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Copyright 2005 Daily News, L.P.
Daily News (New York)
January 16, 2005 Sunday
SPORTS FINAL EDITION
HEADLINE: VIRTUAL REALITY Textbook titans, online
poker predators clash
BYLINE: BY RICHARD T. PIENCIAK
PARADISE ISLAND, The Bahamas - It's well past
closing time at Plato's Lounge inside the mammoth Atlantis Resort,
but the sitting room section remains crowded as the clock approaches
Concoctions of coconut, pineapple juice and
rum have ceased to flow, but plenty of bits and bytes are moving
hither and thither.
A chip stack's worth of teenagers are glued
to their laptops, connected to the Internet through the hotel's
Clad in dungarees or cargo shorts, accompanied
by the obligatory baseball cap, they're playing
Texas Hold'em online.
Several are playing three or four games simultaneously,
bouncing from one virtual table to another, making rapid-fire,
real money decisions. A full house here, the nut flush there.
Uh-oh, the inevitable bad beat.
Click-click-click. Money in, money out. It's
quite the rush.
Michael Goodman, a 21-year-old senior at Wesleyan
University in Middletown, Conn., who hails from Scarsdale, N.Y.,
and Benjamin Sprengers, who turned 18 in August and is a freshman
at New York University, are not among those partaking of the middle-of-the-night
They are catching up on their sleep. In the
morning, they'll resume competing in the PokerStars Caribbean
Adventure, a No Limit Texas
Hold'em tournament that carries a first prize of $865,600.
If there's ever been an event that demonstrates
the similarities and differences between online poker players
and traditional brick-and-mortar casino players, it's this World
Poker Tour confrontation (to be aired in April as part of the
WPT's 3rd season).
Three of the six players at the final table
will have paid the full entry fee - $8,000 each. The eventual
winner, John Gale of England, will have spent just $81 to get
here, playing in a satellite qualifier on sponsors' PokerStars.com
Web site ($27 buy-in, $27 re-buy and $27 add-on).
Gale is playing in only his second brick-and-mortar
tournament. He lasted 10 minutes in his first, in Ireland.
Despite having to deal with distractions such
as crystal-clear waters, sunny skies, balmy breezes and the legend
of Atlantis, this is a splendid locale for Pienciak's Poker Tour
(PPT) to revisit the developing state of the world of professional
Craze still growing
The tournament culminates months of Internet
action on the PokerStars Web site, with buy-ins for qualifying
events as cheap as $3. There are more than twice as many contestants
as last year, proof that the poker
craze has yet to crest, especially among online players.
"At first there was really a tremendous
amount of skepticism from the brick-and-mortar guys, in the same
way they said when the VCR came out, movies would go away,"
says Steve Lipscomb, creator and CEO of the WPT. "But the
industry has come to understand what the online card room component
According to Lipscomb, many who start out playing
on the Internet move on to land-based casinos, "which is
increasing the pool rather than somehow taking away."
"It's not peaking at all," adds Lee
Watkinson, a top-line professional player from Washington State
who paid the full entry fee. "You have all these kids in
high school playing, and no one quits once they start. They just
When the main event isn't being conducted here,
players young and old are playing poker in live cash games, from
$30 Sit and Go tourneys to big-money No Limit.
"This is the second time I have ever played
in a live casino game," says a 23-year-old from Hanover,
N.J. He's long busted out of the main event, but he's enjoying
playing $1-$2 No Limit Hold'em, with a maximum buy-in of $200.
"This is interesting, but I really love
playing on the Internet," he confides in a whisper. "Last
week, I won $44,000 playing online."
Dan Goldman, vice president of marketing for
PokerStars, which has dealt more than a billion hands and has
conducted more than four million online poker tournaments, is
ecstatic about the week's turnout. Of the 461 entrants, 80 paid
cash. The total prize pool is $3.6 million.
Among the contestants are Chris Moneymaker,
a former accountant from Tennessee who won the 2003 World Series
of Poker after entering a $39 satellite tournament on PokerStars,
and Greg Raymer, an attorney from Connecticut who won the 2004
WSOP after winning a seat through a $160 PokerStars qualifier.
Neither will make it to the final table here,
but Moneymaker still has fond memories of the $2.5 million he
won at the WSOP and Raymer can always fall back on the $5 million
he won at last year's event.
The PokerStars tournament marks the first time
cash-game poker is
officially allowed on the island. Although no final decision has
been made, PokerStars marketing director Richard Korbin says if
the government gaming board approves, his company may return next
For the most part, the crowd here is young
(the gambling age is 18), but more to the point, players of all
ages are relatively new to Texas Hold'em - and to playing face-to-face.
