Friday, April 25, 2014

Trouble in Paradise (Part 1)

August 3, 2002
The poker market in general, and online poker in particular, were benefiting from a nice little boomlet in 2002. PokerStars was doing well, although the numbers were almost laughable compared to today's. But we were regularly signing up 25-50 new players a day, seeing respectable and growing fields for tournaments and had cash games that ran almost all the time (harder than you might think back then).

The online poker market had gotten crowded very quickly, and by the summer of 2002 there were about fifty sites with sufficient liquidity to support reasonable games. We were all rising with the tide. PokerStars was doing better than most for the best possible reason - it was, in fact, the best online poker site out there, and this isn't just pride talking. The software in its 2002 state would stand up well against today's competition.

All of that having been said, we were still very, very far behind the competition. The 900 pound gorilla in the market was Paradise Poker, the site on which Sharon and I made our entire original poker bankroll. In August of 2002, Paradise Poker's market share was somewhere in the 80% range. PartyPoker, who had launched just a few months before us, was in a distant second place, and the rest of us were all bunched up together. But we all knew the market was growing quickly; a few percentage points of a potentially gigantic market seemed like a reasonable goal. And there was always the chance that the leader would stumble, although for the life of me I couldn't imagine how.

The one huge edge that PokerStars had from the beginning was truly superior multi-table tournament software. It just worked the way you expected it to - meaning that it looked and felt like it was written by poker players. It was, and it showed in practically every way. 

But the best thing about it was the simplest - it could support very large tournament fields, which allowed players to put up very small amounts of money with the potential for a gigantic return. This was the one edge we had in the market in general and against Paradise in particular - incredibly, not only didn't they have multi-table tournament software at all, but they would go another two years before catching up.

One of my favorite marketing techniques is going straight to users and giving them a good reason to tell the company's story for us. I knew we had great stuff, and looked for any way I could to get it in front of players. We sponsored a number of poker events, talked to the press, wrote articles. 

One of the first events we sponsored was an annual poker event in Las Vegas called BARGE. Lou Krieger had tried to talk me into attending BARGE for years, but every August I found some excuse that kept me away. Now that I was in the poker business, though, it seemed to make sense. From what I had heard, BARGE was an eclectic cross-section of the poker world, and this was supported by posts and stories I'd read online.

I contacted Chuck Weinstock, one of the organizers of BARGE, and told him that PokerStars was interested in being involved in the event in some way. I was thinking of it like a convention, or a trade show - maybe we'd set up somewhere and show our software and give away some swag. Chuck set me straight pretty quickly - BARGE was more like an enormous home game than a conference. He also told me that Paradise Poker was already a sponsor, but there was room for one more.

I agreed to make a contribution to BARGE that would be used to help pay entry fees and other expenses. In addition, I donated some very swanky, very limited edition PokerStars wool/leather jackets to be given to the winners of three of the poker tournaments at BARGE. I only had twelve made - they were $225 each - and they seemed just right for this crowd. (You can see one of them here - I was wearing it when I danced with Chris Moneymaker less than a year later.)

My counterpart at Paradise Poker, Bruce Davidson, attended BARGE that year, as well. He seemed like a decent guy, much as I wanted him to be a slug (easier to compete with slugs). Bruce, who was VP of Marketing for Paradise at the time, kept a pretty low profile during the event, but he stirred up some attention by putting a $500 bounty on himself for one of the BARGE tournaments. 

It was a good idea that created a lot of buzz. I couldn't just copy it, so instead I decided to challenge Bruce to play me head-up. We'd each put up $500, and the winner got to designate the charity that would receive the combined $1,000 prize pool.

The match got a lot of attention, as well. In fact, a sort of pari-mutuel pool developed, and when we sat down to play we had an audience of about 30 people. We had fun, and after struggling early, I won. I might be competing against the industry giant, but I had gotten a little dig in. 

[Note: the day after BARGE, I wrote a trip report that I posted on the RGP ( newsgroup. The full trip report is at the end of this post. I described the match more fully there.]

I came away from BARGE with a different sense of both Paradise Poker and the poker market in general. I knew that we were onto something pretty strong when we started to see fields of 300, 400, sometimes even 500 players. We had just held the first World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) and generated over $230,000 in prize pools. And in talking to BARGErs in 2002, it was very clear that tournament poker was developing a groundswell.

The World Series of Poker hadn't yet had its boom years - Chris Moneymaker's win was the next year - but it had been growing at an impressive pace, doubling the number of entries from 1997 to 2002. Other smaller tournaments at poker rooms in California had been seeing larger and larger fields for small buy-in events. And there we were, with the market's best software, a growing market and a competitor that didn't seems to realize what their customers wanted.

