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Copyright 2005 Newspaper Publishing PLC
The Independent (London)
February 23, 2005, Wednesday
HEADLINE: HOW POKER BECAME A WINNER ON THE NET;
YOU DON'T EVEN NEED A POKER FACE WHEN YOU PLAY ONLINE - WHICH
BYLINE: RACHEL STEVENSON
In an online poker
room, the computer screen presents a virtual card table Andy Paradise;
Online poker players bet a total of around £94m every 24
hours. Tournaments run around the clock Andy Paradise The model
Caprice in an advert for Paradise Poker
Steve McQueen's steely-eyed card shark in the 1965 film, The Cincinnati
Kid, who held his nerve in countless smoke-filled drinking dens,
has been the face of poker for decades. But steely eyes and a
poker face are no longer needed as millions of everyday punters
have joined an internet poker revolution.
So many ordinary punters are pouring their money into the online
game that a little-known British internet betting company, which
owns one of the world's biggest internet poker sites, is now worth
£1bn on the stock market. This time last year, Sportingbet,
owner of the Paradise Poker website, was only worth £164m.
Poker has always been glamourised by Hollywood as a macho game
of chance, wit and tactics but its advent on the internet has
made it accessible to all. Playing online poker has become a worldwide
phenomenon, with tournaments available 24 hours a day to anyone
who wants to play.
At 3pm yesterday afternoon, there were more than 28,000 people
playing in online poker games round the world, according to an
online poker monitoring service, Pokerpulse, and the number of
players across the world is already thought to be in excess of
1.5 million people. More than £94m has been wagered in online
poker games in the past 24 hours alone and punters have walked
away with a total prize money of around £69m in the past
18 months. On Paradise Poker's site, there are more than 800,000
players and 10 games are played on the site every second. The
company makes £141,620 a day from poker and has turned its
owners in to millionaires.
The poker craze began
in 2001 when the World Series, where hardened poker champions
slug it out for multi-million dollar prize money, was televised.
Cameras under the glass tables revealed the players' hands to
the watching television audience, creating compelling viewing
as tensions on the tables mounted. Will he raise? Should he fold?
The player on the right has two kings but has he guessed that
his opponent across the table has two aces? Poker can be nail-biting
stuff, a psychological minefield where a scratch of the nose,
a cough, or a sideways glance can give everything away.
Having a double first in the mathematics of probability from
Cambridge can help but bluff and double bluff is what will get
the champion poker player through to the final hand.
The advent of televised poker has drawn in celebrity players,
which has also served to heighten poker's cachet. The model and
star of the recent Celebrity Big Brother, Caprice, has fronted
an advertising campaign for Paradise Poker. Hollywood actors such
as Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Tobey Maguire are regularly seen
at champion poker
tournaments. Challenge TV broadcasts Celebrity Poker Club,
as well as the World Series and the World Poker Tour. Poker has
become a club that everyone wants to join.
So, while interest in poker has taken off, most people on the
street would have no idea where to go to play
poker. And, even if they did know where their local card sharks
deal a hand, the thought of joining in a live game would be pretty
daunting to the novice. Poker dens are actually illegal in the
UK and poker can only be played in a properly licensed casino.
Enter online poker,
which gives players access to another world from the safety of
their computer screen.
Mark Griffiths, a professor specialising in addiction at Nottingham
Trent University, said the challenge of testing your nerves and
skill against real people all over the world from behind a computer
screen gives online poker an irresistible allure.
"There are other online casino games available for punters,
such as roulette and slot machine games. But many people are turned
off by the idea of betting their money against a machine, or a
pre-rigged computer programme. What is attractive about online
poker is you are going head-to-head with other punters. It is
a game where you use your own skills. You don't bet against the
house', you are playing directly against your opponents. That
sense of competition is hugely attractive."
In an online poker room,
your computer screen presents a virtual card table at which you
and your opponents appear as rather ghostly looking characters.
There are "ring-games", where you can join in and leave
at any time, and tournaments, which you can join for as little
as $ 10 (most international sites operate in dollars). In a tournament,
the money goes in to a pool, which the winner collects. The company
running the website creams off a percentage of the winnings for
hosting the game. Estimates from the research organisation, The
River City Group, show websites are raking in £1bn a year.
