All In: The New World Order of Poker

Anne Lewis/Columbia Free Times

Columbia Free Times | September 9, 2004
**I’m sitting at a table with eight other people playing Texas Hold ‘em, no limit, $1 big blind. It’s 12:30 a.m., and bedtime looms. My initial stack of $50 in chips has grown to more than $110. One more time around the table, I tell myself, and it’s time to get some sleep.

I look at my hand. It’s ace-queen, offsuit. The first player to act folds, the next sees the big blind and raises $2.50. Two more players fold before the player to my right puts $15 into the middle. Decision time. I call. The next three players fold, and the initial bettor calls the remaining $11.50. Three players in the action, $46.50 in the pot.

The flop (dealt face up) is three of spades, jack of clubs, ace of clubs.

The player that made the initial $2.50 raise is first to act, and he moves $25 into the middle. The player to my right folds. I’m sitting on a high pair (the aces) with a very good kicker (my queen in hand), but there’s plenty to worry about in the face of that bet.

Does my opponent have pocket rockets (a pair of aces in hand) for a set (three-of-a-kind)? Is he holding two jacks? Or does he have two clubs, still needing one more to make his flush?

The $25 bet seems more like it’s trying to steal the pot, or elicit information, than an attempt to trap me. Still, I can walk away from this hand now, leave the table, and still be up almost $50 for the night. But a big bet here by me might move him off and let me pull down the $71.50 now in the middle. What to do, what to do?

I have $96.50 in front of me. I push all-in.**

++The Online Poker Explosion++

This could be a scene from the movie **Rounders**, all dimly lit and smoky, or the set of one of the many poker programs now on television — The Travel Channel’s **World Poker Tour**, Bravo’s **Celebrity Poker Showdown**, ESPN’s **World Series of Poker** — but it’s not. All of this is taking place over the Internet using the software of Full Tilt Poker, just one of dozens of online poker sites that have sprung up in the past few years.

Most of these sites allow players to sit at any of a number of tables, offering games as varied as Texas hold ‘em (limit and no-limit), Omaha, seven-card stud and razz, and wager either real money or play chips. It’s this ready availability of games — and the opportunity to play others in real time for a very minimal or no outlay of cash — that has fostered a new generation of poker players that is far removed from the days of players with such hallowed names as “Amarillo Slim” and “Texas Dolly.”

“It’s definitely changed the game,” says Andy Bloch, a 35-year-old Maryland native who has been a professional poker player for the last decade. “It used to be that if you didn’t recognize someone at the table, you were going to beat them — that they were typically going to be a bad player. Now you sit down with someone who might have [the equivalent of] five years of experience having played for [only] six months online.”

Not everyone is thrilled about the rising popularity of online poker. The National Center for Responsible Gaming, for instance, cites a 1997 study by the Harvard Medical School that found 1.1 million Americans suffering from “pathological gambling” — and that was even **before** the online explosion.

But the phenomenon doesn’t seem likely go away soon: Since the late 1990s, online gambling has expanded rapidly despite what various articles describe as a “hazy,” “unclear” or “ murky” legal status. According to a 2000 survey cited by the Center for Responsible Gaming, 82 percent of American adults gamble at least once a year. And while there are plenty of politicians working to ban online gambling outright, there is also an increasingly powerful online gambling industry pushing for a clear legal status. Even here in South Carolina — where the issue of video poker helped topple a governor and legal gambling is now banished to a few casino cruise ships — there is no explicit law against Internet gambling.

The changing face of gambling was no more apparent than in last year’s World Series of Poker, held annually at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. In the $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold ‘em championship — the final event of the month-plus-long series of tournaments — a relative unknown outlasted more than 800 other players to take home the grand prize of $2.5 million in cash. The player had won his seat in the event by winning a $40 buy-in online satellite tourney. This unknown champion’s unlikely name: Chris Moneymaker.

“When a guy who’s never won a [tabled] tournament in his life comes and beats 839 people and wins $2.5 million, everyone thinks they can do it,” says Phil Gordon, a two-time World Poker Tour champion who is perhaps best known as co-host of **Celebrity Poker Showdown**. “[Moneymaker has] the perfect name, and he came along at just the right time.

