Sunday, November 20, 2005
Good gravy, it's already 11pm and I'm still not caught up on my reading. Haven't even begun to write yet. Woe is me.
But I just found this excellent article about poker and How Far It's Came and thought I'd share it. Why haven't I heard about Holden's impending new poker book before?
The real deal
The world's gone poker crazy. Every day, £40m is gambled globally on the game; one internet site is now worth more than British Airways, and even Oxford University and The Archers are hooked on Texas Hold 'Em.
The room is vast, bright, clean and buzzing with business talk. Smartly dressed men and women are manning stalls on every side. Cash registers tinkle. Eager, fresh-faced young people are crowded around these stalls, asking questions and making purchases. They are wearing company logos and carrying little bottles of water. Is it the opening day of an enormous marketing conference?
Is it the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at Olympia? No, this is day one of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, the annual championships of the most secretive and counter-cultural game on earth. It just doesn't look like it. This time last year, the event was held in a rickety downtown building full of dice, smoke and nutters. But this time last year, the world hadn't finished changing.
When internet poker was first devised, many players believed that it would kill off the live game forever. The few people who played poker would stop hosting private sessions or going to casinos, and just stay at home playing a couple of websites. No dress code, no travel, no trouble.
In fact, the reverse has happened. Up, down and sideways, the entire game is expanding like a supernova. More people playing at home, more in clubs, more in casinos - £40m is now gambled on poker across the world every day. Websites set up as hopeful dotcom punts have been sold for eye-watering fortunes: www.paradisepoker.com, started in 1999 by a trio of impoverished American students, was bought out last autumn for £162.5m. Party Gaming, the company which runs www.partypoker.com, floated on the stock market in July with a value of £5.5bn. The company is now bigger than British Airways, with operating profits this year of $258m. The game is now played, live or online, by 1.5m people in Britain alone. There have been poker storylines on EastEnders, Coronation Street and The Archers. And when they're playing poker on The Archers, you know something big has happened.
I have always believed that society cannot create gamblers. I have sat at enough blackjack tables with enough bored friends to know that the deck and the chips have no transforming power on a phlegmatic brain. The problem with the government's gambling bill is not that it would (as the tabloids fear) 'MAKE GAMBLERS OF US ALL!', but that it would make gambling impossible to resist for those who are susceptible already.
Still, who knew there were so many potential poker players out there? The unearthing of 1.5m card-crazy Brits came about because of a peculiar fusion: the introduction of the National Lottery (which turned gambling into acceptable family fun), the rise of poker on television (which showed people what to do) and, most importantly, technology: the internet offering unlimited access to real-life poker in your very own home. The only thing stopping us from wagering our life savings on a pair of kings, it seems, had been the hassle of getting dressed and going out.
If my theory about blood and gambling is correct, then it will be impossible to explain the thrill of internet poker to somebody who doesn't immediately see it in the very words. Eric 'The Salmon' Sagstrom, a Swedish computer whizz who wins $1m a year online and rarely leaves his house, will always be a hero to some and a geek to others. To many people, it represents nothing more than hunching over a computer keyboard for an inexplicable number of unforced hours, engaged in the relentless monotony of looking at virtual cards of the pack, and risking the rent money.
But if you are a gambler, then it is the holy grail. Suddenly there is poker at your fingertips. Your opponents are strangers: no guilt about winning your friends' money, or shame in losing to them. It runs around the clock: nobody going home to relieve the babysitter, nobody throwing you out of the casino at closing time. It is action; constant, irresistible action. And all done by credit card! There is an old saying: 'The man who invented poker was clever, but the man who invented chips was a genius.' Now, you don't even have to hand over folding cash to get your chips. You are as removed as you possibly could be from the reality of bread and shoes. Bim, bam, press the button and your bankroll is ready.
Four o'clock in the morning. You can't sleep. You are bored, you are lonely. You could lie there in the dark, thinking about the ultimate futility of life. Or you could get up, switch on the computer and find a bunch of lively Americans ready to order a virtual cocktail, have a chat and play a game. And who knows? You could be a millionaire by dawn. You won't be. But dawn will come a lot quicker.
Las Vegas, July 2005. Players have left their computers for a fortnight, and flooded into the world's gambling capital for a little live action. Well, some of them have. A chunky percentage of the 10,000 visitors to this year's World Series of Poker are sitting in hotel rooms, playing online.
Now everyone wants poker players. Large, comfortable, no-smoking card rooms are being built to lure them in. The Wynn, a vast luxury complex which just opened on the Strip, has even hired professional player Daniel Negreanu for a reported $2m to act as 'poker host' and sit playing cards at a prominent table in front of an admiring crowd.
It is not a 'sloppy' crowd. This is the new breed of player: sober, well-spoken, young, in clean clothes, with real jobs. They come from all over the world, with a particularly large Scandinavian contingent. Most seem to have maths degrees. (Even Oxford and Cambridge Universities have launched poker societies in the past year.)
Regular internet players, they have come here for the live World Series, which - for the first time in its 25-year history - is not being held at Binion's Horseshoe, a vintage casino downtown. For decades, the Binion family were the only casino managers who actively welcomed poker players. Benny Binion dreamed up the idea of an annual world championship and threw his doors open for it every May - while rival casinos did their best to keep the cardsharps out and the roulette punters in.
