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The Certain and Uncertain Future of Poker

Tuesday's Full Tilt settlement and a trip to the richest poker tournament in the history of the world

After 15 months of speculation, frustration, and general inertia, the former online poker players of America finally heard the good news on Tuesday. A deal had been struck between the online gaming sites Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, and the Department of Justice. Another deal between the DOJ and Absolute Poker was reported with details forthcoming. The early details are startling: PokerStars, one of the three companies shut down last April, will purchase its former competitor, Full Tilt, and pay the U.S. government $547 million to settle a civil lawsuit the government brought against Full Tilt. A portion of that money will be used to reimburse U.S.-based Full Tilt players who had their accounts frozen during the shutdown. PokerStars agreed to directly pay back another $184 million to non-U.S. customers to settle their outstanding balances.

The agreement signaled the imminent return of online poker in the United States after a lengthy hiatus that damaged the poker industry with dropping television ratings, waning interest, and a litany of lawsuits against sites like Full Tilt. Nobody thinks that PokerStars would have invested $731 million without some certainty that online poker would soon be legal in the United States.

It’s worth asking, though: Has poker’s moment passed? Has the biggest fad in the past 25 years of gaming — one that spawned movies, TV series, clothing companies, hundreds of books, and its own pidgin language — given up the ghost?

On April 16, 2011, the poker industry — a term that loosely refers to a collective of casino companies, offshore gambling websites, publications like Card Player and Bluff, and several major television networks — faced an unprecedented problem. At a time when print media, restaurants, car dealerships, and every other manner of industry scrambled to figure out profitable ways to move their businesses online, poker’s stewards were charged with analogging a database-driven game that had already matched pace with the processing and networking power of the Internet. On April 15, 2011, now known in poker circles as “Black Friday,” the Department of Justice unsealed indictments against Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, and Absolute Poker. The spectacular, frankly bizarre allegations against three of online poker’s biggest sites and the subsequent locking of player accounts effectively put an end to real-money online play in the United States. There are still poker sites that are allowed to operate in the United States, but according to most estimates, the total amount of money wagered has fallen by more than 80 percent in the past year. The industry has since learned — not surprisingly — that the sudden death of online poker in the United States had no spillover effect. The online whizzes, degenerates, and losers did not drive to their neighborhood casinos.

Before Black Friday, poker’s rise as a viable, televised industry traveled along a highly trafficked and widening circuit. Events like the World Series of Poker inspired people to play, and many of those new players found games online. As tournaments grew in size and prize pools got gaudier, television and the publishing industry both got more involved, thereby opening up more advertising space for said online sites. When those websites, for all intents and purposes, ceased to exist, a shadow world crumpled in on itself.

Everything in poker is down these days. It’s not clear if or when online poker will make a full return to the United States, and it’s possible that in the interim, something else might fill poker’s place as America’s card game of choice. Which is why, at this year’s World Series of Poker, one of the world’s richest and most accomplished showmen — a man who has been to space — got together with a former Internet gaming pioneer and put together something that might give poker a much-needed kick in the ass.

Last October, Guy Laliberte, a street performer turned billionaire and founder of Cirque du Soleil, invited his friend Mitch Garber, CEO of Caesars Interactive Entertainment and former head of PartyGaming, an online gambling site, to a Montreal Canadiens game. Laliberte, who has carved out a niche as one of the billionaires who occasionally show up at televised poker events, told Garber about his plan to create the richest poker tournament in the history of the world. Roughly 11 percent of the total cash pot would go to One Drop, Laliberte’s charity organization. The buy-in for the tournament would be one million dollars.

The players for the One Drop would be comprised of the world’s most celebrated poker celebrities, a few businessmen with unfathomable wealth, and perhaps a couple dreamers who qualified via satellite tournaments or through a lottery drawing held in Quebec.

Who wouldn’t sign off on that elevator pitch? Forty-eight of the world’s richest and most skilled gamblers converge on the World Series of Poker to battle it out for an $18.3 million first prize!

