Back when I lived in Las Vegas I remember a night of playing $1-$3 NLH at the Treasure Island Poker Room. I was on a table with a close friend and we happen to get into a fairly big pot heads up. I had bricked my draw by the river but when he checked I decided to put in a huge bet to try and take the pot anyway. He tanked for a minute and then made the call with top pair. Upon losing the hand another player at the table, who as it turned out was a poker coach, remarked that I had really polarized my range with the sizing on my river bet. When hearing this my friend immediately asked the floor for a table change. I asked him if he did not want to play on the same table as a friend to which he replied that he simply did not want to be in a $1-$3 game where players were talking about polarizing ranges. This was back in 2009 and it was the day I realized that it was the beginning of the end for No Limit Hold'em.
Back when I started playing in 2003 my friends and I were printing money. Online sites were filled with recreational players that never seemed to mind shipping it in constantly with marginal hands. When we moved out to Vegas in 2005, live games were just as easy as I would often joke that I could walk through a poker room blindfolded and come out with at least a few hundred dollars. But as the game grew, especially online, data collection and the proliferation of software made the game increasingly difficult to play as players were constantly improving and even recreational players became familiar with advanced principles. All one has to do is look at the list of the winners at the Main Event of the World Series of Poker since the boom in 2003. Names like Chris Moneymaker, Jerry Gold and Jerry Yang represented the "every-man", making many believe that truly anyone can win at the game of poker. But since Joe Cada's win in 2009, the list of winners has been filled with younger players in their 20's who all made their way up in the poker world through online sites. And if one does decide to jump online now to try and fulfill their poker dream, they will be faced with players who have played at least a million hands in their lifetime, all using software and many who study daily. And even lower stakes live games are now populated by those with much experience that used to play bigger, now playing smaller in order to survive.
All poker rooms, both live and online, are now riddled with promotions in order to attract players. But all that everyone is doing is recycling the same old players and what most are failing to do is the one thing that might save the game, namely the creation of new players. I see it all the time on my Facebook feed as agents for online poker clubs travel the world over to sign up this player and that player. But these guys were just playing on a different site previously and now they are just going to make the games on some other network much tougher. But creating new players for no limit hold'em is very difficult to do as the game is no longer as attractive as it once was. It is not as ubiquitous on television as before and the lack of participation by huge markets such as North America has depleted the player base of new players. And it does not take even recreational players long to realize that they are completely dominated once they sit down at most tables. Not only are they facing much tougher players with every resource available to them, but hold'em is not a game that lends itself well to newer players. When most of the money gets in the pot for big hands, equity does not run all that close in this game and recreational players often find themselves on the bad side of domination.
The more established players do not help their own cause in this regard. No Limit Hold'em is a game that has become increasingly more difficult to play over the years and the tables are filled with those that are losing more, not winning as much and those that are barely surviving. My friend used to comment about one particular room here in Phnom Pehn that it was such a depressing place to be compared to years prior. The online environment has not proven to be any better as players using software and playing for massive amounts of rakeback have not made for great games. In addition, the online side of things creates its own unique set of problems such as the presence of bots that can now be programmed to beat games at most levels. And the presence of massive promotions that benefit regular players do keep the rooms busy, but in the long run will be the downfall of the game. Recreational players are not attracted by such promotions as it unfairly punishes them for being passers by. Poker is a game that is fed by tourists and those that do not play regularly in any one location. These promotions are always paid for by taking additional money to the rake and recs often figure out that they are being taxed for something that they rarely can benefit from as promotions such as freerolls and bad beat jackpots give a higher chance of hitting for those that play more regularly in one room. And if nothing else, the extra money being taken depletes the money of those that are already losing.
As regular players we have all noticed the proliferation or gaining popularity in recent years of different games apart from no limit hold'em. Games like pot limit omaha have steadily grew over the past decade and even newer games are proving to be popular in parts of Asia such as short deck poker. And while recreational players may not necessarily be conscious of why these games are growing, it is no accident why they are drawn to these tables. I won't get into the technical intricacies of each game, but the fact remains that in a game with more cards such as omaha the equity runs much closer and bad players do not get their money in as often being dominated, as is the case in a game like no limit hold'em. We see this evolution on a micro level within omaha itself as 5 and 6 card versions are now gaining in popularity as the equities run even closer with the additional cards. Short deck poker produces similar results, although for the opposite reason as cards are now removed from the deck. In either case, the high variance that is created by the equities running closer is also a more attractive feature of the game for newer players. Whether online or on a live table, there is perhaps nothing more boring than sitting in a no limit hold'em game with tight players, most of them chasing some promo offered by the room. These newer games provide a much more conducive environment for gamblers, those that want to play the game for every right reason.
