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Online Poker News Archives - June 3, 2005

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Copyright 2005 Associated Newspapers Ltd.
The Evening Standard (London)

June 3, 2005



I HAD always thought it would be complicated, but in fact it was almost disturbingly easy. With two clicks of my mouse and a brief registration process, which involved handing over my credit card details, I was off and away, the latest addition to the burgeoning ranks of Britain's army of online poker players.

The first question I had to resolve was just how lucky I was feeling. Did I want to play on a table where the "blind", or initial bet, is a whopping $60 - necessitating having $2,000 or so to gamble with in total - or should I start more cautiously with a group putting down blinds of $1 a game? (Because it is a "global" game, the online currency is the dollar). I plumped for the latter, and found myself on a table of nine players - five men and four women - with poker names such as Three Spots, Carla69 and GiulioB. Electronically seated at the top of the virtual table, I was rather pleasingly decked out in a brightly coloured mid-Eighties suit of the kind once worn by Duran Duran.

Less than five minutes after accessing, it was time for my first slice of the "action", as poker folk call betting. It's an astonishingly simple concept, and one that looks like netting the handful of shareholders in PartyGaming, Party Poker's owner, around £5.5 billion when the company lists on the London Stock Exchange later this summer.

For the online poker virgin - I had only ever played the game in casinos before - there's something oddly disorientating about playing cards when you can't see the people you're competing against. I was also discombobulated by the speed with which the game takes place. No time for chewing on your cigar and thinking things over here: the powers-that-be at Party Poker decree that you have a measly 10 seconds to make each decision.

Fortunately, I immediately hit a run of form which precluded the need for choice. First up, I "hit" pocket aces (two aces) and cleaned up. Next hand, I pulled out a nigh unbeatable "quad jacks" (all four jacks) and gave Carla, Giulio, Three Spots and the rest of them another hammering.

Having started with $30 in reserve, I was now up to $60. My pulse was racing.

By the time I made my grudging exit a few hands later, I was hooked. And that is the beauty of online poker. No need to stray from your sitting room, but all - well, almost all - the adrenaline and mental challenges that you'd look for if you were playing the game "live" in a Las Vegas casino.

The success of these online poker sites might seem to have happened overnight, but the industry has been growing swiftly for some time. The boom took off at around the time its ill-fated elder brother, the dotcom boom, was coming to grief five years ago. Here was a way for the internet to be used which was light on labour and actually involved money changing hands.

Those advantages were clear from the start, but what no one predicted was that online poker would soon become a massmarket activity - an industry which would involve, as it now does, £100 million a day being gambled worldwide by millions of players. What is particularly striking is the profile of those who are betting hard cash playing poker online.

Some, of course, are inveterate gamblers, but far more would never usually bet anything more substantial than £10 on the Grand National. Tom Parker Bowles, a keen player himself, says that poker "is becoming the middleclass game of choice", adding, "I play with doctors, lawyers - I've even played with Sir Clive Sinclair."

An even less expected development has been the significant proportion - now standing at well over 50 per cent - of online gamblers who are women. Albert Tapper, the chief of Ladbroke's online poker site, said recently: "More women play online because it's a path to making money in a non-threatening situation."

THE potential to make money certainly shouldn't be ignored. The poker boom quickly led to the emergence of a new career option, as an "online poker professional".

Lee-Anne Smyth from Belfast quit her job with the Halifax two years ago to gamble fulltime on the internet. Since then, she estimates that she has made more than £150,000. "Who needs a proper job when I can make what most people earn in a month in a couple of hours?" she asks.

Unlike in most sports, there is also the glorious prospect of the occasional amateur making it into the big time. Two years ago, a small-town Tennessee accountant called Chris Moneymaker paid a $40 entrance fee and qualified online for the World Series of Poker. A week later, he walked away with the first prize of $2.5 million. His win, together with his apposite surname, made Moneymaker an instant celebrity and he subsequently turned professional.

The glamour of eventually making it to the tables in Las Vegas has proved a massive draw for the online sites, with tens of thousands paying their entry fees in the hope of emulating Moneymaker and rubbing shoulders with the stars. Celebrities such as Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Sarah Jessica Parker are all keen on the game and can regularly be found watching the big tournaments in Vegas. One such punter who found his way to Vegas on the back of an £11 online bet was 33-year-old Jonny Popper from Willesden Green, north London. He walked away with a prize of $66,532 - around £36,650. "I was thrilled. I couldn't quite believe it. I had never played the game face-to-face before and then suddenly I had won $66,000."

The past five years have also seen the top professionals - men like UK No 1 Dave "Devilfish" Ulliott - become stars in their own right. A few weeks ago, Ulliott - one of the few non-Americans ever to have won a World Series of Poker event - could be found at Newmarket, presenting the trophy to the winners of the 2000 Guineas, one of horseracing's most prestigious events.

The chance to get seriously rich quick, celebrity glamour and easy access - no one should be surprised that this is the business story of the 21st century thus far. The question investors will be asking themselves when Party Poker lists is: can the online poker boom last? Well, if Party and co can persuade enough new punters to get involved in the action, then it can.

And as for me and my big $60 win? I'm sure they will wrestle it back off me the next time I join the party.


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