Next up: The boom flips the market

Dan's 2002 BARGE trip report
I had the pleasure of attending my first BARGE this past week.  PokerStars
and Paradise Poker cosponsored the event, which was conducted at Binion's
from July 30 to August 4.

I arrived at Binion's on Tuesday afternoon, and found a smattering of
BARGErs around the poker room.  The poker cage held the attendee badges, and
I picked up mine (emblazoned with my former online persona, "smalltalkdan,"
plus my table draws for the tournaments I had entered).  I immediately
realized that I knew more people than I expected - a number from the LA home
games, more from my play in LA cardrooms and touirnaments, and a surprising
number of players I have played with online (back in the days when I played
online - pre-PokerStars - we have a firm company rule that no employee or
family member can play on the site).
I played for a little while in a rock-em-sock-em 4-8 hold 'em game, then
left to check emails before the 6p History of Poker tournament.  The
tournament started at 6 with greetings from the hosts at Binion's and Chuck
Weinstock (who did a spectacular job of keeping an intrinsically
unstructured event on track).  I was also given an opportunity to speak for
a bit in my PokerStars role as a sponsor of the event.
My counterpart at Paradise Poker, Bruce Davidson, put a $500 bounty on
himself for the main BARGE event, the Saturday No Limit Hold 'em tournament.
Rather than do the same, or (as others suggested) trading bounties, I
challenged Bruce to a heads-up tournament, in which we would each put up
$500 with the proceeds going to the charity of the winner's choice.  More on
that later.  I also mentioned to the crowd that both PokerStars and Paradise
Poker had donated shirts and caps for all of the participants, and was
gratified to see a sea of PokerStars caps and shirts over the next few days
(OK, there were a few Paradise Poker caps and shirts, also).
The History of Poker event was an interesting and different experience.  The
tournament consisted of a two-game rotation of 5 card draw and lowball,
neither of which I have much experience playing, but it didn't seem like
many of my opponents did, either, at least not on the draw high side.  I had
no spectacular hands and no spectacular beats, with the exception of having
3 of 4 hands with open-ended straight flush draws (one actually hit and
prolonged my agony a bit) and two pat full houses (unfortunately both of
them were in lowball).  I exited about 2/3 of the way through the field.
One note at this point - it is a BARGE tradition to applaud when players are
knocked out, which at first is a little jarring, particularly since the
first player's exit is accompanied by ROARING applause and catcalls. But it
quickly became obvious that the applause was really a show of respect for
one another, and an acknowledgment that going out of a tournament at any
point is not necessarily a reflection of the quality of play.  This respect
was obvious throughout the BARGE event, as was respect for the house and for
dealers.  A number of dealers mentioned to me that they look forward to
BARGE, partly for the generous tips (more on this later also) and partly
because they know they will be dealing games that are fun and completely
without dealer abuse.  In fact, in the rare case where there was abuse, it
was a non-BARGEr, and was stopped by one or more of the BARGE participants.
Wednesday brought the TOC (Tournament of Champions) - style event (I'm
wondering how long that moniker will stick).  This was a rotation of hold
'em, stud (yawn) and Omaha/8.  My performance was distinguished only by the
few minutes I was allowed to speak once again.  I made it through about half
the field, which was amazing considering that I was never able to play one
single hand of stud during the four hours I played, except the last.  I went
out on an unremarkable hand of stud in which I started out with (66) A, made
two pair and lost to two higher pair.  Just as well - I had work to do :)
Wednesday late evening, after answering emails and taking care of other
PokerStars business, I got into a reasonably sedate 4-8 game that quickly
went out of control.  This was, in fact, one of the wildest games I have
ever seen, and the charge was led by a non-BARGEr, an otherwise solid player
who let another player put him on tilt.  Here's how it happened:
The solid player (who I'll call Mike), a somewhat unpleasant character that
I assumed to be a dealer by the way he cut his chips, was building his stack
pretty steadily, playing a predictable game but having his good hands hold
up.  Mike had about $300 in front of him when I sat down, and although he
was full of critical comments about other players, he seemed to otherwise
have the game under control.  Until...
The player in the 1 seat (let's call him Dave) was the type of player that
plays an assortment of surprising hands, including any A, any suited cards
and any close connectors (up to 2 gap), even for one or more raises.  In the
hand that set off the chain of events to come, Mike raised under the gun
with AA and Dave called with 93 of spades (along with 5 other players).  The
flop came J83 with one spade, and a relatively large pot developed (two
players on straight draws, one AJ).  The turn brought nothing much, but the
pot grew dramatically larger.  The river brought (you guessed it) another 3,
and Dave took down an enormous pot.
Now things got interesting.  Mike called for cocktails (he had been nursing
a beer), and proceeded to get roaring drunk in a very short time.  The solid
player vaporized, replaced by a maniac who literally raised EVERY SINGLE POT
for 3 hours.  I'm not talking about some, or most, but EVERY one.  We could
have a whole strategy discussion about playing with a guy like this, but
suffice to say that his behavior loosened up the whole table.  Virtually
every pot was $150 or more, with 5-6 players straddling the blinds each
round.  Perhaps the most amusing event in all of this was Mike's
under-the-breath comments as he dragged some very large pots: "You gotta
loosen up your standards when BARGE is in town."  Over the 3 hours,