Does the amount of money really make a difference in the public’s interest in poker? The origin story of the “poker boom” starts in 2003, when a young accountant named Chris Moneymaker qualified for the main event of the World Series of Poker through a $39 buy-in tournament on PokerStars, then took down the grifter legends of the game and won a $2.5 million first prize. The gulf between Moneymaker’s investment and his payout, along with his frankly remarkable unremarkableness, coincided with a giant leap in the game’s marketing and popularity. The origin story would have you believe that the poker boom happened because average people suddenly realized that by stringing together some luck and skill, they could climb the mountaintop to TV millionaire fame. This, in part, was true. But real business needs proper infrastructure to grow, and in poker’s case, the ease with which people could deposit money into online sites created an instant outlet for anyone who got the itch. Moneymaker’s narrative gave the poker explosion a Horatio Alger feel, but what was really happening was much more mundane — TV told consumers to play poker on the Internet. Because it was easy and fun, those consumers complied. Everything else that happened — the alleged criminal activity, the millions of dollars earned by kids who would otherwise be in college, the unspooling of a billion-dollar industry — came from that simple, thoroughly American exchange of television advertising and consumer spending.

According to the tournament’s organizers, the One Drop would be something different. The people watching at home would not think, Hey, I could do that. And they certainly couldn’t sign onto an online poker site, deposit $1 million, and invite 47 of their richest friends to play in a tournament. The spectacle of the One Drop was not replicable, online or in any casino.

Poker

Twenty-two years after it first opened, the all-suite Rio Las Vegas Hotel and Casino has become one of those iconic Las Vegas bad ideas, a bruised thumb that sticks up over Interstate 15, a half-mile off the Strip. Aside from competitive room prices, there is no good reason to stay there — the casino ceilings are low and smell of mold and cigarette smoke; the tables aren’t as cheap as they should be; the food options range from Burger King’s “high-concept” Whopper Bar and a dated seafood restaurant where a half-dozen ethered lobsters drag themselves around a saltwater bath. In the context of a city in which the word “vacant” means more than it does anywhere else in the world, the Rio stands out as a particularly visible reminder of just how optimistic we all must have been in better economic times.

For the past seven years, the Rio’s convention halls — a collection of wide hallways and massive ballrooms rigged with thousands of surveillance cameras — have been the home of the World Series of Poker. Roughly 50,000 people will play in one of the official tournaments over the course of the 50-day event. Thousands more will play in side games in any of Vegas’s better casinos. The vast majority of players will be white men between the ages of 25 and 50. They will talk in poker’s strange, modern language — a blend of stats, profanities, origin questions, and religious terminology, all delivered in a high-pitched, condescending whine.

Poker breeds a weird sort of celebrity — men who have made a choice to earn their living in the antisocial climate of casinos, back rooms, and the Internet get shoved in front of cameras, where they are asked to exude some semblance of charm. This almost never works. Poker’s true millionaires tend to shy away from the cameras and the spotlight, lest the IRS come knocking at their door. As such, poker celebrities are chosen almost entirely on the merits of their personalities and how they translate to camera. Sure, you can’t be terrible and show up at every televised game, but poker differs from other televised competitive events in that no score is ever kept. Nobody really knows how much money Phil Ivey made last year. If you believe the heavily trafficked bulletin boards on poker sites like twoplustwo.com, every poker celebrity is always on the verge of going broke. Because the spectacle of poker is largely arbitrary and random and because there’s less visual proof of greatness than, say, in basketball, pretty much anyone who can afford a few buy-ins has the potential to become a poker celebrity. All you really have to do is tell a few jokes, get pissed a couple of times, and ham it up for the cameras.

Back in televised poker’s heyday, Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Hellmuth joined old poker legends like Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, and Barry Greenstein to create a cast of stand-ins for the seedier, more volatile reality of professional poker. These new celebrities were cast along traditional, predictable type — Ivey as the stony, simmering pro (at the start, when racial sensitivities weren’t what they are now, Ivey was known as “The Tiger Woods of Poker”), Negreanu as the chatty, affable nerd, and Hellmuth as the explosive, ill-tempered bully always railing against the unfairness of a world full of donkeys who beat him on flush and straight draws. We learned through the producers of shows like The World Series of Poker, High Stakes Poker, World Poker Tour, and a host of others that Negreanu was from Canada. We learned that Ivey had grown up playing cards in Atlantic City. We learned that Hellmuth was an asshole. But we never learned how much money each one had won over the course of his career. We never learned how much they had lost or how bad things had gotten for them. This withholding was key in the creation of poker’s stars. If it turned out that Hellmuth had less in total assets than, say, a New York City public school teacher, he would instantly devolve — the “difficult” mad genius laid bare as an abrasive, delusional degenerate.

