A Look Back …

by , Oct 2, 2006 | 5:21 am

I had been meaning to put this article up for a while … it was my entrance into the poker media in the first of what would be many new poker magazines; and because of the magazine’s newness, the story never found its way online. Anyhow, though speculation can never be exact, much of what is in there still seems to be at least partially relevant and serves as a good reminder of where in fact poker may or may not go from here …

Poker at its Renaissance

The game became a worldwide obsession virtually overnight. Now what will become of the game?

By Dan Michalski — published in All In Magazine, premiere issue, June/July 2004

The future of poker arrived in 1984—when legendary Vegas gambler Bob Stupak faced off against Orac, a poker-playing Apple II computer. It was heads-up no-limit Hold ’Em for $500,000, in a showdown that would later air on ABC’s Ripley’s Believe it or Not. At one point in this first-ever televised poker game, Orac had flopped a set, and Stupak, looking at top two pair, was raising into the stone-faced machine.

As he was programmed to do, Orac put Stupak all-in. Stupak called, and that’s when the computer crashed.

“It just froze,” recalls Mike Caro, “the mad genius of poker” who created Orac. According to the rules for this unusual match-up, even though the cards had already been turned over, the hand had to be replayed. Stupak would get a better deal after the machine re-booted and would go on to claim victory for humankind.

“I suspect—I probably shouldn’t say this, but I do—I’ve always wondered about what happened there, in what manner Stupak really won,” says Caro laughing. “I’ve always thought someone might have pulled a plug somewhere.”

Caro’s whole intent with the exhibition was to show that poker was a game worthy of serious analysis, like chess or bridge. The cards were bar-coded so Orac could read them, and as a result, the television audience was able to watch the game knowing what the players were holding or folding. Additionally, with this information, Caro was able to show on-screen statistics and probabilities, so viewers could better understand what was at stake with each play.

Now, 20 years later—thanks in no small part to a confluence of computers, television, and big-money Texas hold ’em—poker is suddenly huge. Five different networks now carry the game on TV, with more poker shows in the making. Casinos across the country have been expanding their poker rooms, and at this year’s World Series of Poker, the tournament director had to truck in 100 extra tables to accommodate a record number of buy-ins. Online (a concept hardly conceived when Orac was the only machine that knew how to play) poker rooms seem to be opening up by the dozen, with real-money players signing up by the tens of thousands.

Beyond numbers and dollars, poker has become part of the cultural landscape and public vernacular, too. Tim Russert, hosting a political debate on Meet the Press, recently described a presidential election strategy as “drawing for an inside straight” (the Dems needed Ohio to win the Rust Belt), and People magazine dispatched a reporter to Tunica, Mississippi, this year to find out how Ben Affleck was coming along on his chip tricks. (He’s struggling.) Surely it’s only a matter of time before the Oxford English Dictionary adds new definitions for words like “turn,” “river,” and “flopped the holy nuts.”

“You better hope he wins,” said Eric Seidel to Mike Matusow. “If Moneymaker can pull this off, it’s going to be worth at least $5 million to you and me over the next two years.”

But is poker’s unprecedented growth sustainable? That’s hard to say. What is certain is that there’s more money in the game now than ever before, and a new generation of young poker stars with Hollywood appeal. Meanwhile, the old pros like Caro—along with Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, various Binions, Mike Sexton, and others who spent the past couple decades trying to grow the game into an industry—say poker is just beginning to blossom. Believe it … or not.

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The man who may not get enough credit for poker’s rise to prominence is Saddam Hussein. About a year ago, if you recall, the Pentagon issued a deck of “Iraq’s Most Wanted” cards so soldiers on the ground would know exactly whom they were chasing.

The cards caught on with the media and the public, and though it would be some time before we snagged the Ace of Spades himself, every capture led to news reports of getting “the ten of diamonds” or maybe “the two of clubs.” Fun. Thanks to war coverage, the TV-watching masses were now being schooled in the basics of Texas Hold ’Em. A pair of fives were nice to have in custody; a couple face cards even better; and oh the joy of being dealt bullets when American troops shot and killed Saddam’s two sons!

