Monday, February 24, 2014

Sweating the Aussie Millions

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story about How PokerStars saved the Aussie Millions. I should note that I got a few emails about that, particularly pointing out that PokerStars didn't really save the Aussie Millions, but helped it reach its goal. I think that's hair-splitting (not that I have much experience in that area), and I stand by my comments. PokerStars certainly helped Crown Casino save face with its first big poker tournament, and set the stage for the Aussie Millions becoming a major force on the poker tournament circuit.

What follows is a related story. Some of you know the people I'm going to write about, but I'm going to change the names to spare myself having to justify, explain or perhaps even prove some of the things I have to say. This is the advantage of having my own blog. They can go write what they want on their own blogs.

The PokerStars Aussie Millions promotion was in two parts: cash satellites for the Aussie Millions and a series of Frequent Player Point (FPP) tournaments. Players on PokerStars earn FPPs based on their cash game and tournament play. Back then, the only thing that players could do with FPPs was enter special events like this one, although soon after the Aussie Millions, we opened an online store (The FPP Store - clever, no?) where players could buy PokerStars logo gear and other goodies.

We decided to give away five prize packages for the Aussie Millions. We were pretty naive back then - rather than give players some cash to book their own flights and hotels, we were a full-service travel agency for players, handling all of their travel details. The packages had a value of about $10,000 all-inclusive. We held a series of satellites that started as low as 100 FPPs (my memory may be faulty on this, but I'm sure one of my former colleagues will correct me). To get to the finals, players had to play through several rounds to reach the finals. The top five finishers got $10,000 packages. The rest got nothing.

The day of the finals was pretty exciting, and it was even more exciting because I knew a number of the players vying for the seats. Several of them were people I played with regularly in cardrooms in Southern California. One worked for a competitor. And one was someone I had just met recently, but would get to know much better in later years. We'll call him Toby.

I met Toby in 2002 when I first started promoting PokerStars. He and an associate were doing Internet radio shows about poker, and it seemed like a natural association for us. We did a nice-size deal with them that was successful for a time.

I ran into Toby again later that year, at an annual event in Las Vegas called BARGE. I'll write more about BARGE another day, but a quick explanation is in order. BARGE is a group whose origins go back to the Usenet newsgroup days - there was a newsgroup called RGP, for Rec.Gambling.Poker (there was also Rec.Gambling.Blackjack and many others - you get the idea). A group of poker players who communicated regularly on RGP decided to get together in Las Vegas for a weekend back in the early 90s. It became an annual event, and by the time I got involved in 2002 it had grown to about 250 people.

PokerStars got involved with BARGE that year, partially at Toby's urging, as a sort of minor sponsor. That sponsorship would take on much greater scope as years went on, also the topic of another post. But I got to know Toby a little better at that event.

So it was with some excitement that I discovered that Toby was one of the finalists in the Aussie Millions satellites. I hadn't played with him much, but my sense from having done radio shows with him, and having listened to his partner and him do their regular show, that he knew his way around the poker table. I had a number of other players I was sweating during the event, so I had about six tables open, watching them all.

(for the three readers who aren't poker players: "sweating" is watching and rooting for a poker player from the sidelines.)

As we got down to two tables, Toby had taken a commanding lead. (Note: I am going to quote some figures here; they are definitely not accurate numbers, but they're close enough to give you a sense of what was happening. Please don't barrage me with emails telling me that the blinds were actually 2,000-4,000.) And as the field continued to narrow, Toby's lead widened. He was very active, raising almost every hand, taking advantage of his huge stack. It was the correct strategy, and it was working. Everyone else was focused on getting to the final table and then on taking one of the top five spots - Toby was just grinding away, making it hard for them.

As the last two tables consolidated to one, Sharon came into my office. She didn't yet work for PokerStars, although she knew everything we were doing just from her close proximity to me. She reminded me that we had both committed to playing in a tournament at the Hustler Casino that was being run by a friend of ours, Jimmy Miller. I looked at the clock - the tournament was scheduled to start at 4:00 and it was 3:15.

Now, you need to remember that it was 2002. Few people had cellular modems. Few people even had WiFi. If you wanted to be online, you pretty much had to be wired. However, I had been playing with some software that a friend had given me that allegedly allowed me to wire my cellphone to my computer and use it sort of like a modem. I had only tried it once, and it worked, although I hadn't tried while connected to the PokerStars client.

I had no alternatives. I wanted to see what happened, but had to honor our commitment to Jimmy. Sharon agreed to drive; I packed up my laptop and phone and we headed to the Hustler.