“ESPN ran that thing about 30 times, and people learned the value of the satellite tournament,” Gordon says. “Before, people thought you had to pay $10,000 to play. That’s just patently not true. Anybody can put up $40, win a few satellite tournaments, and earn a seat.”

Droves of online players did just that in the aftermath of Moneymaker’s victory — so many, in fact, that at this year’s World Series of Poker main event, more than three times as many players turned out for a chance at a $5 million grand prize.

Not every person drawn to the allure of poker aims for such lofty goals. Many are content to play online at free tables, or to while away the hours at low-stake tables betting dimes and quarters. Still others seek out friends, work colleagues and acquaintances and organize home games, testing their mettle, their nerves and their poker faces in a more intimate setting.

++Playing at Home++

As long as you’re not gambling on a Sunday — in which case you “shall be fined in the sum of fifty dollars” — low-stakes “social gambling” is permitted in South Carolina, according to the web site Gambling Law U.S.

On a Tuesday night in late August, the game’s at my house on this late August evening, though we rotate the game among five of our crew. Tonight is Tuesday, and for the last two years, Tuesday night has been synonymous with Poker Night. The game’s at my house on this late August evening, though we rotate the game among five of our crew. It’s a friendly game — it’s rare that anyone drops more than $40 in a sitting — but it’s a serious game all the same.

Tonight, all the usual suspects are here. Starting at my right, there’s Steve, the loosest player of the bunch; Erick, who’s spent more hours playing online than he can count; Chappy, who enters the evening riding a two-week winning streak in our tourneys; Wes, the tightest player at the table; Nemsek, who mixes up his game to an unsettling degree; and Sease.

Sease. John Sease. What can I say about Sease? Every week, he begins calling me or sending me little emails about how this is the week he’s going to take my chips. Inevitably, there will be a hand each week where he comes gunning for me. Sometimes he gets me, and sometimes I get him. It’s not doing much for his overall game, though, as I can only recall him winning a tourney once in the past year. And that was on the most ridiculous 10-hand run of cards any of us at the table had ever seen — every hand a winner, done in less than an hour.

The game starts promptly at 7 p.m. with two hours of dealer’s choice: Follow The Queen, High or Low Chicago with a wild card, “Chappy” (a namesake five-card draw game where deuces, one-eyed jacks and the suicide king are wild), Good Neighbor Bad Neighbor and assorted others.

Antes (the amount that all players put into the pot prior to the deal) are a quarter for most games, with maximum bets of $1 and no more than three raises in any round of betting. No fortunes are made or lost here. We’re just gearing up for the main event.

++The Power of Television++

As large of a role as online poker has played in the growth of the game, what brought many of the new players to these virtual tables in the first place was the almighty power of television.

ESPN had been showing highlights of the World Series of Poker final event for years, usually with commentary provided by Gabe Kaplan, a solid player in his own right who was better known as TV’s **Mr. Kotter.** But the telecasts lacked the intensity and drama to sustain the interest of much more than the poker diehards. All you saw was a few guys with colorful nicknames pushing chips into the center of the table, with no idea as to whether the players had a solid hand or were working a bluff.

That all changed in 2002 when The Travel Channel, expanding on an earlier British television idea of using glass tables to allow viewers to see the player’s hands, used lipstick cameras to do the same in its first World Poker Tour event. Now viewers could grasp the finer nuances of betting, raising, calling and bluffing.

“Poker, without seeing the hold cards, is kind of like watching paint dry,” says Gordon, the co-host of **Celebrity Poker Showdown**. “When you can see those cards and how the players play them, it becomes much more compelling. You can imagine yourself playing that hand.”

The new cameras brought poker to a wider audience, compelling thousands of business people, soccer moms and college kids to gamble online. Some say the newfound exposure to poker has created a gambling problem among college students in particular. But a recently released study by researchers at the Harvard Medical School counters the perception that college kids are any more susceptible to gambling addiction than anyone else. Contradicting earlier research suggesting that college kids were three times more likely to develop gambling problems than adults, the new study found no difference between the two groups. It also found that only 42 percent of college kids had gambled in the past year, a rate only about half that of adults.

++Celebrity Power++

In addition to popularizing the game itself, television also has made minor celebrities of the game’s professional players, sometimes reluctantly.