So advanced is the technology that you can watch a game going
on and get a feel for the "characters" you are playing
against, before you pull up your virtual seat and throw in your
virtual chips. You can choose your name, your gender and your
race. The best part is your sweaty hands, your nervous twitch
and the whites of your eyes are never seen by your opponents.
That all means wannabe poker heroes who are too shy to go eyeball
to eyeball with the likes of the Cincinnati Kid are using online
poker rooms at an alarming rate.
"You can create a whole new identity for yourself in an
online poker room and you don't even have to pull a poker face.
You can be more daring than you normally would because you don't
feel physically inhibited as you would if you walked in to a real-life
card room," Professor Griffiths said.
Some people use the internet to hone their skills before heading
out to a real-life game. The aptly-named Chris Moneymaker began
playing poker online and, two years later, had qualified for a
real seat in the live World Series in 2003. He went on to win
$ 2.5m. These internet-to-real world success stories are also
fuelling aspiring poker players.
The anonymity and open access of online
poker is bringing women in to what used to be be a male-dominated
world. Recent research for uswitch.com, a consumer website, found
that as many as 40 per cent of online gamblers are women. Sarah
Jessica Parker, star of Sex and the City, is known to be a poker
fan, and a recent episode of the hit TV series, Desperate Housewives,
had some of the cast playing a few hands. That kind of prime-time
exposure of poker is serving to make the game appear an acceptable
"There is an increase of women playing
poker online, although it is undoubtedly still predominantly
male," Professor Griffiths said: "The betting shop or
the seedy casino are places that would be off-putting for women
to enter. But online, no one knows who you are and you can test
your skills on the same level as the next person."
There is another side to the glamour, of course. While the poker
sites are keen to publicise the million-dollar winnings made by
their customers, they are less keen to discuss those who are being
ruined by the game.
Michael Smeaton, of the gambling charity, Gamcare, says, "You
are betting against other people, so when you win, someone else
has lost." Calls to Gamcare's helpline from addicted poker
players are on the increase and the charity is preparing itself
for a deluge of problems as more people start playing. "You
can become so engrossed in playing, competing against others and
using your skills, that you can easily forget how much time you
are spending online. You don't have to leave the house, you don't
have to go to the cash machine. You are playing with electronic
money, which is much easier to spend than if you had to hand over
a wad of £10 notes. Betting higher stakes than you would
normally want to risk becomes more normal," Mr Smeaton said.
And, despite the millions waged on online poker, its legal status
is a grey area. The US has taken a negative stance on online gambling
and it is not strictly a legal activity there. The website companies
cannot operate in the US and have chosen far-flung locations such
as Costa Rica and Antigua from which to run their business.
The British Government, however, is seeking to update its laws
surrounding the activity. Current gambling laws were made in the
1960s, before the internet. The Government's Gambling Bill, which
is going through Parliament, seeks to regulate online gambling,
forcing operators that have British customers to be properly licensed.
That will involve having to adhere to social responsibility codes,
which the Government hopes will protect children from gambling
online and ensure players are treated fairly by the website operators.
The companies, however, will also have to pay tax if they want
a UK license and, given how much money they have become used to
making, they may choose to avoid the UK and its regulation, preferring
to stay in their poker paradise.
WHO ARE THE REAL WINNERS?
ONLINE POKER has
not only made some punters into millionaires, but the entrepreneurs
who have exploited the latent card talents lurking in Britain's
living rooms have also played themselves a winning hand by getting
in to the business.
Ruth Parasol, a Californian lawyer, made a fortune from online
pornography before moving in to internet poker and setting up
Party Poker, which is now the world's biggest poker site.
She teamed up with Anurag Dikshit, an Indian computer expert.
Russ de Leon, another American, and Vikrant Bhargava, an Indian
marketing executive, later joined the duo. The company is now
considering whether to float on the London Stock Exchange. If
it does, it could be worth as much as £3bn, the same size
as British Airways.
The founders of Paradise Poker, who pocketed £163m when
Sportingbet bought the company last year, remain a mystery. But
Mark Blandford (right) who set up Sportingbet, is a well-known
figure in British bookmaking. He has seen his stake in the company
grow to £50m over the past six years.
Poker Room, on the other hand, was set up by two Swedish students.
Oskar Hornell and Claes Lidell were classmates at university when
they decided to investigate playing
poker on the internet. Poker Room is now one of the top five
sites in the world and is growing in popularity in the UK.
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