unfortunately for Mike's bankroll, his lowering of his standards caused him
to suffer one of the worst losses I have ever seen at this level - about
The most interesting and profitable hand I was involved with while Mike was
playing went like this:  I was on the button with 77, and it was 3 bets to
me with all but one player in.  I knew that it would eventually cost me 5
bets pre-flop, since Mike had not yet acted in the big blind.  However,
knowing this, I was not that much of a dog (about even money, I figure,
against 7 players).  I called, and eight of us saw the flop for 5 bets each.
The flop came pretty favorably for me, QJ7 rainbow.  It was once again 3
bets to me, I made it 4 (the pot was plenty big enough at this point) and
Mike capped it as expected.  We lost 2 players.  The turn card came a blank
(a 2, I think), and it was once again 3 bets to me.  I made it four, Mike
made it 5 and four of us saw the river card.
I wasn't sure what to hope for on the river - I was pretty sure that a Q or
J would hurt me, so I looked for a 2.  To my shock, the case 7 showed up on
the river, and I was faced with 2 bets with the stone cold nuts.  I made it
3 bets, Mike finally folded and I won a >$400 pot with quads.
I passed on the Thursday (blackjack) and Friday (stud, yawn) tournaments,
but showed my face as required :)  However, I did participate in the team
CHORSE event (Crazy Pineapple, Hold 'em, Omaha, Razz, Stud, Stud/8), on the
PokerStars Shills team.  I *think* the event was Thursday night, but so many
of the events of the past week melded together that I may be wrong - it may
have been Friday.  The event was played in double-rotation format, with each
table playing 3 games and rotating every orbit.  Our performance was
undistinguished, but we did at least get a little money back.
Friday night was the "symposium," which is actually a Calcutta for the main
event.  My pairing took a respectable $45.
Saturday brought the main event, No Limit Hold 'em.  We started with 162
players with a format and starting stack that allowed for a lot of play.  I
never varied much - after starting with T1,500, I was as low as T500 and as
high as T2,300.  After abour five hours of play, the field had narrowed to
48 players, and the blinds went up to T200/400.  I was left with about
T1,400, and was looking for the first hand that had any potential at all.
UTG I found K9 hearts - not exactly a monster, but better than anything I
had seen.  I moved all in.  The player 2 behind me called time, thought
about it for quite a while, and then called.  The player directly behind him
also called time, and then moved all-in for about T4,500.  Everyone else
folded, and it came back to the original caller.  He could just cover the
all-in move, and after thinking for another minute, he called.
The hands that were turned over were bad for me - AQ spades for the original
caller, A6 of hearts (MY suit :(  ) for the raiser.  But the flop was a
miracle for me - AK9, 3 suits.  I thought for a second, and calculated that
they had 7 outs between them to beat me (1 ace, 3 Qs, 3 6s).  Unfortunately,
one of them showed up on the turn, a Q...and the other showed up on the
river, a 6.  After taking a big lead with a lucky flop, I ended up coming in
third.  I waved to the polite applause and went back to work.
Saturday night was the banquet, a very nice sit-down dinner that almost all
BARGErs attended.  Linda Johnson was the guest speaker, and she made a very
interesting presentation that included a selection of often hysterical
misprints from Card Player past.  She then passed the microphone to Steve
Lipscomb (top guy at the World Poker Tour), who showed a very entertaining
teaser for upcoming World Poker Tour events, along with a video from the
Party Poker Million.
During the banquet, an announcement was made about the challenge match
between Paradise Poker and PokerStars.  A few of the players decided to
establish a pool around the match, grew pretty quickly.  The odds went back
and forth, but I ended up a slight dog, as a result of my opponent's
last-minute $100 wager on himself.
The challenge match started at Binion's at midnight.  We played 3 12-minute
rounds of limit hold 'em, then switched to no limit.  Starting with T2,000
each, I took a small lead and was ahead T2,400-1,600, but this took a big
turn for the worst, and at the end of round 2 I was behind T3,100-900.
However, my opponent doesn't seem to have played a lot of heads-up, because
I started steal-raising and he gave up most hands.  By the end of round 3,
we had reversed positions to T3,200-800.
It looked like the first hand of No Limit was the end - I raised with A9, he
called with Q4o (?? - maybe he was tired?).  Nothing came on the board, and
we shook hands and declared it over - when the dealer said "uh, guys, there
are 4 spades on the board, and he (Bruce) has a spade."  So we continued.
It finally ended 5 hands later, when I raised with AJ, he called with Q9.
Nothing on the board again, and this time it was truly over.  We shook
hands, got some applause from the people smart enough to bet on me, but most
important is the $1,100 for my charity, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America.
The extra $100 came from the pool - the players agreed to donate a portion
of the proceeds.
Later that evening I was introduced to a few BARGE traditions.  One is
Chowaha - I won't rehash the details, since most of you know them, but it's
quite a game.  The other is the must-toke game - incoming dealers have so
many chips rained down on them that they carry slot machine coin cups with
them to hold them all.  Then there is the occasional call of "incoming,"
which is always followed by a barrage of chips headed the dealer's way.  Not
hard to imagine why the dealers love BARGE.
That's pretty much it for my first BARGE.  I can't believe it's taken me
this long - Lou has bugged me for years to go, but events kept conspiring
against me.  Now that I've done it, it will be permanently a part of my
August schedule.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Planes, planes, taxis and automobiles (Part 2 of 2)