“So far it’s been OK,” Bloch says of his newfound fame. “I think if it got much worse, I might have to start running away from it a little bit. It has its upside and its downside. Sometimes you’re on your way somewhere, and someone wants to stop you. They haven’t started chasing me into bathrooms for an autograph … yet.”

But this newfound fame has also brought additional revenue-generating opportunities to these players. Gordon, in addition to parlaying his World Poker Tournament success into a gig on **Celebrity Poker Showdown**, has his first book on the subject, **Poker: The Real Deal** (co-written with Jonathan Grotenstein), coming out this fall. Bloch is working on a video deal and has plans for a strategy book of his own.

And both men have aligned themselves with a new online poker site, Full Tilt Poker (, that gives online players the opportunity to test their skills against more than a dozen professional players, including Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Erik Seidel, Phil Ivey, Howard Lederer, Clonie Gowen and John Juanda. The site recently held a $200,000 online tournament (the largest prize pool offered on any site to date) to celebrate its launch, with the last man standing winning $49,000 and a chance at taking home up to an additional $50,000 by defeating four pros in heads-up (one-on-one) play.

++Me and the Pros++

Twice I’ve tried to qualify for the $200k tourney (to buy a seat outright costs $216) by playing satellite tourneys, only to come up short both times. This time around, on a Thursday night in August, I’ve dropped $100 into the Full Tilt site, and I’m down to my last $26. I decide to take one more stab at it, and plunk down the registration fee — $26.

Seventy players are in this satellite. The top seven win seats at the big tourney, now just two days away. I struggle at first, a couple of bad beats dropping my chip total from its initial 1,500 down to less than 400. But then I hit a run of five hands where I drag down the pot in four of them, tighten my game and eventually find myself at a final table of nine players, Ferguson and Bloch among them.

Two players go out rather quickly, and I’m in the top seven. I’ve won my seat. After that, a couple of players start pushing in all of their chips, content to have secured a spot in the big tourney. I take advantage of this wild play, knocking out several of them. Eventually, there’s just two players left — Jesus and me.

Unfortunately, there’s not much of an opportunity to test my wits against the seasoned pro. I’m sitting on about 96,000 in chips. Jesus has less than 9,000. On our first heads-up hand, he pushes all-in, I call, and we flip cards. He has queen-eight offsuit. I have king-six offsuit. The flop brings a six. The turn offers Jesus no help. The river is a king. Two pair. I’ve won the satellite tourney and beaten two pros at a final table.

The big tourney comes on Saturday, with 620 players vying for the money, which will be paid out to the top 63 players in increasing increments. Finishing 63rd is worth $500. I’m still alive with less than 200 players remaining when I push all-in after the flop with a pair of kings against a spade flush draw. One player calls me with pocket queens, but one is a spade, and my advantage and my chance at a big payday slips away when a fourth spade hits the board on the river. I finish 176th. Suddenly, my big win Thursday seems like it was years ago.

++Back at Home++

Three days after my disappointing run in the $200k tourney, my focus has shifted to the game at hand: our weekly hold ‘em no-limit tourney. The dealer’s-choice portion of the evening has me down $11 thus far, but once we’re done with that, it’s time to play hold ‘em.

All of us cash out and put $20 in the prize pool. Seven players, $140, $90 to the winner, $50 for second place. The big blind is $1, and doubles after each hour.

On the second hand, my decision to sit to Steve’s left pays off, as I’m dealt pocket aces. I’ll use these cards, plus the five community cards yet to be dealt face up on the table, to make the best five-card hand. Steve raises $1 before the bet comes to me, and I come over the top of him (add a raise on top of his raise) for another $2. Everyone else folds. Steve calls.

The flop is king, ten, four. All three cards are different suits (commonly referred to as a “rainbow”), so Steve’s penchant for chasing the flush (five cards, all suited) shouldn’t come into play. But he bets $2. He’s probably sitting on a pair of kings. I decide to push him all-in (that is, make a bet sizeable enough that the other player will have to put all of his remaining chips at risk if he wants to continue). Steve calls.

At this point, we flip over our cards (we’re the only two players left in the hand, and no more money will be wagered). Steve sees my hand and curses. The turn (the fourth community card) and the river (the last community card) offer him no help. Steve is done.