Just after we pulled out of the garage of our condo complex, I launched the software, and sure enough, I had a connection. It wasn't speedy. I tried to load MSNBC.com, my news source of choice, and the page took about 90 seconds to load. Not a promising start. However, I knew that the PokerStars client was far lighter weight than a web site - it only had to send and receive relatively small packets of information. I launched the client, opened the Aussie Millions FPP Event lobby, double-clicked on the table, and voila! I was watching the action.

By this point, the final nine players had been reduced to six. The total chips in play was about 100,000. Of that number, Toby had about 45,000. The blinds were 400-800. This meant that Toby had - well, I was going to tell you how many big blinds he had, but it's irrelevant. Toby had the equivalent of an infinite number of chips. He could have turned his computer off and met me at the Hustler tournament. He was going to Australia.

Except that's not what happened. To my lasting shock, Toby was playing. Now I need to be clear about something here - if he had turned his computer off, he would have won an Aussie Millions seat. There was no way he could lose. He had plenty of chips, and the blinds went up slowly enough that there's no way he could be caught. And five of the six remaining players would be winners.

We were about a mile from the house, and I had already seen him play two hands, both of which he lost. All of the other players were playing cautiously - not completely snug, but they were mindful of the fact that only one player needed to be eliminated and the rest would be headed to the Aussie Millions.

When we reached about the halfway point - coincidentally, right in front of the Torrance Police Department - Toby was playing his fifth hand. The blinds were now 600-1,200. In the middle of the hand, it looked like I had lost my connection. The flop was out, and Toby had made a huge continuation bet after raising. I yelled at the screen for perhaps the tenth time since we had left the house, but this one must have been pretty loud - Sharon slammed on the brakes and said, "Are you OK?" I told her what was happening. 

I held my Motorola V60 flip-phone out the window, as high as I could, and the connection returned. The previous hand had ended, and Toby's stack was now down to 30,000. He was no longer safe. He could no longer turn his computer off and be sure to win. Now he had to play.

"Why don't you call him?" Sharon asked.

"Because it's his tournament, not mine," I answered. "And who am I to say what the right strategy is, anyway? He got this far."

We went another mile, just enough time for me to see Toby lose one more hand and the next one start, and bink! it was over. One of the other players took out the short stack, we were down to five players, and Toby was going to Australia after all.

"See," Sharon said. "It all worked out. And you're not really a tournament player - he knew what he was doing."


Epilogue: A few months later, 23 PokerStars players went to Australia along with Sharon and me. Toby had brought a friend of his from BARGE along as his companion. The day we arrived, I had some goodies to deliver to some of the players, and called Toby in his room to see if he was available. He gave me his room number.

I knocked on the door, and he opened it, inviting me in and telling me to hurry, he was in a tournament. This was the first time I had talked to him since witnessing the final table. He closed the door, picked up his computer from the bed, stretched out with his back against the headboard. I noticed that his companion, Paige, was in the exact same position on the other bed, also with laptop on lap.

"So seriously," I started.

"Don't start on me," he said. "I knew what I was doing."

"But..." 

Sharon interrupted me. "Let it go. He won. He did fine."

"OK," I said. I looked at his screen for a minute, and noticed he was playing in a head-up Sit & Go. The image of the other player looked familiar. I turned to Paige, who smiled. I walked over and peeked at her screen. She was also playing in a two-player Sit & Go. And there was Toby's image across from her.

They were sitting in a hotel room in Melbourne, Australia, with the biggest poker room in the southern hemisphere 30 floors below, and they were playing a $5 tournament against each other.

Poker players.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sometimes, there is justice in poker

Author's note: A number of readers have emailed me to hold my feet to the fire regarding my commitment to post at least once a week. Just to be clear, here's my commitment: I will post at least one story a week. If I don't, and you are the first to point this out, I'll donate $100 to your charity of choice. "Once a week" does not mean that I've failed if 168 hours passes between posts - it means that, if I post on Monday, my next post will be no later than the following Monday.

Many thanks to those who apparently enjoy my blog enough to demand more and sooner. I take it as high praise.