September 15, 1999
When Sharon told me on Friday that she was in the hospital with a blood clot, my first impulse was to head straight for the airport. Sharon talked me out of this quickly - her doctors had no idea how long she would be hospitalized, and she made it very clear to me that she didn't want me there while she was still in the hospital. 

(I should point out here that I had already spent quite a bit of time with Sharon in hospitals previously - we had a scare on a prior visit involving suspected appendicitis.)

The following Monday, her doctors told her that she would most likely be released on Wednesday. I made reservations to fly out that day, arriving late evening Wednesday, planning to stay until the following Monday or Tuesday. That's when the least fun travel odyssey of my life started.

Everything began normally enough. I got a ride to the airport on Wednesday from my best friend, Randy. On the way, he reminded me that it was hurricane season in the east, and that there was a hurricane heading up the coast. I told him I had checked with USAir, and the flight was departing as scheduled.

I checked in, had a drink (which I usually don't do when I'm flying) and boarded the flight. I almost never sleep on planes - I'm not sure why, but I just don't seem to be able to stay asleep for more than 30 minutes, even on long flights. But this time, a combination of exhaustion and one drink did the trick - I fell asleep almost immediately, and didn't wake up until the plane was on the ground. I collected my carry-on bag and computer bag and shuffled off the plane.

I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, and had traveled through Philadelphia International Airport innumerable times, including at least four times in the prior six months, so I knew the airport pretty well. The airport I saw when I exited the plane didn't look quite right, but I remembered that they had been doing a lot of renovations. But after walking a hundred yards or so, I knew something was wrong. I returned to the arrival gate and found a USAir representative.

"I know this will sound like a weird question, but - where exactly am I?" I asked.

"You're in Charlotte, North Carolina. Where were you expecting to be?"

"Well, I was hoping to be in Philadelphia," I said, still digesting the idea that I was 500 miles from where I expected to be.

"Oh!" the USAir rep said. "You must have been on the flight from Los Angeles. You were diverted to Charlotte because the Philadelphia airport is underwater."

This took a minute to register. "Underwater?" I said blankly.

"Yes, Hurricane Floyd just made landfall not far from there, and they've had 10 inches of rain so far. The airport is closed."

I called Sharon, who had already heard about the diversion. She is not the excitable type, but was not at all pleased at this development. I told her I'd call as soon as I had an update. By this time, it was around 7pm; I was supposed to land in Philadelphia at 6:15, so Sharon thought I'd already be at her house by then.

USAir, to their credit, did everything they could to find me a flight. There were some indications that the Philadelphia airport might reopen, so they booked me on a few flights that ended up being canceled. Finally, at midnight, they threw in the towel and put me up at a nearby Marriott.

I called Sharon again, who by this time was mad. There was no one to blame, of course, so I bore the brunt of it. But I was the dutiful boyfriend, and that was my job, so that's what I did. I told her that I was returning to the airport at 6am to try again, and would call her as soon as I knew what was happening.

USAir sent a car for me and got me to the airport just after 6 the following morning. When I arrived, they informed me that the Philadelphia airport had reopened, and booked me on a 7am flight. That was perfect - I had just enough time to get to Starbucks for a coffee and pastry. I took my boarding pass and headed for Starbucks, which took me past the flight status board just in time to see the "On Time" message next to my flight change to "Canceled."