At the same time, viewers seeking an escape from all the shock and awe found themselves stumbling across a new show on the Travel Channel called the World Poker Tour. Hmm, interesting. Then ESPN aired its “miniseries” on the WSOP and saw ratings increase steadily with each episode (and continue to do so with reruns). These were uncertain times. The world was at war, the economy was in the crapper, and here was a motley crew of people competing for millions of dollars in a surprisingly exciting card game that seemed simple enough to learn. Historians will someday say that the world was just waiting for a Chris Moneymaker to come along and renew our faith in the human spirit, not to mention the American dream of turning $40 into $2.5 million and a shiny bracelet.

On the last day of the 2003 WSOP main event, a handful of eliminated pros gathered around the final table to watch the action. Moneymaker—the Tennessee accountant who had never before played a live tournament—had amassed a sizable chip lead when Mike Matusow turned to fellow professional Eric Siedel and said, “I can’t believe another donkey is going to win the World Series of Poker.”

“You better hope he wins,” Seidel responded. “If Moneymaker can pull this off, it’s going to be worth at least $5 million to you and me over the next two years.”

“Are you crazy?” Matusow said, dismissively.

But indeed, the influx of new players brought into the game by Moneymaker’s victory has been good not just for poker itself, but specifically top pros. Many have been enjoying a virtual feeding frenzy thanks to the belief that, truly, “anyone can win.” Phil Ivey, for example says he can now earn $200,000 a week in side games, perhaps $1 million during this year’s World Series. Wow. That’s almost Michael Jordan kinda money. No wonder Donald Trump has taken note.

While the WSOP and the WPT had been negotiating to expand poker programming, Trump also wanted in on the action. In late April he inked a five-year deal with ESPN to broadcast Trump’s U.S. Poker Championship. While there’s no word on whether or not Phil Helmuth will re-market himself as the Omarosa of Poker, the deal made it official that poker will stay in the public eye for at least a little while longer. A few weeks later, the WPT came to terms with the Travel Channel—also a five-year deal.

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In addition to the storybook name, Moneymaker represents an altogether new breed of poker player—one reared in cyberspace and possibly holding down a day job. He legitimized online poker, and online poker made the game accessible to just about anyone. Suddenly, a psychological contest that often relied on one player’s being able to stare down another in an attempt to see not just his cards but also his soul was reduced to a series of clicks among avatars.

Where else can you find people from all walks of life, from nations all across the world, 24 hours a day, sitting down together to enjoy a game? Nowhere—except in an online poker room.

Perhaps surprisingly, however, instead of destroying poker, this simply added a new dimension to the game. A whole new set of tells came into play, as well as software that records all the action it sees on a table. The statistical analysis it provides—at your fingertips and custom-tailored to your game—has proven a help for players looking to plug leaks. And because you can also keep tabs on your opponents, now, instead of having to remember what someone did in a certain situation previously, all it takes is a few button clicks to see that likelihood that he’s going to check-raise from early position.

Online poker is definitely a real factor now. Not only do internet sites sponsor big tournaments, but online players are proving to be quite sophisticated with their play and capable of holding their own in live action. At the WPT finals this year, seven of the top 50 finishers earned their way into the tournament by playing satellites on PartyPoker.com. But online poker is more than a bunch of aspiring Moneymakers playing Tetris for dollars … In fact, it’s a revolutionary event in the history of civilization.

Think about it: Where else can you find people from all walks of life, from nations all across the world, 24 hours a day, sitting down together to enjoy a game? Nowhere—except in an online poker room. You see where this is headed, right? When the world is your multitable, global peace can’t be too far away. Obviously.

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OK, so perhaps some people are overestimating poker’s reach. Pocket queens look good, after all, until an Ace or a King shows up on the flop. But the bottom line is that new players are flocking to casinos; poker books have become a constant on Amazon.com bestseller lists, and home games have turned into weekly rituals fueling an economy of casino-quality chips, tables, and sundry poker doo-dads. (Ask yourself … did you ever think you’d know so many people who own dealer buttons and cut cards?) While some contend this is all just a fad that will go the way of day trading and cigar bars, others believe poker will only continue to build on itself.