January 28, 2004

This is a story about justice. I'm big on justice - not necessarily in the legal sense, but in a larger, more karmic sense. There used to be a terrific TV show called In Plain Sight that closed each episode with a quote, sort of a mini-monologue, and this one, from the last episode of Season 3, describes how I feel on the topic better than I ever could:
I am what many would call, often as accusation, a non-believer. It's a charge I consider unfair. Because all of us, no matter the connection we feel, or don't, when sitting under the stars, or feeling the world closing in, doing what comes naturally or rearranging the furniture, all of us believe in something. I believe in many things. I believe in first impressions, and second chances, for strippers, priests and hopeless, hapless sisters. I believe in telling the truth to people you love at every possible turn, and lying, just a little, at what seems the appropriate time. I believe in finding people you'd run through a brick wall for, and making sure they know it, if not in so many words. But mostly, I believe in justice, sweet, street and otherwise. Justice. That's my church.
Back in 2004, Sharon and I were working incredibly long hours at PokerStars. But the poker boom had just taken hold, and all over the country, people were walking into poker rooms and saying "I want to play that game where you get to push all of your chips in," usually accompanied by a forward motion with both hands. 

By that time, Sharon had effectively become a professional poker player - she made more money playing poker than she did in her regular job - and I was struggling to keep up with her. So despite the long hours we were already working, we believed it was our duty to the poker boom to provide a pleasant experience for those new players.

Back in early 2004, there were only a handful of 'big-bet' poker games (pot limit or no limit) anywhere in California - in fact, anywhere in the US. I would venture a guess that there were less than ten in the entire state, and the most vibrant game back then was the $5-5 pot limit hold 'em game at Hollywood Park. Although in a very dodgy neighborhood, Hollywood Park was a booming poker room in those early days of the boom.

In case you don't know what $5-5 pot limit hold 'em is, here's a very brief lesson. When it's your turn to act, you can bet any amount from $5 to the total amount of money in the pot. For example, if it's your turn to act and there's $25 in the pot, and you want to raise, you put in your $5 call, bringing the total in the pot to $30. That's the maximum you can raise; you would put in the $5 bet plus the $30 raise for a total of $35. There's now $60 in the pot (the original $25 plus your $35). The next player can do the same thing - call the $35 bet, bringing the pot to $95, and then raise as much as another $95.

This is quite a different game from no limit - in no limit, well, there's no limit. There's a lot more finesse in pot limit. I've heard it described as fencing, as opposed to no limit, which is more like fighting with sledgehammers.

This information, by the way, isn't critical to this story, but in addition to being big on justice, I'm also big on stage-setting.

There was a group of regulars in this game that usually included our friends Betsy, Nick and Danny. This was the core group - there were a few other regulars who tromped through from time to time, but several of those five were almost always in the game. We didn't exactly take it easy on one another, but we were all close in skill, so there was no real equity in any of us taking on any of the others on a regular basis. 

Betsy lived in a massive mansion in Malibu, and clearly was in this game for amusement, not profit. And every now and then, she would organize a home game, composed of the five of us plus a handful of invited guests. She would hire one of the dealers from Hollywood Park, who would deal for tips, always making far more than from a typical night at the casino.

On this particular night, Betsy had invited a guy that none of us really cared for. In fact, most of us despised the guy - he was a loud, mostly unpleasant character who wouldn't hesitate to push the rules, or actually cheat, given the opportunity. I'll call him Adnan.

Adnan was from Lebanon, but had lived in the US for a long time. He had a very interesting computer-related business. Adnan would vanish from time to time, returning weeks or months later flush with cash and wanting to spread it around.

Adnan knew he was one of the 'producers' in the game. A producer is the one guy who makes a game worth playing - someone who generates so much action, and plays so poorly, that there's little doubt that he will leave broke. He often made self-deprecating jokes about his bad play. On one occasion, Sharon and I were about to take our first vacation in four years, a week in Hawaii (our first time there). Adnan heard about it, and asked where we were staying. Sharon told him. 

"No!" he said. "You have to stay at the Grand Wailea."

"We'd love to," Sharon said, "but we're buying a house and this place is all we can afford right now."

Adnan did a quick calculation. "You'll need another $3,000 to stay at the Grand Wailea, right?" Sharon agreed. Adnan called a floorman over and said, "I need a marker for $3,000. My friend here needs to stay at a better hotel." And sure enough, over the next hour, Adnan spewed almost exactly $3,000 in Sharon's direction.

This might make him sound like a nice guy. He wasn't. Adnan was a first-rate douchenozzle. He had been suspended from Hollywood Park at least five times that we were aware of. One or more of us always came to his defense, because despite his often-reprehensible behavior, he was the producer. You buy this guy drinks, make sure he's having fun, keep him around. The last time he was suspended, it was for flipping over a poker table. I don't know how, but Betsy had a lot of juice at Hollywood Park and performed some incantation that got HP's management to relent.