I headed back to the gate. The USAir representative was profusely apologetic - the information they had gotten was wrong, and they weren't sure when the airport would reopen. There had apparently been a massive power failure, as well, so things just weren't looking very promising.

We continued with several more cycles of hope/diminished hope/cancellation. Finally, around 11am, I asked if there was a flight to one of the New York airports. There was a flight to Newark scheduled to depart at noon. I asked to be put on that flight. The USAir rep started to tell me that this was off my itinerary and might cost extra. I tilted my head down gave her my best baleful look over my glasses. 

She got the message and got to work. Five minutes later, my CLT-EWR boarding pass in hand, I headed to the gate for my long-delayed flight.

Much to my surprise, the flight took off on time and did, in fact, land in Newark. I took the New Jersey Transit train from the airport to Penn Station in Manhattan, then bolted for the Amtrak ticket counter.

"One roundtrip to Philadelphia, please," I said to the ticket agent, and handed over a credit card. He printed the ticket, had me sign the voucher and I was off. I had taken this particular train many times, and knew exactly where to go and when it ran. I called Sharon to let her know, then headed down the escalator to the tracks.

After waiting for thirty minutes, I started to get concerned. Not only had the train not arrived, but there was no indication on the board that it would arrive. I gathered my stuff and went back up the escalator to the Amtrak ticket booth, where the same agent was reading a newspaper.

"Any idea when the train to Philly will arrive?" I asked.

"The Philadelphia trains have all been canceled. 30th Street Station is flooded," he said, and returned to his newspaper.

I was uncharacteristically speechless. Finally I was able to say, "You do remember that you sold me a ticket for that train a half-hour ago?"

"Yes," he said.

More silence. 

I said, "You sold me a ticket knowing the train wasn't running."

"I had no way of knowing when you were traveling, sir." I always know I'm against a brick wall when they call me "sir." I asked for a refund, and was treated to a truly unpleasant experience involving much grumbling, paper-shuffling and supervisor-calling. I did get a refund, not that it mattered much. I thought about suggesting that the ticket agent call Sharon, since I certainly didn't want to.

I took a few deep breaths and called Sharon, who was on a lot of pain meds and was not amused. By this time, she knew that I was making a Herculean effort to get there, but that didn't make either of us feel much better.

I left Penn Station and walked up 8th Avenue to the Hertz car rental station. There was a line out the door. As I stood there, looking forlorn and feeling like the situation was hopeless, the guy in front of me said, "You know, there's another Hertz location on 57th. You want to share a cab?" I nodded, and we flagged down a taxi.

On the way, I told the story up to this point. My taxi companion said, "So you're going to Philadelphia?" I nodded. "Funny, me too."

We arrived at the Hertz station, which was empty. I happened to get to the counter first and asked for a car. 

"Do you have a reservation?"


"No," I said, "I've been trying to get to Philadelphia since yesterday afternoon."

"I do have one car," the Hertz rep said. I immediately felt terrible, and turned to my taxi buddy.

"Let's split it," he said.

So we got Hertz's very last car, which happened to be a quite pleasant Lincoln Town Car. And just over three hours later, I pulled into the Hertz lot at Philadelphia International Airport, where Sharon was waiting to meet me. (Her mother drove.)

"Just in case you weren't sure if I loved you..." I began.

"Just get in the fucking car," Sharon said, and hugged me for a long time.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Planes, planes, taxis and automobiles (Part 1 of 2)

September 10, 1999
[NOTE: I made a pledge a few months ago that I would post at least once every seven days, and if not I’d donate $100 to the charity of the first person calling me out. I missed this week for the first time. Congrats to Taki – I’ll let you know what his selected charity is.]

in 1999, Sharon and I were carrying on a cross-country relationship, alternately meeting up in the east (New York City, Philadelphia, various places in New Jersey) and the west (usually Redondo Beach). One of us traveled at least once a month.

Around this time, I started receiving offers from the Venetian in Las Vegas, which had just opened. I had been a regular player at the Stardust and Treasure Island; I suspect some host moved to the Venetian and brought me along. The offers were hard to resist – three free days, plus a variety of goodies like meals, cash and show tickets. I had tried several times to convince Sharon to meet me, but we weren’t able to coordinate schedules so I went by myself. It was my first trip to Vegas since early 1997, when I was dating a woman who lived there. I was looking forward to checking out the Venetian, and to playing some poker at the Bellagio.

I arrived early afternoon on Thursday, checked into the Venetian and dropped off my stuff. I wasn’t sure how far the Bellagio was, so I asked a valet, who told me it was walking distance but urged me to take a few bottles of water. He was right that it was walking distance; however, it was somewhere in the 105 degree range. By the time I got there, I was drenched and parched, although I had downed both bottles of water on the way. But as is typical in Las Vegas during the summer, it took only a few minutes to dry out, so I looked slightly less scruffy by the time I made it to the poker room.

