A Brief History of the Poker Boom of the 2000’s, Part One: The Moneymaker Effect

Have you seen the movie “Rounders”? Lots of people have. Hell, even people who have never set foot in a casino, who don’t know a flush from a full house or who haven’t touched a deck of cards since they played Uno on a summer camp rainy day just love that movie.

It had some great characters. Joey Knish doing the noble work of grinding out that rent money. Teddy KGB as portrayed by John Malkovich, who also happens to be the only actor who can ham it up to the degree he does and still be considered an Actor with a capital “A”. Famke Janssen and Gretchen Mol as “the women in the movie who are apparently poker players and law students but mostly there to be decorative and either support or nag the men”. Worm, the friend we all keep around for a little too long because of a combination of guilt and misplaced loyalty. But mostly guilt.

Noble folk doing noble work

And of course, who can forget Matt Damon’s earnest and almost quaint by today’s standards voiceover at the end of the film: “First prize at the World Series of Poker is a million dollars. Does it have my name on it? I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”

“Rounders” was released in August, 1998. A few months later Scotty Nguyen won the fabled million and so did a few more guys for the next couple of years.

Matt Damon, national treasure that he is, would never lead us astray. Except in “Interstellar”. Ugh, wasn’t he just a colossal dick in that?

Anyway, in late 2000, with the dawn of a new millennium and Y2k hysteria firmly behind humanity, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson comes along and fucks everything up. As most online poker players would learn in 2011, it would hardly be the first time, as he went on to become one of the most vilified people in the history of poker, no easy feat I tell you.

Chris Ferguson won $1.5 million along with his WSOP gold bracelet that year. That’s like, well, more than a million!

And just as the top prizes began inching up and topping TWO million (good God that’s double what Matt Damon said!), summer of 2003 rolls around and some rando accountant from Tennessee named CHRIS MONEYMAKER wins an $86 PokerStars online satellite into the $10,000 World Series of Poker Main Event. He goes on to win the whole damn thing for $2,500,000. You don’t have to be good at math or even know what an ROI is to know going from $86 to $2.5 million is a pretty big ROI.

Chris Moneymaker, almost as shocked as the rest of us after he won the WSOP Main Event in 2003

So then, something magical happened: every schnook with internet access who longed to quit their boring desk job and play cards for a living thought “why not me?”. Because they won that game that one time at that bachelor party! Because they’re really, really smart! Because they’re good at stuff, math even sometimes! Because they can win staring contests!

Because they were confident they’d be able to spot the sucker at the table, meaning they, of course, would never be the sucker.

But in poker, there aren’t winners unless someone loses.

Over the next eight years players all over the world, but especially in the USA, swelled the ranks of online poker sites. By the end of the decade the WSOP Main Event top prize was pushing $9 million dollars which probably would’ve made Matt Damon a lot more excited about the prospect of winning…even if there was that much more competition.

The image of the professional poker player rapidly shifted from grizzled old farts in cowboy hats and plastic visors playing 7 card stud in a room that reeked of cigars, cheap blended scotch and the very palpable threat of kneecapping to hoodie-clad nerds sitting in front of their dual 32-inch computer monitors with a steady supply of Totino’s Pizza Rolls (or Dr. Oetker pizzas for the more refined Europeans) at the ready for sustenance.

One of the aforementioned refined European players, doing what is known as “multi-tabling” AKA “paying a shitload of rake”.

American 21 year olds making five figures a month playing online from their dorms dropped out of college because what kind of job were they gonna get that could pay more and still let them wake & bake? At noon?

That marketing degree was for chumps who didn’t know the things you knew! You figured out a way to outsmart the system! Fuck The Man! Work was for suckers, and you weren’t a sucker. You made money from suckers and this was totally, totally gonna last forever.

It’s like God gave you a license to print money.

Sure, you still sat in front of a computer all day and sometimes all night, but you could smoke weed while you did it. Sometimes you even got to do it in a room with windows and maybe even go to poker tournaments in cool places like Council Bluffs, Iowa. Where the casino probably didn’t have windows but some really good corn dogs at the buffet.

European teenagers were creating accounts under their parent’s names and winning millions before their balls dropped. Why even bother finishing high school when every other week some 17 year old was depositing 50 Euro and turning it into 200k within a month or two?

The face Dominik Nitsche makes when you remind him he was Germany’s top online female player when he was in his teens because PokerStars thought he was his mom

What could possibly go wrong? They figured out a way to beat the system!

I mean sure, maybe you were one of the schnooks who kept donating, I mean, er…”depositing” because you could do it too. Eventually, right?