But Binion's Horseshoe has been bought by the giant Harrah's chain. What would Harrah's want with this downtown casino? Why, the rights to the World Series of Poker. Suddenly, it is a desirable entity. The event has been relocated to Harrah's giant Rio All-Suite Hotel on the Strip, and it is running in July rather than May. It is said that the new time and venue will be better for a tournament which has outgrown its humble roots. But, coincidentally or not, room rates at the Rio are far more lucrative for Harrah's than at Binion's (who wants history when you can have a walk-in shower?).
The transformation of numbers is due to the internet. But the new respect is, of course, about television. Thanks to the spread of televised tournaments, Daniel Negreanu is a big celebrity in America - as are his equally high-stakes colleagues Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, Howard Lederer and many others. They are recognised in the street, given front-row seats at baseball games, and begged to wear this or that brand of sunglasses. They get laid easily. Even in Britain, their names are familiar to more than a million people.
For players like me - ordinary punters, who started on the journey years ago - the change is mind-boggling. We were drawn to poker by its secrecy, its strangeness, its counter-cultural pull; its poetic treatment at the hands of Damon Runyon and Herbert Yardley; the seedy glamour of its old proponents 'Amarillo Slim' Preston, Jack 'Treetops' Strauss, and the rest of that shady, oddly named, card-playing crew. (That and our own compulsive gambling tendencies.) Suddenly, 20m people have swarmed into our dark little basement and switched on the lights. They are not gamblers, they are investors. They have 'found' poker through the internet and television, not books.The game is no longer secret and it is not counter-cultural: it is a big, bright, shiny, mainstream sport.
The cash is fantastic. Televised tournaments are played with 'added money' donated by the TV companies. Internet sites run competitions with 'package prizes' of entry tickets to tournaments, complete with expenses. All you have to do in return is wear the company logo on your shirt. The sites also 'sponsor' players. I played the 2005 World Series wearing the logo of paradisepoker.com. They paid my $10,000 entry fee and in return I advertised them on my shirt. No moral quandary there; I play on Paradise, after all.
But in the end, of course, I didn't win the tournament. Joe Hachem did. Hachem is a quiet, likeable, professional poker player from Melbourne. He picked a good time to win the world title: 10 years ago he would have got about $100,000 in prize money. This year it was $7.5m, plus all the sponsorship Joe could ever want for life.
Of course, $7.5m and all the sponsorship Joe could ever want for life is peanuts to the companies offering to sponsor him. It is peanuts to the casinos which host the tournaments, and to the television networks which broadcast them. What happened to the game of ultimate equality? We took each other on across the level green baize, with our own cash, and the best man won. (Or the best woman. But usually man.) That was it. Suddenly there is more money to be made from running and raking and filming and sponsoring the game than there is from playing it. A new hierarchy has appeared overnight and shuffled itself into place.
Anthony Holden, The Observer's opera critic and author of the cult 1990 poker book Big Deal, was back at the World Series this year. Like every other long-time player, he remembers the creaking wood and dust of Binion's, the smoke and secrecy, the drunken players doing their money on the dice table. All gone now, as if they were never there; blasted away like litter before a royal visit.
'I realise with a sinking heart,' says Holden, 'that the game I have loved for nearly 40 years as a romantic, seedy, maverick outpost of la vie boheme has now become just another branch of corporate-logo American capitalism.' Sales of Big Deal, in which Holden set out to spend a year as a professional poker player, have been ticking along steadily for 15 years, but they have rocketed in the past two. The book's publisher, Time Warner, has persuaded Holden to try his experiment again. The sequel will be called, of course, Bigger Deal.
Also at the World Series this year were the Hendon Mob, the UK's most celebrated foursome of professional players. I interviewed them a few years ago, when sponsorship seemed an impossible dream and the British poker community scoffed at them for seeking it. One of the four, Joe Beevers, explained back then that he had thrown in his City job to play poker because he wanted freedom: 'With poker you do what you want when you want.'
The Hendon Mob now have a £1m sponsorship deal. They are celebrities. They travel constantly around the world playing tournaments. Every morning they get up early, dress in their logo-emblazoned attire, and sit down to play all day. In Vegas 2005 they did this every day for seven weeks. They didn't drink and they didn't gamble on blackjack or dice. They behaved in a manner befitting representatives of primapoker.com. Between international tournaments, they manage their website, go to meetings, talk to their lawyers and file their company accounts. I think Joe is probably working harder now than he ever has in his life.
The dream got bigger, for everyone. Professional players stopped dreaming merely of freedom and started dreaming of international celebrity, and amateur players no longer just want something fun to do with their mates on a Friday night. They want to win seats in major international tournaments, play like the pros, make their fortunes.
By the end of 2005, more than $1bn will have been won and lost at the game worldwide. Three new card rooms have opened this year in London alone. There are British TV channels devoted solely to poker, and individual poker shows on practically every other channel. There are fantastic opportunities for players at every level. There is total freedom of choice.
We, the shabby long-time players, wanted people to understand the thrill and beauty of poker; this mesmerising knot of a game which I have spent nearly 15 years trying to unpick. We wanted it to be on television. We wanted sponsorship. We wanted security for poker's future.
And now we feel ... It is as though your favourite band has landed a huge recording contract, allowing them to make albums of the best quality with the best resources for many years to come. As a fan you are excited and optimistic, proud to share their music and relieved at their security. But you are not entirely certain, all the time, that you didn't secretly love them a little more on those crackly old recordings knocked up years ago in the lead singer's garage. Before the drummer kicked smack and found Jesus. When they were bad boys, and nobody cared but you.
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