It was not very long after that episode that this story takes place. Betsy organized the home game, putting out an incredible spread of food and drink. When she did these events, everything was always way over the top, and she would never accept any compensation from any of us. She was a wonderful host. Even with a big win in the game, there was no way she would ever break even for the night, since she regularly let us raid her amazing wine cellar.

I should also note, although you surely have this sense already, that there was no amount of money Betsy could win in this game that would have any impact on her life. She was stinkin' rich, knew it, and just wanted to have fun and share it with her friends.

The game had only been going for about an hour when this hand came up. I don't remember the early action in the hand, but once the last board card was dealt, there was about $3,000 in the pot, a large pot for this game. Betsy had been leading the action until now, raising early and then betting on every street. Once the river card came out, the board read 99737 (the suits are irrelevant to the story). Adnan and Betsy were the last two people in the hand.

After a lot of thought, Betsy decided to check on the river. Adnan thought for a long time, pulled out some bills from behind his chips, counted out twenty of them and said "$2,000."

At this point I was standing behind Betsy and got a glimpse of her cards. She had the ace of hearts and the king of hearts. There had been two hearts on the flop, and she had bet right along in the hope of either another heart, an ace or a king. She now had two pair, nines and sevens, with an ace kicker. 

Betsy agonized for what amounts to hours in a poker game - it was actually about five minutes, but that's an incredibly long time to consider a single decision in a poker game. No one said anything. There was a lot of money at stake, and no one wanted to rush her, especially because we were eating her food and draining her wine cellar.

Now Adnan started to talk. "You really need to fold, honey," he said (he called most women "honey" - except for Sharon). "You can't win this hand."

Betsy kept thinking. I knew what was going through her mind - what hand could Adnan have that he could call big bets on the flop and turn with that she could beat?

"Look, you're a good host and I don't want to see you get hurt in this hand. You can't win. I'll show you my hand after you fold."

More thinking. I could see her trying to talk herself into folding. She was pretty sure she was beaten. There was a small chance they were tied, but it wasn't likely in her mind.

"Please, I really don't want to take more of your money. Fold and let's move on to the next hand."

Finally, reluctantly, Betsy pushed her cards towards the dealer, face-down, folding. 

Adnan jumped out of his chair and exclaimed, "YES!" He flipped over his hand to show the identical hand that Betsy had folded - ace-king, but of different suits. Had she called, they would have split the pot.

Betsy immediately left the table, clearly very upset. Sharon went after her. Once she left the room, everyone left in the game made it very clear to Adnan that he had crossed a very big, very serious line.

"What? It's poker - I thought we all played hard against one another," he said.


"You're missing the point here," Nick said. "It's one thing to play hard, it's an entirely different thing when you shoot an angle on your host." 'Shooting an angle' is a poker term for not exactly cheating, but using the rules of the game in a way they weren't intended. He's allowed to say whatever he wants, of course, but disguising his manipulation as an attempt to "save her money" was just not something you do to your host. Especially when you're drinking your second bottle of her 1985 Georges de Latour Private Reserve. 

In the meantime, Sharon was with Betsy, who was in her bedroom in tears. "I open my house, I give everyone everything, and then I get treated like that," she sobbed. "I don't know why I let it get to me, but it gets to me."

"It should get to you," Sharon said. "What he did was disgusting." They sat on Betsy's bed and commiserated for quite a while (or it seemed like quite a while to me, waiting for the game to start again). Betsy composed herself and got ready to return to the game. 

"I got this," Sharon said. 

"You got what?" Betsy said. "The hand's over. There's nothing you can do."

"Oh, yes, there is. You know how he plays, and so do I. I'm going to watch for the first opportunity to bust him, and when I do, I'm going to give you your $1,500 back right in front of his angle-shooting nose."

Sharon and Betsy returned to the game. Adnan spoke right up. "I'm sorry if I did something that offended you," he said. "I thought I was just playing the game."

"No, you didn't," Sharon said.

"Let's just drop it and play," I said. Sharon had some sort of gleam in her eye. I wasn't sure what it was, but I suspected I was about to find out. And I did, exactly two hands later.

Adnan was third to act - two other players had called. "Pot!" he announced, the standard way that a pot limit player indicates that he wants to raise the maximum. He put in $30. Sharon called, as did two other players. Betsy, last to act in the big blind, folded. Five players saw the flop of 236 of different suits.