If these guys can do it WHY NOT ME. All you need is a chance! All you need is to stop running bad! Why DO you always run so bad? What do these assholes know that you don’t? You’re smart too! Screw these little shits, these Russian players going all in with 47 suited 30 big blinds deep and turning a straight flush, that British player who cracked your aces with tens by rivering a straight.

You write him in the chat box telling him to use that money to fix what are undoubtedly his horrifically bad English person teeth and then you feel better for about ten seconds. You go to bed after you read another chapter of “Super System”, tell two dozen people at your day job your bad beat story of the week even though you know they have no idea what fold equity is and frankly they don’t give a shit about any of this. Tell yourself on your dreary commute home that you’re done. You’re just fucking done.

But you keep depositing, because of the Moneymaker Effect. That’s right, he has an Effect named after him. Like he’s a Nobel prizewinning theoretical physicist.

WHY NOT ME?

So now we find ourselves in April 2011, and round one of the schnook schadenfreude begins.

Remember Chris “Jesus” Ferguson? The fella who won $1.5 million taking down the Main Event in 2000? Him and a few other Big Names in Poker and a “businessman” named Ray Bittar decided to get together and form their own poker site in 2004 to capitalize on the Moneymaker Effect as it was reaching a fever pitch.

This Jesus didn’t die for our sins, he just committed a bunch.

Full Tilt distinguished and marketed itself as a site run by poker players, for poker players. And poker players never lie to each other or screw each other over, right?

What could possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out, everything.

Full Tilt Poker was determined to be a massive pyramid scheme. Turns out most of the players running it were stealing from all the other players on it, along with Mr. Bittar who not only somehow avoided prison for his role in the stealing but recently married in what could well be the most obnoxiously gaudy wedding since Sean Parker’s. Along with PokerStars, Full Tilt was immediately forced by the Justice Department to shut down operations in the United States on April 15, 2011 or what is known as Black Friday in poker circles.

Full Tilt and PokerStars were found to be in violation of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006(UIGEA), which was ostensibly meant to be a rider on an anti-terrorism bill to keep our ports safe from Al Qaeda, but it really just meant that you could no longer use your American bank account or credit card to fund your online poker playing. Instead you now had to send payments via Western Union to some totally unknown person in Costa Rica. Party Poker, the third major player in the early 2000’s online poker boom, was unaffected by this as they had the prescience to leave the US market of their own volition as soon as UIGEA was passed, largely due to Party Poker being a publicly held company with shareholders to answer to.

Literally overnight there were 28 year olds in America who had never had a real job apart from that one summer at Abercrombie, but who now had a 7-year gap in their CV, no degree and no discernible skills apart from playing cards. Nearly all that money they’d won was tied up online and it had evaporated because they were practicing good bankroll management. And some of them didn’t want to pay taxes on their winnings either. That too.

“Good Guy PokerStars” paid out its American players in a few weeks and a small cottage industry soon sprung up around these American “poker refugees” relocating to Canada, Mexico or Costa Rica so they could keep grinding out that rent money. Which often involved sitting in front of a computer for 10–14 hours a day or even longer, which is probably less time they’d have spent in front of the computer if they’d have gotten that desk job they now didn’t have a degree for in the first place.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it came down to the schnooks. The schnooks were actually “fish” in poker parlance and were needed to keep donating. But sooner rather than later most of the grinders who managed to make it work in Rosarito or Vancouver (known as “sharks” in poker jargon…so clever!) just couldn’t keep making it work after a year or two because people with day jobs and families and responsibilities couldn’t uproot themselves to play the Sunday Million or 16 tables at a time of $1/$2 cash like in 2007.

Even good players who most definitely weren’t schnooks or fish had to stay put in some cases, most famously Danielle Andersen who gained notoriety in the documentary “Bet, Raise, Fold” for going from a winning online cash game and $10k a pop tournament player to waiting tables at a nondescript “pieces of flair” type restaurant within months of Black Friday.

Suffice it to say she was temporarily somewhat humbled going from riffling chips to serving them, but no need to worry about Ms. Andersen. She has since relocated to Las Vegas and is back to being a winning high-stakes live cash game player, so she probably lit every last one of those pieces of flair on fire and threw them into the Grand Canyon while laughing all the way to Vegas, since of course she’ll never need them again.

The “noble work” of grinding out that rent money, from the comfort of your own home. Or wherever you happen to have landed that lets you play.

Suddenly this is starting to look more like actual work, and that’s no good. Too much effort and thought involved. I just wanted to play cards!

Why not me?