"I've played cards all my life, but never
says David Hank, 39, of Grand Blank, Mich. A retired military
man, Hank trades stocks online and started playing poker on the
PokerStars site four months ago "to pass the time, and while
waiting for the markets to open." He won entry here by capturing
a $160 online qualifier.
Hank says he respects his fellow Internet players
because of all the intense experience they pick up playing long
hours online, but admits he felt "completely outclassed"
during his first encounter with seasoned brick-and-mortar contestants.
Despite their successes, two of the better
young players, Goodman and Sprengers, aren't about to give up
their educational plans.
Goodman says he's played very little live game
poker, generally focusing on online tournaments, with entry fees
ranging from $50 to an occasional $500 event.
To help prepare for the Paradise Island tourney,
Goodman visited the Turning Stone casino in Verona, N.Y., "to
work on some simple mechanical stuff, like remembering to throw
your cards back to the dealer after the hand, remembering to put
the antes and blinds up. You can't auto-fold in a casino."
Goodman finishes in 10th place at the PokerStars
Caribbean Adventure, good for $55,400 - not bad for a college
student who started playing online with a $200 stake. "Believe
me, I'm happy."
Sprengers, of Plantation, Fla., who is majoring
in sports management at NYU, got interested in Hold'em after watching
the World Series of Poker on TV in 2002.
He and his buddies didn't get the game right
at first, though. "Poker to me was five cards. With Hold'em,
we didn't think you could bet on the turn and the river, so we
bet on the flop, then just flipped over the last two cards,"
Wearing a Philadelphia Eagles Terrell Owens
No. 81 jersey, Sprengers knows the game now. He finishes 27th,
cashing in for $15,600.
Sprengers has a good head on his shoulders.
He plays online only occasionally, usually for low entry fees.
"This tournament has been the most exhausting thing I've
ever done," he says. "I couldn't imagine doing this
week after week."
Still, he considers himself a student of the
"One of the best things about online poker
is that a lot of players have no experience and they don't take
the time to learn the game," he says. "They see it on
TV, so they go and play and think they can win. You have a lot
of people who do not know how to play."
Brick by brick
Three of the six finalists - John 'Miami John'
Cernuto of Las Vegas, Mikael Westerlund of Gothenburg, Sweden,
and Alex Balandin, 32, of New City, N.Y. - are traditional brick-and-mortar
players, though they all also play online.
Cernuto celebrates his 61st birthday by capturing
5th place at the final table - and $155,800.
"I'm a brick-and-mortar player,"
says Cernuto, a native of Jersey City who grew up in Miami. He
moved to Vegas after being fired as an air traffic controller
by President Reagan in 1981.
Miami John is one of the old guard's good guys,
with a heck of a sense of humor.
In one of the early rounds, he's playing at
the same table as Raymer when several other players ask the reigning
champ about a run-in he had late one recent night outside his
room at the Bellagio in Vegas.
Two thugs, including one with a gun, tried
to push the heavyset champ into his room. Fearing they would get
his $150,000 in chips, and perhaps kill him, Raymer says he "weighed
his odds of survival by cooperating or fighting."
He said he decided to fight. It worked; the
two men ran off.
In telling the story here, Raymer explains
how he was lucky they had decided not to use the gun.
Without missing a beat, Cernuto chimes in,
to the laughter of all, "Good read."
Outside the poker room, Cernuto says of the
youth movement, "I've got more years' experience than some
of these people are old."
A member of the new Professional Poker Tour
(the game's second PPT after Pienciak's Poker Tour), Cernuto plays
"Experience doesn't always win out over
luck, but usually experience will win over several hours of play,"
Cernuto says. "That doesn't mean an experienced player like
myself can overlook an Internet player, though. I've seen people
out here that are spending 24 hours a day online, almost. They're
in the lobby on their computers playing tournaments. I've never
seen anything like it."
"So even if I've got 20 years on them,
if they've got three years, we're about even," he continues.
"Old-timers like myself, we're going to have to adjust to
them. And if we don't make the adjustments, we're going to be
hitting the door ourselves."
GRAPHIC: All photos by Jodi Shapiro Internet player John Gale
of England (l.) won $865,600 for finshing first at the PokerStars
Caribbean Adventure, held at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island
in the Bahamas. Professional gambler Alex Balandin, of New City,
N.Y., captured second place, winning $484,700. GREG RAYMER EVELYN
NG CHRIS MONEYMAKER ERIK SEIDEL BEN SPRENGERS MIKE GOODMAN
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