The rarely-helpful floor staff at the Bellagio informed me that a seat in a $6-12 or $10-20 limit hold ‘em game would likely be a several hour wait. I was on a very limited bankroll at the time, so playing bigger than that was not an option. I decided to wait. A few minutes later, a $6-12 Omaha High-Low seat opened up, so I sat in on that game while I waited for a hold ‘em seat.

[NOTE: In case you’re wondering why I wasn’t playing pot limit or no limit, remember that this was 1999. The poker boom hadn’t happened yet. I would guess that there were ten or less ‘big bet’ games in the entire state of Nevada back then.]

I’m not a very good limit Omaha player, but the deck smashed me on the head over and over during a two-hour stretch. I don’t think there was a single sizable pot I played that I didn’t win at least half of. I had stacked my chips in unruly towers of varying sizes, and only had a vague notion of how much was in front of me. As fate would have it, at that moment a seat opened in a $15-30 game. I quickly took inventory and counted almost $800, more than enough to take a shot at the $15-30 game.

I asked the floorman to lock up the seat. He feigned not hearing me. I asked again, loud enough not to be missed. He finally nodded, apparently quite unhappy that this request wasn’t accompanied by a tip. I racked up my chips and headed to the $15-30 game.

I decided to wait to come into the game until the button had passed me. I went out into the casino and called Sharon at her office, but got voicemail. I left her a message letting her know about my early success and went back to the game.

The $15-30 game didn’t appear to be particularly good. There were a few old grizzled characters that appeared to have a thin coat of dust on them that extended to their chips. I saw a guy I used to play with at Hollywood Park, who didn’t acknowledge me. The rest of the players didn’t look like tourists; they looked like local rounders.

However, don’t underestimate the power of a horseshoe up the butt. I bought into this game for $500, and less than an hour later I had $1,500 in front of me. As if fate were giving me a nudge, at that moment I heard, “Seat open, $30-60.” Before my brain could catch up, I heard myself saying “Lock it up.”

I went to the cashier to exchange my red $5 chips for brown $10 chips and dropped them off at the $30-60 table. I decided to wait again, and left to call Sharon. Still no answer, either at the office or at home (she didn’t have a cell back then). By this time it was late afternoon, which meant early evening in the east, and I was starting to be a little concerned.

I sat down in the $30-60 game, having no idea what I was getting into. Typically, a game this size had more serious players than the $3-6 to $10-20 games, and a typical hand had 2-3 players seeing the flop. The very first hand I played, eight players went to the flop for two bets each, and I quickly realized that this was to be the standard.

Had I realized how volatile the game was, I wouldn’t have played – a game like that doesn’t favor thin bankrolls. But I was there, and decided I’d play to my blind and then decide what to do. Two hands later, I won a substantial pot, and the very next hand I flopped quads after calling three bets cold with pocket jacks. Suddenly the $1,000 I sat down with had grown to $3,000 and I felt a lot more comfortable.

And that’s when the first of two of the most memorable limit hold ‘em hands ever happened. I was first to act and looked down at the Ace of hearts and the King of hearts. I raised, and by the time it got back to me, it was capped (one bet, four raises - $150 per player), and every player at the table had called. I didn’t love my hand any more, but at that point I was getting something like 12:1 to call, so I called.

The flop came out T44. It was checked to me. I checked, and by the time it got back to me, it was capped again. This time there were only eight callers. I don’t recall how many players made it to the river – I think it was five – but by that time the pot was absolutely enormous, well over $4,000.

When the river action was done, the tiny woman in seat 10, who had barely said a word since I sat down, said, “I think I have this one,” and turned over 44 for quad fours. The dealer pushed her the pot, and it took at least four both-arm pushes to get all of the chips to her. There were chips everywhere, falling into the dealer’s tray, on the floor, on the woman’s lap.

Someone asked for a deck change, which the dealer did. He dealt the next hand, and when it got to the little woman in seat 10, she couldn’t even find her cards under all the chips. She said, “I call blind,” and put in $30. It was capped once again, and once again every player at the table called. I was in the big blind this hand, looked down at a pair of threes and decided to call.

The flop came down with the exact same three cards as last hand – T44. I checked and then folded when it came back to me. There was less action this hand, but by the end of the hand there was still over $3,000 in the pot. The woman who had won the previous pot said, “You’re not going to believe this,” and turned over 44, having flopped the same quads on two consecutive hands.

I’ve seen a lot of bizarre stuff at the poker table, but in all my years of poker, live and online, through millions of hands, I had never seen that before, nor did I since. But the story isn’t over.