"Pot!" Adnan said again and put $160 in the pot. Sharon looked at him, then briefly at the other players. "I raise the pot."

A full pot-sized raise at this point made the bet $640 ($160 in the pot, Adnan's $160, Sharon's call of $160, and then her raise of $480). Sharon reached for some bills, but before she could count them out, Adnan stood up and exclaimed "Pot!" one more time. Everyone else folded back to Sharon.

(In case you're interested in the math - Adnan's reraising the pot was a total bet of $2,080. He called Sharon's total bet of $640, so there was now $640 + $640 + $180, or $1,440 in the pot; he was raising $1,440 on top of his $640.)

Sharon did a quick count of her chips and money and realized that she wasn't far from being all-in - she had about $2,800 total including the bet she had already put out. "All in," she said, making what became a trademark finger-wave over her chips. Adnan said "Call" before the words were completely out of Sharon's mouth.

Adnan now looked at Sharon and said, "You want to run it a few times?"

I'm not going to explain this in detail, but what Adnan was suggesting is something that poker players sometimes do to reduce the impact of luck. When there's a huge pot and the betting is over, players can choose to divide the pot in half or thirds. If they divide in half, they deal a turn card and river card for half the pot, and another turn and river card for the other half. If they divide in thirds, they deal three outcomes.

Sharon usually agrees to multiple runs in this situation, but this time she just sat there. "Come on, at least let's run it twice." Still nothing. Adnan turned over his hand in an attempt to get a reaction. He had two black kings.

Sharon tried to keep a straight face, but failed. "You put all your money in with a pair there? What do you think I have?"

"I think you have queens," Adnan said, even though everyone in the room, and a few people walking by on the street outside, knew that wasn't what she had.

"Let's just run it once," Sharon said. The dealer dealt two card that changed nothing. Sharon turned over the four and five of spades for a straight on the flop that held up. The dealer pushed her the gigantic pot, piles of chips with hundred dollar bills mixed in.

Sharon dragged the pot, fishing for the hundreds. She looked up at Betsy, who was almost directly across the table. "How much was it?" she asked.

"Fifteen hundred," Betsy said.

Sharon stood up, purposefully leaning over Adnan, and counted, "One, two..." up to fifteen. "See, I told you." In all the years I've known Sharon, I rarely recall her looking quite this satisfied.


Justice. It doesn't always happen as it should, but when it does, man, is it sweet. Justice - that's my church.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Barry Bonds wants to kill me, too

In my post called "Armadillo Tim and the Threat of Death," I mentioned in the last line that Tim's death threat wasn't my only one. My second death threat, oddly enough, was from someone I'd never met until that moment.

In 2005, PokerStars held its first land-based World Poker Tour event at the Atlantis Resort & Casino in the Bahamas (for more on that event, a three-part story starts here and a related story is here). Just after we concluded negotiations with Atlantis and signed a contract, I got a call from a guy named Pete, who had been hired by Michael Jordan to run his annual Michael Jordan Charity Golf Tournament. This event had been held at Atlantis a number of times - in fact, there's an incredible suite at Atlantis that's informally called the Michael Jordan Suite (officially called the Bridge Suite).

Pete was clearly OK with the golf part of his responsibilities. However, Jordan had just called him to ask if he could organize a celebrity poker tournament as part of the golf event. Pete called Atlantis, they gave him my number, he called me, and there I was talking to a guy who wanted us to create a poker tournament for Michael Jordan and 100 of his favorite sports legend and celebrity friends. My life, already possessed of a surreal edge, was taking on entirely new dimensions.

We got the formalities out of the way quickly - of course we could do the event, and we'd be happy to provide tables, dealers, chips, cards, floor staff and anything else they needed. Pete mentioned to me that many of the players would have little, or even zero, poker experience. We decided that, in addition to the normal dealer and floor staff, we'd also provide coaches for each table. Any player could ask a coach for help or advice at any time during the tournament. We had plenty of staff on hand qualified to do this - in fact, we had staff begging for this assignment, even though it paid nothing except for a few extra days at Atlantis.

The event started with the most elaborate cocktail party I've ever seen. Gorgeous Bahamian women in skimpy outfits carried trays of Cuban cigars; anyone who chose to smoke one also got a one-cigar crystal ashtray, cutter and lighter. The caviar bar featured half-kilo tins of Beluga caviar (for perspective, one of those goes for about $3,500). There was a beautifully-done Grey Goose ice sculpture, about six feet tall, with channels bored through it; if you chose a Grey Goose shot, they poured it through the sculpture and it emerged so cold that it had an oily consistency. The sushi bar served up martini glasses filled with a decadent yellowtail/toro appetizer.