“In five years it will be like Wimbledon,” says former World Series champion Scotty Nguyen. “In the future poker getting so big, bigger than Wimbledon tennis, bigger than golf, you know, bigger than everything! You know, man, just like NBA. You know, Super Bowl. Every World Series going to be like Super Bowl. Millions are going to watch.”
While Nguyen might not realize that the Super Bowl is actually viewed by billions, seeing poker as a “sport” (hey, it gets your heart pumping) may not be such a stretch. ESPN has already increased its WSOP coverage this year from seven episodes to 22, and major networks have been looking into adding poker to their programming line-ups.

Might we see live poker telecasts someday? It’s certainly plausible. Professional golf proves that with enough cameras and an active control room, you can take a 4-day event with minimal actual action, mix in some player profiles, statistics, whispery analysis, and the occasional out-of-nowhere Cinderella story, and you’ve got compelling television drama week after week, year after year. Considering that more people play poker than golf, poker certainly has the potential to follow in the footsteps of the PGA.

But golf had one thing going for it that poker doesn’t—and that’s that it’s legal everywhere. … For poker to continue to grow, some battles off the felt may have to take place in legislative and judicial arenas.

But golf had one thing going for it that poker doesn’t—and that’s that it’s legal everywhere. Poker, however, has its roots in the underground, and is still illegal to play (even around a kitchen table or online) in several states. From its earliest years to today, many pros cut their teeth in the legally questionable back rooms, storefronts, and basements that make up poker’s minor leagues. While these semi-secret games used to be reserved for serious, high-stakes players only, poker’s increased popularity has new low-limit underground games and tournaments sprouting up across the country.

In Texas, where hold ’em originated and had long been tacitly tolerated, police have started cracking down—raiding poker rooms, arresting the operators, and ticketing players. It’s a reminder that for poker to continue to grow, some battles off the felt may have to take place in legislative and judicial arenas. Three cases are currently pending in Texas courts against poker clubs that could challenge the state’s interpretation of certain gambling laws.

But creating legal poker has been part of the game all along. It was poker players, after all, who brought charity tournaments to Florida in the 1980s, and fought the court battles that opened legal poker rooms in California in the 1990s. The statistics you see on the television screen today were part of that successful effort.

“We had to explain how poker works,” says Mike Caro, who testified as an expert witness in the California cases. “I brought in all my statistical tables and analysis to show them [7-Stud and Hold ’Em] were not games of luck, but games of skill.”

Though it took a few appeals and many years of legal grinding, in the end poker won. Interestingly enough, as poker caught on in Southern California, entries into the WSOP also began to rise, and payouts began to exceed a million dollars. Shortly thereafter, TV started to pay attention.

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This past March, Caro traveled to Doyle Brunson’s house in Las Vegas, where they spent three weeks working on a forthcoming update of the 1978 poker-strategy classic Super System. The two were sitting around a table in Brunson’s office editing the chapter on no-limit Hold ’Em when, after reading about halfway through his decades-old manuscript, Brunson looked up at Caro and in his deep Texas accent said, “You know, this is still pretty damn good.”

For as much as the world of poker has changed, the game has stayed fundamentally the same. And to that extent, it has shown real staying power. The inclusion of chapters by Daniel Negreanu and Jennifer Harman in the new Super System suggest that poker has been happily passed to a new generation of players.

Back when Super System was conceived, there was a lot of hesitation about giving away the magician’s secrets. But Brunson and his gang ultimately decided that whatever improved the game would help grow it, and whatever grew the game would only make it better for people who understood the game. They couldn’t have been more right. The original book took a long time to finish, however—if only because every time all the authors would get together to work on it, someone would invariably suggest they take a break to go play poker.

But this time was different. “I kept thinking we would put the book down at least for a little while to play some poker,” says Caro, “but Doyle would have none of it.”

For all poker had become, there was still work to be done. And Brunson could rest assured that the game would still be there when they were finished.

Dan Michalski is a Dallas-based journalist who has written for the New York Times, Texas Monthly, Men’s Health, Maxim, and others. He runs the poker blog Pokerati.com and has a friend whose two-and-a-half-year-old daughter likes to watch the World Poker Tour and can do a dead-on impression of Howard Lederer.

One Comment to “A Look Back …”

  1. Jay

    “But golf had one thing going for it that poker doesn’t—and that’s that it’s legal everywhere. … For poker to continue to grow, some battles off the felt may have to take place in legislative and judicial arenas.”


    Well your question is answered now. We lost a big battle that may lead to losing the war.