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, 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."


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.

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