I don't remember all the celebrities I saw that night, but it was pretty staggering. Off the top of my head, I remember Dennis Rodman, Roger Clements, Julius Erving, Wayne Gretzky, Damon Wayans, Scotty Pippen, Dennis Haysbert, Vanessa Williams, Alan Thicke, Vivika A. Fox, Bryant Gumbel, Mario Lemieux, Carson Daly and Barry Bonds. We'll come back to Barry in a minute.

The tournament started with lots of fanfare and much less confusion than I expected. There were a few fun and entertaining moments, especially as liquor continued to fuel essentially clueless celebrity poker players. Two of my favorites both involved Sharon - the first was her meeting her hero, Wayne Gretzky, just before the tournament, which is the only time before or since that Sharon was speechless. 

The second was at the table she was coaching. Dennis Rodman was at the table, drinking heavily and playing recklessly despite Sharon's attempts to rein him in. At one point, he called her over and asked her advice. She suggested he fold. Rodman said, "But I really want to move all in!" She stood firm, saying, "Your hand sucks." He stood up, towering almost exactly a foot over her. Sharon said, "I don't care how tall you are, your hand still sucks." The table all laughed and applauded, and for the record, Rodman folded. I was fortunate enough to witness this one first-hand.

A few minutes after the Rodman hand, I was watching the action at my table when I noticed Barry Bonds reach into Alan Thicke's stack (Thicke had just won a pot) and take some chips. I didn't say anything at that moment - I wasn't sure I had seen what I thought I had seen  - but I called Mike Ward, our tournament director, over to watch. A few minutes later, Thicke, who by this time was nearly catatonically drunk, won another pot and Bonds took more chips from his stack. I turned to Mike, about to suggest that I intervene.

"This is for fun and for charity," Mike said. "We should allow a lot of leeway." I didn't like it, but also didn't want to create a scene, so I let this one pass, also.

About ten minutes later, Bonds and Thicke got involved in a pot, and Thicke, one of the massive chip leaders, moved all in. Bonds thought about it for just a minute and then called. As we had done for all all-ins, we announced the action and got the pot right (rather than just leaving chips in front of players, as is often done in tournaments). Thicke had Bonds covered by a lot. The cards ran out, Thicke won the pot and Bonds was eliminated.

Or so we thought.

As I watched, Bonds reached into Thicke's stack once again and took quite a few chips. This time I wasn't about to let it pass.

"I didn't say anything the last few times you did that, but this time, you were eliminated from the tournament. You will need to return those chips."

There was a long silence. The dealer, who had started dealing the next hand, stopped and looked up at me for direction. "Deal around him," I said.

"Where are my cards?" Bonds asked in a too-loud voice.

"You've been dealt out. And you need to return the chips you took from Mr. Thicke."

The players all had their cards, blinds had been posted, but no one moved. The players were waiting to see how this was going to play out. Me too.

Mike Ward came and stood next to me. Unbidden, one of the many beefy security guards stood on my other side. It hadn't occurred to me that I might need him, but I was silently grateful.

Bonds looked at the table, then up at me, smiled a beatific smile and said, "I've killed people for less than that." And just sat there.

The moment stretched out for hours. It was probably thirty seconds. Then, Bonds slowly stood up and walked away.

And there it was - my second death threat.

I can't say I've ever been a big fan of Barry Bonds (although I thought his dad was terrific). But I do owe him a debt - not that many poker executives get not just one, but two death threats in a single career.

Monday, February 3, 2014

How PokerStars saved the Aussie Millions

Author's note: In order to put some teeth in my commitment to post at least once a week, I make this pledge: if more than one week passes between posts, and you're the first person to point it out, I'll donate $100 to the charity of your choice. 

Back in 2002, I spent a lot of my time just trying to figure out how to get PokerStars noticed. The poker boom hadn't really started yet, but it was starting to build a head of steam. Online poker sites were coming out of the woodwork. Where in 2001 there had been only about a dozen sites, by mid-2002 there were at least 50 of reasonable size. 

Paradise Poker remained the 900 pound gorilla, accounting for more than 75% of the market. PartyPoker had signed poker legend Mike Sexton, who was about to become famous as the spokesperson for the World Poker Tour in addition to his PartyPoker affiliation. UltimateBet made a deal with both Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke. And, of course, PokerStars had a brief brush with signing a poker celebrity (see Armadillo Tim and the Threat of Death) that nearly brought my nascent online poker career to an early end.