The next hand, I was in the small blind, and once again, for the third consecutive hand, the betting was capped. At this point, I really didn’t care what I had, but I looked, and guess what? I had two black fours. I called.

The flop, unfortunately, wasn’t good for my hand – 992. I checked, and folded when it got back to me. The big blind had folded already, so I showed him my hand. He nearly jumped out of his seat. “YOU FOLDED?!?”

Yes, I told him – calling five more bets with that flop just didn’t seem like a good choice. He told me he would have bought my hand from me had I let him. And just as he was saying this, the four of diamonds popped off the deck.

My neighbor just couldn’t resist. “YOU SEE? YOU SHOULD HAVE CALLED!” he practically shouted at me.

It would be a fitting, if unbelievable, end to this story if the case four came off on the river. It didn’t, but my fours full would have won.

Sharon wasn’t yet a poker player, but I thought she would appreciate this story. I took a break to call her, and at that moment, my cell rang. It was Sharon.

“You won’t believe what I just saw!” I said. I started telling her the story.

She interrupted me. “I’m in the hospital,” she said, and sobbed a little. Sharon doesn’t sob much; I knew it was serious.

“I have a blood clot in my leg.”

Next up: You can’t get there from here. (the title of this post will make more sense after you read Part 2.)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

70,000 drunks clinging to a rock (Part 3)

September 2006 - May 2007
So here we were, essentially stranded on the Isle of Man.

OK, 'stranded' is too strong of a term. We could travel pretty much wherever we wanted, as long as we didn't return to the United States. Perhaps the biggest challenge wasn't that we couldn't return, but that we had no idea when we could.

This problem took several forms. As I mentioned in my last post, I have an elderly father (89 then, 96 now). We've been very fortunate - even at this advanced age, Gig was able to live pretty much on his own. He spent about half of the year in Pennsylvania (in the house in which I was born) and half in Florida, living with his girlfriend Bobbi, a sprightly 82-year-old fireball. Because I was in senior management, there was a non-zero chance that the US Department of Justice had me in their sites, or at least on some sort of watchlist.

The DOJ hadn't come after non-owners of online poker sites and affiliated companies yet, but they had been very aggressively pursuing executive owners of companies like NETeller, whose executives, Stephen Lawrence and John Lefebvre, were arrested and jailed. And just to be clear, NETeller wasn't a fly-by-night company; it was a $100 million, well-respected UK-based company that was the primary source of deposits and withdrawals for online gambling.

I was several steps lower than either Lawrence and Lefebvre, who had held the roles of CEO, president and chairman. Both were principles in NETeller, with significant equity positions. And there were quite a few people in senior management or ownership positions with online poker companies that were more visible and likelier candidates for targeting than me. The most obvious of these was Mike Sexton, spokesman for PartyPoker. But there were many others, including Howard Lederer (co-founder, investor and executive with Full Tilt Poker), Annie Duke (investor, senior manager and celebrity host at UltimateBet, and incidentally Howard's sister) and Phil Hellmuth (investor and celebrity host at UltimateBet).

Of course, all this really meant was that they were more likely to be arrested than me, but if the DOJ decided to drive up with a backhoe and scoop up management of online poker companies, all this would really mean was that I'd have company in the bucket.

After having carefully considered all of this, Sharon and I made the decision on October 3, 2006 (the date that PokerStars announced its intent to stay in the US market) that we would stay with the company and stay on the Isle of Man. Until then, we considered ourselves as guests, temporary residents on the island. Now we had to start thinking more permanently.

I've given you some sense of what life was like on the island, but it's nearly impossible to understand until you've lived there. I will apologize in advance for any negative characterizations here - we have many friends on the island who still live there - but it is what it is, which is a tiny island, essentially in the middle of nowhere, with not a whole lot to do.

I should note here that our opinions are jaded by the fact that both Sharon and I have lived in big cities most of our lives. I grew up in a small town, but I left 34 years ago and had almost forgotten how insular such places can be. And the Isle of Man isn't your typical small town. I grew up in Hazleton, PA, a city of about 30,000 population in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was your typical small town, similar to IOM in some ways but with one key difference - if I wanted to go somewhere bigger, Philadelphia was less than two hours by car, New York about three.

By contrast, while IOM is only 90 miles from Liverpool (the nearest tourist port), it's a four hour ocean journey. London is only an hour away by air, but that's deceptive - door-to-door from our house to a London hotel was more like five hours. Not a huge amount of time, I admit, but if you're doing it just to escape the island, it seems much farther.

So at that point, after a year on the island, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we were there for the long haul. And while we already knew this to some extent, it was over the next few months that we came to understand a basic IOM truth. Manx residents call themselves "70,000 drunks clinging to a rock" for good reason - drinking is, by far, the most pervasive participatory sport on the island.