The featured table at the World Series of Poker is lit up like a shame-free cabaret show. The black tile floor looks like it has been taken straight from the stage at the Spearmint Rhino. A digital banner that hangs above the table flashes advertisements for Jack Links Beef Jerky. Two hours before the start of the One Drop, six sculpted, body-painted performers beat on massive drums that had been set up at the back of the stage. Three overly feathered women in body-paint bikinis high-stepped aimlessly around the stage while a small army of production assistants coiled cord and adjusted camera angles. Nobody could really explain the drums — some said they were Brazilian, others said they were Cirque du Soleil creations.

There was an announcement for all the players in the One Drop to please congregate at the featured table for a photograph. Spectators began to fill the seats, including one wide-hipped woman with mom jeans and a badly burnt perm who hung over the railing and screamed for Gus Hansen’s attention. When Hansen, who looks like a very handsome Danish Skeletor, walked over to greet his fan, she leapt out, kissed him on the side of the head, and then proceeded to do a touchdown dance inspired, in part, by Terrell Owens. Hansen smiled sheepishly, thanked the still-dancing woman, and walked back to the table.

After a lot of wrangling, 47 of the 48 players arranged themselves and had their photos taken. The 48th was Phil Hellmuth, whose personal brand demands he show up late to everything. After the photos, the players were asked to walk down into a tunnel behind the stage. Then, to the deafening beating of drums, each player was announced, professional-wrestling-style, to the crowd.

Richard Yong, a 69-year-old businessman from Malaysia who travels with a fleet of handlers, including a butler in full tuxedo, was the first to be announced. An hour before the tournament started, Yong stood holding a cup of coffee in a cordoned-off holding pen. His butler came running up from the refreshments table with a spoonful of sugar, and after executing a short, deferential bow, dumped the sugar into his boss’s cup. There was no such order to Yong’s WWE entrance at the One Drop. When the announcer yelled out his name to the hundred or so people in attendance, Yong, a tiny, bald man wearing a T-shirt and what appeared to be hospital scrubs, walked out toward the table, realized that he had no idea where he was supposed to stand, and began wandering around the stage. A production person quickly ushered him to his spot at the table, where he stood, a bit embarrassed, under the flashing lights from the banner above.

That march was repeated another 47 times. A player would be announced, emerge from the tunnel, and wander around until someone told him where to go. When the scene degenerated from comic to kinda sad, I asked a poker writer why they hadn’t bothered to rehearse any of this. The writer chuckled and said, “You can’t get poker players together to do anything except gamble.”

When the silly parade finally ground to a halt, the emcee said he wanted to bring a very special person up to the stage, the founder or the One Drop Foundation and the man who brought this wonderful tournament to life. “Please welcome,” the emcee said, building up the bass in his voice in the style of ringside announcer Michael Buffer, “Mister GAY Laliberte!”

About half of the 48 players laughed out loud. Laliberte ignored the mispronunciation, bounded up to the microphone, gave a short speech about the greatness of the tournament, and then yelled out, “Shuffle up and deal!”

What, exactly, is a million-dollar buy-in? Outside of the billionaires, for whom an extra $18.3 million would be mostly meaningless, was anyone really putting a significant amount of cash on the line? The reality of the One Drop was much less of a gamble than advertised. None of the contestants pulled up stakes for one big shot at glory. It’s true that the professional poker players who entered the tournament were among the most famous and skilled in the world. Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth, Gus Hansen, Tom Dwan, and Daniel Negreanu all played in the One Drop. Each has a higher Q-score than your average NFL lineman. Each has accumulated millions in lifetime tournament poker earnings. The colorful businessmen gamblers showed up as well. Dan Shak, a hedge-fund manager currently embroiled in a custody battle with his ex-wife over her million-dollar shoe collection, joined fellow financier David Einhorn, Russian high-roller Mikhail Smirnov, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, the aforementioned Richard Yong and his butler, and a whale from Macau named Paul Phua. But the premise of the richest tournament in the history of the world got lost somewhere in all the chatter and hedging that accompanies big-money gambles. Nearly all the pros had sold off their action, meaning that their buy-in money was split up between several investors who stood to earn a share of winnings proportionate to their stakes. Mike Sexton, a longtime poker pro and the color commentator for the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, didn’t contribute a penny of his $1 million buy-in. From a pure monetary standpoint, the One Drop was an opportunity for most of the professionals to turn something between $30,000 and $50,000 into something between $500,000 and $1 million.

Not a bad living for three days’ work, sure, but nothing compared to some of the blackjack and craps runs that occur nearly every day in Las Vegas. And certainly not much compared to the money that was being thrown around the Internet back in 2010.

