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.

No comments:

Post a Comment