashed and everyone in the middle of hands with hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars on the virtual poker table were left with their dicks in their hands staring a continuous spinning symbol.
Sometime in the summer of 1998, I said enough of this piss-my-money parade. So, I went back to playing weekends in Atlantic City. That fall, I enjoyed one of my best NFL football betting seasons, winning about $20,000 over the course of four months. Hence, online poker became far less a priority, nor was it a passion any longer.
Sometime early in 1999, R.G.P. began a discussion about a new online poker site that was rumored to be much better than Planet. They would offer sign-up bonuses. The software was supposedly improved. It was called ParadisePoker.com.
I was intrigued.
PlanetPoker.com rightly deserves to be remembered as a poker pioneer. They established an early benchmark which came to define the essence of what an online poker site should be. I do feel sad that those fine people who were connected early to Planet didn’t all get rich and write their own stories of fame and success. They probably should have done much better and deserve far more credit than they are given by those who write history, including yours truly. Planet is but a faded footnote, now all but gone from memory.
Stuck about $2,000 for the short duration of my online poker career at this point, it was time to make a much-needed table change.
There was a new game in town. True to its name, it was called Paradise Poker.
Tales of Fast Money, Wicked Beats, and Broken Mice: Chapter Two — Flops, Bets, Raises, and Folds (2001-2003)
Photo Credit: The photo above shows one of the first online poker lobbies, at PlanetPoker.com.