So there I was, in the early fall of 2002, just trying to figure out how to be heard above the fray. Advertising on TV didn't yet make sense, although it would in very short order. Traditional mainstream advertising was far from a target-rich environment. I had some substantial success with keyword advertising on Google and a few other less-known search engines, but competition was fierce, and the real truth was that we didn't have that much that made us unique.

Now, if you're a PokerStars player, especially if you were back then, you might dispute this, and you'd be right. Without bias, I can say that PokerStars had the best online poker software in 2002 and maintains that lead today. But how do you convey that in a 25 word blurb on Google AdWords? We were one of the first sites to offer multi-table tournaments, but PartyPoker and UltimateBet did, too, so that didn't really distinguish us (although our lack of any spectacular public site meltdowns probably did).

While reading Card Player one day in September 2002, I saw an article about an upcoming poker tournament in Melbourne, Australia. The article was mostly about the venue, the Crown Casino, which was the largest casino in the southern hemisphere. Crown was about to launch their first big poker tournament, the Aussie Millions, to be held in mid-January. The tournament featured a $10,000 buy-in (Australian dollars, which back then were worth about $0.55) and a $1 million AUD guarantee.

I did some searching and came up with the name Danny McDonough, the tournament director for the Aussie Millions. I checked the time difference, which was +19 hours and called the poker room at Crown. I was lucky enough to catch Danny in his late morning.

I was even luckier than that. It turned out that, not only did Danny know who PokerStars was, he had played on the site. And he was a partner in a pretty well-known poker portal, as well. After exchanging pleasantries and comparing notes about playing online and live, we got down to the meat of the discussion.

Danny was very straight with me, a refreshing trait I found common among the Australians I've done business with. He was very worried about the Aussie Millions. He knew that the local Melbourne market wasn't big enough to support the guarantee. He hoped to attract players from as far as Sydney, but until my call, he hadn't considered how Crown might promote the event outside of Australia.

I had just the thing. I immediately offered to buy five Aussie Millions entries as an opening salvo. I thought this might help move things along; I had no idea how well that would work. Danny immediately offered terrific rates at the Crown property (more on that in a bit - it's an amazing place), as much exposure as he could legally give us, both in the press and online, and any other help he could provide. 

After the call, I convened a meeting of the PokerStars Marketing Department, which at the time consisted of me, with a little help from my wife Sharon and my geriatric cat, Nicole. The three of us talked the idea through, and decided that there were, in fact, two opportunities here. One was to give away the five Aussie Millions entries, along with airfare, hotel and travel allowance, to PokerStars players who could use their Frequent Player Points to enter. The second was to run online satellites for additional trip packages. 

This second item may seem obvious, but in 2002 that was far from the case. No one was giving away anything like this. PartyPoker had run the first PartyPoker Million cruise a few months earlier, but that was their own, dedicated event. Running online satellites to live poker room events had never been done, as silly as that may seem.

I put a plan together and ran it by Isai, my boss. I expected opposition, and was quite surprised to find none; in fact, he wholeheartedly supported the idea, including the cash satellites. We had our first partnership with a land-based casino. As a gesture of good faith (and to lock in the exchange rate), we immediately wired $50,000 AUD to Crown, and I got to work putting a marketing plan together. I told Danny that I thought we could be bringing as many as 10 additional players from satellites, which seemed to thrill him to an inordinate degree.

A few weeks later, we launched our first Aussie Millions satellite, and were stunned by the response. The total package value was about $8,500 including airfare, hotel and a $1,000 travel allowance. We guaranteed one seat, and would have been satisfied giving up a little on the guarantee. Instead, we gave away three Aussie Millions packages. There was no doubt - we had hit on something.

By the time our online satellites ended in early December, we had given away an astounding 18 Aussie Millions packages, in addition to the five that we bought to give away to players. There was no question that we would be a force at the Aussie Millions. We had no idea exactly how true that would be.

Sharon and I got ready to head to Australia on New Year's Day 2003 (a great day to travel, btw). I had been to Sydney once, back in 1988, and had fallen in love with the entire country. This was our first big trip together as a couple - we'd been to quite a few places in the US, but other than a four-day cruise to Mexico we had never been out of the country together. When we booked our tickets, we found that we had a layover in Hong Kong. Singapore Airlines was kind enough to let us take a few days in Hong Kong for the same price.

