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Online Poker News Archives - January 16, 2005

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Copyright 2005 Daily News, L.P.

Daily News (New York)

January 16, 2005 Sunday

HEADLINE: VIRTUAL REALITY Textbook titans, online poker predators clash



   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 3 a.m.

   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 Wi-Fi network.

   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 action.

   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' 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 poker.

   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 is."

   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 keep learning."

   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 year.

   Newbies abound

   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 Texas Hold'em," 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," he says.

   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 game.

   "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 poker fulltime.

   "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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