Few people felt the hit of Black Friday more than Daniel “jungleman” Cates. In 2010, Cates, then a 21-year-old college dropout, moved up to the nosebleed stakes of several online poker sites and began winning at an astonishing rate. By the end of the year, he had earned somewhere between $5 and $6 million, mostly in heads-up No Limit hold-’em cash games. I spent a few days with Cates in January of 2011 and ultimately wrote a profile on him for the New York Times Magazine. When we spoke, Cates, who played between 10 and 16 hours of online poker a day, told me that he was searching for more balance in his life. The millions were mostly meaningless — yes, it had been nice to buy a Lexus and to eat whatever he wanted to eat, but Cates had never really seen poker as anything more than another video game. It was more Minesweeper than hedge-fund portfolio.

Black Friday forced Cates into a real-life decision — he could stop playing poker, he could move to Las Vegas to play in live games, or he could move to a foreign country and continue his online poker career. After a short stop in Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, Cates tried to move to Vancouver, British Columbia, but was denied a six-month visa. He then tried to enter Portugal, again unsuccessfully. Cates ultimately settled in Watford, England, a northern suburb of London, and began to rebuild a bankroll that had been decimated by the Black Friday scandal and the alleged criminal activities of Full Tilt Poker. Cates estimated that he had somewhere more than $1 million locked up in Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet, another poker site that has not yet paid out all of its players. Of the $6 million he amassed in 2010, Cates has been able to cash out approximately $1 million, after taxes.

Cates admitted that Black Friday had forced him into some decisions he might not have otherwise made. He now takes time away from poker to travel and enjoy his fortune. He has learned to stop reading reports about the possible payouts coming from Ultimate Bet or Full Tilt. He is now considering going back to college as a part-time student to study either “a language or something like psychology.” Cates had dropped out of the University of Maryland during his sophomore year and felt like he had missed out on the “typical college experience.” The swings of online poker had finally caught up to him, and at 22 years old, he has found solace and stability in yoga. “Poker,” Cates explained, “still feels a little bit like a video game, but now that I have been playing more in casinos and the rush isn’t what it was when online poker was legal in the United States, the stress of losing money feels a little bit more real.”

“I’m learning through yoga that pain is illusory and that emotions like stress or grief or … ” Cates paused and asked, “What is that word for something you did that you wish you didn’t do?” I suggested guilt. Cates said, “No, no. Not guilt. Like the pain of something you did in the past that you wish had gone differently.” I suggested regret. “Yes, regret. I try to just focus on what’s real these days. I don’t think of what could have happened, you know, if Black Friday hadn’t gone down.”

It’s a strange fallout: A population of whip-smart young millionaires whose particular set of skills — as impressive as they might be — do not translate anywhere else in the workplace. As tempting as it might sound, you simply cannot take a kid who has made calculated gambles at a breakneck speed for the past five years and place him in, say, a hedge fund. Gambling success, especially the immediate and volatile type enjoyed by Cates, makes doing anything else in life pretty much impossible.

About three hours into the first day of the One Drop, Mikhail Smirnov, a Russian businessman and well-traveled high-stakes poker player, called a raise from Tom “durrrr” Dwan, a pro like Cates who earned a small fortune in online poker. A fellow businessman named John Morgan also called Dwan’s bet. The flop brought the jack of spades, the eight of clubs, and the seven of spades. Smirnov bet out, Morgan called once quickly, Dwan folded. On fourth street, another eight fell, giving Smirnov four eights. He bet again and Morgan, who, according to Smirnov’s comments at the end of the day, seemed “very excited,” called again. The king of spades fell on the river. Smirnov bet again. Morgan pushed all his chips into the middle of the table. After not all that much deliberation, Smirnov folded his hand face-up, showing the table the four eights.

The only possible hand that beat Smirnov’s four eights was the 10 and nine of spades, which would have given Morgan a straight flush. Morgan and Smirnov had roughly the same number of chips, and a call against a straight flush would have effectively knocked Smirnov out of the tournament. If the pressure of the One Drop, the scrutiny from the television cameras, and the weirdness of the event were all engineered to forge a moment where a Russian billionaire folded quad eights to a Midwestern retail-store mogul who has earned less than $100,000 in lifetime tournament poker winnings (while raising over $5 million for charity), the pageantry was well worth it. If they ran back the One Drop every year for the next two decades, there might be only one or two other instances where four of a kind was beaten by a straight flush. And the chances that the person holding quads would fold his hand are next to zero.