Although there was a distinct lack of diversity in food (Chinese, Indian and fish & chips was pretty much it), the bar scene on the island was vibrant and varied. Our favorite was Bar George, a large, noisy, fun place on the former site of a Sunday school. A typical Friday started early in the afternoon and usually ended very late, and in a taxi. And that wasn't limited to Fridays. We thought we knew how to drink, but our Manx friends taught us a few lessons.

The other place to which we all seemed to gravitate was the casino in the Isle of Man Hilton, affectionately referred to as "the cazzy" by locals. Calling it a casino was something of a stretch for people who spend as much time in Las Vegas as we do. The casino was about 4,000 square feet, which included a bar (of course), a surprisingly excellent restaurant and a surprisingly lame gaming floor. 

The slot machines looked like they had been recycled from Vegas casinos of the mid-90s. There were exactly two video poker machines, neither of which offered anything near reasonable returns. And there were a few table games - three blackjack tables, a roulette wheel, two Three Card Poker tables (called "Brag" in the UK) and a strange, beatable game called "WOO" (more on that game another time). 

The casino opened in the early evening and stayed open until 4am. I found myself being unhappy about the 'early' closing time, which smacks of "the food isn't good the the portions are too small" - as weak an excuse for a casino that it was, we still wanted to be there, because what else was there to do?

So most weekend nights either started or ended at the cazzy. The bar carried one brand of bourbon, which was exactly one more than any other bar on the island, so I suppose it could have been worse. 

By November, we had developed a pretty serious case of cabin fever, Sharon more than me (but not by much). She missed the US, missed the friends we used to see every day, missed sushi (back then there was none on the island, although I understand there are a few places now). This was going to be the first Thanksgiving we spent on the island - the prior year I went back to LA for Thanksgiving - so we decided that a huge Thanksgiving feast might make us all feel better.

We made a traditional Thanksgiving, including turkey, dressing, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce and at least ten other dishes. We invited all of the Americans on the island, all of our PokerStars coworkers and a handful of Manx people we'd gotten to know. Just finding a turkey was a major challenge. We went to our friend Adrian for help with this, who somehow found us a gigantic turkey even though we had scoured the island before we called him. I'm pretty sure we ate someone's pet.

Around this time, I decided that Sharon had spent way too much time away from her two closest friends, Sandra and Shaena. I arranged for them to meet us in London the first week in December, during one of our regularly scheduled London trips. It was a perfectly executed surprise that backfired - while Sharon was thrilled to see Sandra and Shaena, and was completely surprised and stunned, the visit served to remind Sharon of how much she was missing by not being in the US.

In January 2007, Isai pulled me into his office and asked me how things were going. He never asked a question idly, and he knew exactly what I was doing on a daily basis, so it was clear to me that this inquiry was about our state of mind. I was very straight with him - we weren't happy. We still loved working for PokerStars and had no interest in leaving, but the toll of being an expatriate was far greater in reality than in theory.

Isai surprised me by asking how we would feel about living in London. Until then, he had wanted all of his key employees on the island, but that was changing - his son Mark was spending almost all of his time in the London office, and much of the marketing team was there. Sharon and I both loved London, and this seemed like a viable solution to our growing homesickness.

I went home and discussed it with Sharon. To her credit, she jumped on the idea although she was still very unhappy about our exile. We immediately planned a trip to London to find a place. The company connected us with an estate agent (real estate person) who set up appointments for us. We found and fell in love with an ancient three-bedroom flat in Kensington, signed a lease and went back to the island to prepare to move.

A few nights later, we were propped up in bed, making lists of things to pack, arrangements to make and the various other business involved in moving. A few days earlier, I had gotten a call from a headhunter about a startup gaming company that was very interested in hiring me. In a departure for me (I used to get these calls all the time, and fended them off), I talked to them, and in a matter of two days went from interview to firm offer. I told Sharon about it, and asked the big question: How would she feel about leaving PokerStars?

I expected some back-and-forth, but there was none. Sharon made it very clear to me that she was done. We were both making terrific livings working for a company we loved, with people we cared about and respected, got to travel the world and live nicely. But none of that mattered - not being able to return to the US had ground us down.

Almost six years earlier, our careers at PokerStars had started with a tiny startup, with perhaps 1,000 players and never more than 50 at a time. On that momentous day for us in February 2007, PokerStars had well over 25 million players, regularly hosted 150,000 or more players simultaneously and was home to the second-largest tournament of any kind in the world (only the World Series of Poker Main Event was larger than the PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker, WCOOP). 

We were unspeakably sad to leave, and unspeakably relieved. But we knew we had done well, had fun, made lifetime friendships and left the company in the most capable of hands.