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Copyright 2004 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.
The Toronto Star
October 4, 2004 Monday
SECTION: LIFE; Pg. E01
LENGTH: 1474 words
HEADLINE: Gambling for an online
BYLINE: San Grewal, Toronto Star
For more than a century, men have gathered
around tables to play "the cheating game." Poker.
Today, the adrenaline high that hits when dealt
a pair of bullets (aces) on a big glimmer (money) pot, while masterfully
picking up all the tells (physical cues) around the table, is
just as commonly felt in front of a computer, while playing
As you can see, poker
has its own language. For some, it's a religion. And in the past
year, since maverick online
player Chris Moneymaker, with alligator blood running through
his veins, came out of nowhere to win the $2.5 million
(U.S.) World Series of Poker tournament in Las Vegas, online poker
Figures from the five largest online
poker sites, all of which operate offshore, suggest more than
50 million people around the world now play regularly. Operating
online gambling sites in Canada is illegal, but offshore sites
are accessible here. National anti-gambling groups, such as Viva
Consulting, have called for investigations into the legality of
offshore sites operating in Canada.
Projected revenue from online
poker operations this year is expected to be more than $1
billion (U.S.), compared to just over $300 million a year ago.
The target-market is 19- to 34-year-old males,
and Canadians are second only to their southern neighbours when
it comes to filling tables at worldwide online poker games.
The game's come a long way from its roots on
Mississippi River gambling boats, when confidence men could smell
a fish (bad player) from the other side of the delta to the recent
celebrity profile of A-list Hollywood players such as Ben Affleck
and Christopher Walken.
What may come as a surprise is that you get
the same rush from a pair of cowboys (kings) at a casino table
as you do online.
"If you know what you're doing and you
know your opponents better than they know themselves, you can
do well," says 31-year-old Greg Macklin of Toronto.
He's sitting in front of a laptop that's on
a boardroom table at a public relations office where he's been
invited to play at one of the largest online sites in the world,
The Swedish-based site was started in 1999
by two 27-year-old med school buddies who dropped out after realizing
they could make more money playing
poker at casinos around Europe - until they were banned from
most of them for counting cards, a common technique not allowed
at most casinos. The site has 2.5 million registered players worldwide.
Macklin is one of about 150,000 pokerroom players
from Canada, which produces one of the largest number of professional
tournament players worldwide.
"I started playing last winter. It's so
much more convenient than driving two hours to and from a casino,
and it's a lot less intimidating."
During the winter, when he does almost all
of his playing, he spends four or five nights a week on the site,
for three to four hours during the evening or, if he's feeling
really lucky, in the middle of the night.
Unlike Macklin, who still considers himself
an average part-time player, Rob Baillie represents the growing
number of Canadians who approach online poker much more seriously.
"In September I'm up about $1,700 (U.S.),"
says the 35-year-old who lives in Toronto. "I used to play
for a living at a live card room here in Toronto. I gave that
up when online poker came around."
And he adds the income is very "tax advantageous."
Canadians have to declare all income generated
from online gaming, but according to Revenue Canada, income from
online gaming is not taxable as long as it remains a hobby.
Baillie is now registered on more than 20 sites
and plays up to 250 hands an hour. "That's a big advantage
of online poker, the speed and the number of hands you can play.
I usually jump around from table to table chasing the fish.
"When you play online professionally,
you keep a book on all the players you come across so you know
who the weak ones are."
He's only playing about three hours a day right
now because he's looking after his 18-month-old daughter, but
says he usually plays about six to eight hours a day. "Right
now my daughter's my full-time job and online poker is my part-time
Back in the boardroom, Macklin has signed in
and is playing a hand, looking for telltale tells - how long it
takes the other online players to make their bet, whether they
fold early, or always see a hand through etc. - you realize this
is no longer a virtual world for him. It's very real.
And that's what worries Sol Boxenbaum, co-founder
of Viva Consulting, a national non-profit organization based in
Montreal that operates as a gambling watchdog.
"We're not anti-gambling," says the
gambling critic. "Online
poker has become a very, very big problem on campuses among
He says his organization is particularly concerned
with the inability to regulate offshore gambling sites. "Young
people are emulating what they see on TV - they're playing poker
on the Internet at home and at school.
"Even if the sites claim they don't let
minors register, how can you regulate that online - anyone can
Which is true. For example, to register on
www.pokerroom.com, players only have to scroll through a list
of terms and then click a button.
When Macklin first signed up, he began winning
right away. "After a few early losses when I started, I won
about $500 (U.S.)," Macklin says. "I cashed out my account
and got a cheque in the mail a week later."
He says other than the convenience, he appreciates
the lack of showmanship, something that tends to intimidate a
lot of players who try casino poker.
"I don't think I'm good enough right now,
but I could see myself approaching this as a part-time job. There's
a lot of money out there."
The site makes its money off what's called
the rake, a very small share, 1 or 2 per cent, of the pot. It
also makes money from tournaments that are constantly being held,
which cost anywhere from $5 to $50 to play in. Prizes include
money and entry into some of the largest poker
tournaments in the world - which is how Moneymaker got his
paid entry into the World Series of Poker last year.
Recent criticism alleges that online gaming
sites are plagued by a new phenomenon called "bots."
These card-playing robots, which can play dozens of games simultaneously,
are allegedly being used by some sites to routinely beat players
of all levels.
And though such allegations could seriously
hurt the red-hot online poker industry, players such as Baillie
are convinced the sites are fair.
"With all the money they are making, I
doubt sites would risk a misstep that could ruin them. Word would
spread very quickly - the online poker community is very close
Rob Davies, a 29-year-old online poker novice
"At first I was a bit apprehensive,"
the Torontonian says. "Giving out your credit card over the
Internet has a negative connotation and you're not sure if the
game is completely random. But I've had no problems. All the verification
of the practices can be read right on the sites."
Like Macklin, Davies says the convenience of
online poker, being
able to log on any time any place, is one of the main draws. "My
problem in the past is I wouldn't know when to stop, foolishly
playing when I was tired. Sometimes you have to know when you're
not getting the cards, but it's hard to pack them in, especially
when it's so convenient."
The inability to know when to stop - the addiction
- is something that Patrik Selin, an executive with pokerroom.com,
says the online poker community is aware of.
"We are linked to organizations that provide
support for gamblers with a problem and we actively encourage
our members to play safely. There's no doubt it can be a serious
He's speaking by phone from Thailand, where
he's vacationing, but lives in Sweden. Asked about the growth
potential of online poker,
he says, "Well, we have 25,000 new players coming online
each week. I don't know how big this could get."
As for the popularity in Canada, he chalks
it up to our climate and "a more sophisticated history of
poker, similar to the U.S.
"Canada is our second-largest market."
And with prizes such as expense-paid entries
into the World Series of Poker, every player's fantasy, Selin
says the online game will probably get much, much bigger in Canada.
As for Macklin, it's a dream, like his playing
style, that he tries to keep in check.
"I'm not good enough right now,"
he says. "I'll play
online all winter and see how I'm doing. It's getting to the
point where I can read hands fairly well, but it's too bad you
don't get many tells off people playing online."
As soon as he says that, he adds, "Come
to think of it, no one can read some of my tells either, I don't
even know what half of them are. Maybe that's why I like playing
In the end, poker isn't about where you play,
or who you're playing with, it 's all about the cards.
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