Quad eights versus god knows what was the lone highlight in what ended up being a brutal, tedious event. Because so much money was on the line, every player started with enough chips to withstand a few bad decisions and unfortunate swings of luck. The idea behind this, of course, was to maximize the value of poker skill — if hundreds of thousands of hands and years in the casino gives professionals a 0.5 percent advantage per hand over a rich amateur, that margin must be reaped via a large volume of hands. At your typical Tuesday-afternoon $125 buy-in event at Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, 48 people can finish a tournament in less than six hours. The One Drop ended up taking 30 hours spread over three days. During that time, the crowds thinned out and the talk among the thousands of poker players in the Rio shifted to more mundane topics. Most of the people I talked to thought the tournament was ridiculous, including one young player from Los Angeles who said that the One Drop was the “most irrelevant thing to ever happen in poker ever.” By the time Antonio Esfandiari stood up from his seat in triumph, curiosity had mostly soured into cynicism. Most people around the Rio were speculating on just how little of his own action Esfandiari had owned and how the great spectacle of the One Drop had really just been about a bunch of billionaires trying to catch a thrill.

If one million dollars can’t do it, can poker celebrities save the game? And if the One Drop was set up as an exhibition of poker “skill,” can anyone outside of poker’s insular world of hard-core players, commentators, and media really appreciate what’s going on? There might be some beauty in knowing when to three-bet a nit, and there’s certainly an admirable amount of discipline involved in waiting out a dude on tilt to finally have the second best hand, but those talents are lost on the general public. More important, much as the basketball player who makes the extra pass and boxes out properly will see less airtime than the selfish dunker, “good play” in poker will always take a backseat to the pyrotechnics of bad beats, insane bluffs, and the always vague and mostly meaningless concept of “championships” in a game that only values a long-term, running score.

Is it possible that a generation of poker players has grown up only knowing the heavily edited version of televised poker? And that they then played out all that drama in the fast-paced, unsustainable, and allegedly fraudulent online version of the game without ever learning or even seeing the older, more stable version that built fortunes for Brunson, Ivey, and so many other poker celebrities? I guess what I’m asking is this: Outside of the very small population of pros who make their living in casinos and backrooms, did Black Friday effectively collapse the model for all poker in the United States? The Moneymaker revolution, or whatever you want to call it, would not have happened without the infrastructure of online poker. So how, really, could any effort — even a million-dollar one — reverse what wasn’t really reversible in the first place?

By the end of this calendar year, most experts believe that online poker will make a legal, secure, and fully backed return to the State of Nevada. Buoyed by statements made both by the Obama White House and the Department of Justice that defended the right of individual states to determine whether or not they would allow Internet gambling, traditional casino companies have partnered with government officials at all levels to bring back what was once a $1.8 billion industry. John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, an organization committed to a “secure, safe and regulated place to play,” believes that government oversight, improved security, and the trusted brand name of some of the biggest names in the casino industry can bring back players who might have been scared off by Black Friday.

Yesterday’s settlement between PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and the Department of Justice certainly points toward a return in the near future. By acquiring Full Tilt’s assets, including its software, databases, and reach, PokerStars has set itself up to own even more of the U.S. market. Black Friday might have kneecapped the poker industry, but the stewards of the game — at least those who weren’t facing federal charges — limped along under the assumption that online poker would eventually return as a regulated, taxed, and viable business. The speed with which players flock back to sites and the rate at which these legitimized sites will grow will be of massive interest to traditional casino companies and the city of Las Vegas, which is still looking to boost its own declining revenues.

In large part, the success of any Internet product comes from its ability to model and speed up payout, whether that be financial, social, or career-related. The appeal of online poker did not come from the ability to play a $25 sit-and-go with Phil Ivey, but rather from the way the flux in players’ accounts could make them feel like they were well on their way to some vaguely defined fortune. Before Black Friday, million-dollar bankrolls could be built within weeks and then lost in a single day. And because poker was easy to learn and because any run of luck could convince a donkey that he was the next Ivey, everyone from housewives to Hollywood stars began playing. As long as a 20-year-old can buy into a $5 satellite that gets him a seat in a $55 satellite, which, in turn gets him a seat in a $225 Sunday tournament that guarantees $350,000 for first place, online poker will continue to draw new players. The fantasy will remain.

Filed Under: Future, Magazines, Series, Star, Teams, UNC

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Jay Caspian Kang is a Grantland contributor. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, is on sale now.

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