After playing for three days in Hong Kong - and incidentally spending exactly all of the money we had brought with us on gifts - we boarded a late afternoon flight to Melbourne. Danny told me he would arrange airport transportation, which was great - the flight was close to 10 hours, with a +3 hour time change, so we were arriving at around 6am.

After coming through customs and immigration, we found a pleasant guy named Sam waiting for us with the requisite sign that said "Goldman." He arranged for our luggage, and led us to a monstrously large stretch limo bearing the Crown logo. He apologized for the impending long trip (about 40 minutes, as I recall), but we brightened considerably when he opened a thermos of coffee. He gave us a little history about Crown and let us know that he would be our contact if we needed anything during our stay, which would be just under two weeks' duration.

The limo should have given me a clue as to how we would be treated, but I wasn't fully with it. Upon arriving at Crown, Sam arranged for our luggage to be brought to our room. We passed the check-in lines and headed straight for the elevators, which brought a raised eyebrow from me. "Part of my job," Sam said. "I'll get a credit card imprint from you later."

We zipped to the 30th floor, where Sam walked us to double doors at the very end of a long hallway. He opened the door and escorted us into the largest and most opulent hotel room I've seen before or since.

The hotel is curved, and so was the 18 foot high wall of windows facing us when we entered. Stretching about 50 feet wide, the window wall offered a jaw-dropping view of the Yarra River below and Melbourne Park (home of the Australian Open) to the right. 

And that was just the living room. The bathroom had a shower, jacuzzi and steam room. The bedroom had what is undoubtedly the largest bed in the southern hemisphere. I didn't know exactly why yet, but we were royalty. The next two weeks were going to be fun.

Sam shook our hands, refused to accept a tip, and told us that our luggage would be up momentarily. We gawked like hillbillies seeing indoor plumbing for the first time. Sharon found a remote control that opened and closed the absurdly long curtains. We played with that for a while. We had trouble getting an Internet connection; within five minutes of our call to the front desk, a technician was there helping us.

The rest of that day consisted mostly of gawking, pointing and taking pictures. We had arranged to meet with Danny for dinner that night, our first face-to-face meeting. He took us to a steakhouse in the Crown complex (one of about 40 restaurants on the property).

"We're cutting it really close," Danny told us over cocktails. "Your 23 entries are a huge help, but we're still probably going to have to make up some of the guarantee. We have 40 satellite winners so far (the tournament was two days away), and expect about 10 cash buy-ins."

Over the next two days, we watched an impressively large and busy poker room bursting at the seams to accommodate the crowds. It was summer in Melbourne, and that fact, combined with the Aussie Millions and the upcoming Australian Open, had packed the room. Danny kept us updated on the count - and it was going to be very, very close. 

With 90 minutes to go before the Main Event, the count was at 76 entries from satellite winners and direct buy-ins, plus our 23 entries - 99 total, one short of making the $1 million guarantee. Danny had set out on this path with an audacious goal, made even more audacious by the fact that the biggest tournament Crown had run prior to 2003 was a $1,500 buy-in event. Danny decided to run one last satellite, a super-duper-turbo (they had a name for it that I don't recall), in which players started with 1,000 in chips and 100-200 blinds. He managed to find 10 players willing to put up $1,000 each in what amounted to a lotto for a Main Event seat. And history was made.

I do wish the story ended there. But stunningly, over the four hours of late registration, 22 more players showed up. The final number was 122 players. But if you do the simple math, you'll realize that, were it not for PokerStars' 23 entries, the first Aussie Millions would have had 99 players. Instead, we helped them smash the guarantee. And while at the height of the poker boom, this event would sport close to 800 players (with much help from Full Tilt Poker, another story), 2003 was the year that put the Aussie Millions on the poker map.

Ironic epilogue to this story: In 2004, PokerStars joined the World Poker Tour with the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (see my three-part story on the WPT starting here and the saga of our first year's event here). That same year, Crown moved the Aussie Millions to the third week in January, in direct conflict with PCA. 2003 was the first and only year that Sharon and I were able to attend this terrific event.

Happy epilogue to this story: I tried relentlessly from 2004 forward to recruit Danny McDonough to come work for PokerStars. I'm sad to say I didn't succeed, but after I left, someone else wore him down. After a few years helping get the Asian Pacific Poker Tour and PokerStars Asia started, Danny is now President of the APPT. He was, and remains, one of my favorite people in poker.