Now I have a stack of chips twice as large as those of the remaining five players after just two hands, and I use those chips to bully the others through aggressive play. One by one, each goes out (the weekly Sease-Conklin showdown never materializes, as he goes out holding Big Slick — ace-king — to Chappy’s ace-nine when the nine pairs on the board), until finally just Wes and I remain at the table after two hours. I have $124 in chips in front of me, and Wes is down to his last $16. After about a dozen hands, I draw the second-best pair on the flop and push Wes all-in. He calls with nothing more than an ace high in his hand, and two cards later, I’ve won — for this week, anyway.

++Amateurs and Pros++

Winning regularly in your weekly home game, however, is a vastly different proposition than making a living playing poker professionally. For all the recent success stories of unknown players emerging as tournament champions, there’s still a distinction to be made.

“There’s no sanctioning body in poker that says you’re a pro,” Gordon says. “When you’re making enough money to fund your particular lifestyle exclusively from playing poker, you can consider yourself a pro. You’re a pro when you think you are, but you may not be successful enough to support your particular lifestyle.”

Online play, however, has put the goal of becoming a professional player within the reach of many more people than just five years ago. “Online play is a great learning experience,” Bloch says, “especially when you can play four to five times as many hands online as you would at a table. It won’t substitute for table experience, but it’s great experience for getting the fundamentals down.

“I didn’t have that available to me when I started [to] play.”

++Back at the Virtual Table++

**I have $96.50 in front of me. I push all-in.

I know little about my opponent, the player now faced with calling a $71.50 raise, except that he goes by the screen name “JustinRaborn” and favors a smiling rock as his avatar. (Me, I’m “NakedReporta,” but that’s another story.) I also know that he’s taking an awfully long time to consider calling this bet, to ponder if I might have one of the hands that I myself pondered for his hand before making my bold move for the pot. Seconds seem like hours. I would be content for him to just fold here. It looks like he just … might …

He calls. Ace-king. Big Slick. Risky play, but he’s got me beat, unless the turn and/or river saves me. It doesn’t happen. “JustinRaborn” pulls down the pot. I type in “vnh” — very nice hand. Then I turn off my computer for the night and take the 10 long steps from my desk to my bed.

There will be other days, other games, I tell myself as I lay awake in bed, going over the hand again and again, cards and suits and chips doing a macabre, mocking dance in my head until sleep mercifully comes.**


Texas hold ‘em: A quick primer

If some of the terminology used here escapes you, here’s a quick look at how Texas hold ‘em is played.

Texas hold ‘em is a seven-card stud game where all of the players try to make the best five-card hand they can using two cards dealt face-down and five community cards that are subsequently dealt face-up on the table.

The deal moves clockwise around the table. Before a player deals, the player two seats to his left makes an initial ++blind bet++ for a predetermined amount. This is called the ++big blind++. The player to the dealer’s immediate left makes an initial blind bet half as large as the big blind. This is called the ++small blind++. The purpose of the blind bets is to instigate action prior to the dealing of the community cards.

The dealer shuffles the cards, ask the player to his right for a cut, then deals clockwise around the table, one card at a time, until each player has two cards. The initial player to act is to the immediate left of the big blind. He can call (match the amount of the big blind), raise (make a larger bet) or fold. The betting continues in a clockwise manner around the table, with each player facing the same decision, until all players have either folded or matched the amount of the largest bet made.

Once that’s done, the dealer “burns” the top card (that is, he removes the top card face down, a move designed to thwart those that make try to gain an unfair advantage by marking cards) and then deals the next three cards face-up on the table. This is called the ++flop++, and all players at the table will use these three cards, the two in their hand, and the two community cards yet to be dealt to make their best five-card hand.

Betting begins to the left of the dealer, and that player can check (not make a bet) or bet an amount that is no less than the original big blind amount. By checking, the player remains in the hand until the betting comes back around to them. If another player has made a bet, they must at least match that bet or fold. The same decision faces each remaining player in the hand — check (if no one has yet made a bet), bet, raise or fold.

Once that’s settled, another card is “burned,” and a fourth community card — some call it the ++turn++, some call it ++Fourth Street++ — is dealt face-up on the table. Again, betting starts to the dealer’s left. Finally, another card is “burned,” and a fifth community card, the ++river++, is dealt face-up on the table. Again, betting starts to the dealer’s left. Once betting is completed, the remaining players declare their hands, and the player with the best hand takes the pot. — ** Timothy Allen Conklin**

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