I doubt there will ever be anything like the poker boom again, but it does appear that these newer games represent the future of poker. Fewer players are being attracted to poker today and the price to pay for getting them in very well may be adjusting to play these games. After all there has to be some give and compromise as we cannot expect recreational players to just hand over their money in an environment where regulars have most of the edge. I made the adjustment to omaha myself about a year ago and recently switched to 5-card games. As 6-card variants are now being offered I will probably have to adjust and switch to that game as well eventually. The numbers never lie and the point that I am making here can easily be seen on the tables. When playing these different games, those that have a high VP$IP can regularly be spotted whereas they are rare specimens on the hold'em tables. I do not see anything in the near future that can possibly change this trend. I know many point to the popularity of poker in parts of China as a sign of hope, but I have already covered in previous articles how the way in which the Chinese run their poker rooms is not conducive to the game's growth. And it just so happens to be that the game of short deck was born out of games in Macau and is already quite popular there. Perhaps if America were to legalize the game again on a federal level and everyone had easy access the market can see an upward spike. But given how legistlation has been slow to be enacted even on a state level, I cannot see that happening any time soon.
There is a phrase that poker players love to use, namely "GTO" which stands for game theory optimal. I absolutely hate this saying as it represents everything wrong with poker culture today. I understand that players want every possible edge and advantage, but without other players to provide that edge there will be no game and more importantly no money to be had. Poker has become a game in which 2% of the playing population win 98% of the money. How long can such an ecosystem be sustained? As players we have to give up some equity on the table itself in order to meet others at some sort of half way point to ensure the survival of the game.
I used to manage an internet cafe where teenagers would come and play PC games on the many terminals that we had set up. They would spend so much time there that it became a de facto day care center for the parents who would drop off their kids daily. They spent so much time there, the parents would often ask me to drive them home after we closed and even give me gas money. Eventually they asked me if I could just keep the place open late just for them so that they would not go wandering elsewhere in the middle of the night. So many nights we would all just sit there, each of us with a computer terminal playing our favorite PC game. And back then there was only one game that we played, Counter Strike. It was a first person shooter game and we could literally sit there for hours clicking away at our mouses and shooting each other in our virtual heads. But one night I suppose the kids tired of the game and asked me if I wanted to play no limit Texas hold'em. I told them that I did not know how to play but they said they would show me and so we played $0.05-$0.10 no limit. This was back in 2003 just after Chris Moneymaker had won the main event of the World Series of Poker and the game has held me captive since.
We began to play poker more and more. After that first game we would play a couple of times per week. Then it became three nights, then four and eventually we were playing every night. In the beginning we would pull the desks out from the kiosks that were built for the computer terminals to make an ad hoc poker table. But as we would do this starting at midnight, people would look in through the front glass of the internet cafe and wonder what the hell a grown man was doing with a bunch of teenagers late into the morning. So we moved the game up to the attic of the business and continued to play without interruption. We did not have any tables upstairs so a group of us would sit on the floor in a circle and take turns dealing. Eventually there would be four such circles nightly, all playing a game of hold'em huddled around and hunched over a decks of cards. Obviously everyone started to complain about the playing conditions so I struck a deal with everyone. If I were to buy the tables and chairs to make the experience a bit more comfortable, then they would all have to be fine with me collecting a rake. Aside from two kids, everyone else agreed and thus was born my first poker game.
Seeing as how we were in an internet cafe, it did not take long before we started to play online as well. I had most of my money back then in Party Poker and I would play everything from limit, no limit and even games like seven card stud. The kids who were not eighteen years of age yet somehow all had accounts. Regulations were a lot more relaxed back then or they would just get their older siblings to open accounts for them. During the summer they would all come in by opening at 10:00 AM and spend about the first seven hours or so playing Counter Strike. But after dinner, they would all come back and open up their online poker accounts and play cards. And as soon as we closed at midnight, we would all congregate upstairs where the game eventually got as high as $1-$2 NLH. I remember one particular night a new kid showed up to play and he got involved in a hand that still stands out in my memory to this day. A player opened in early position, he 3-bet with AJ suited and then the other player shoved. Considering that this was a game full of teenagers, that was a call nearly every player would have made in that game. But this kid tanked for a long time then folded the hand face up. I remember pulling him aside later on in the evening and telling him that I knew he would be a great player one day. I will not reveal the players name, but I ran into him years later when we were both living in Vegas. He had just turned twenty one years old but had been playing for a couple of years at the Venetian with a fake ID. A few years after that, he would finish second in the World Series of Poker Player of the Year ranking. He played his very first live hand in my game when he was all of fifteen years old.
This went on for months, but as I was paying little attention to the actual business of the internet cafe it went under. So I had no place to run the game anymore and I ended up giving my players list to a friend who wanted to start his own game in his apartment. But that game stopped after a while as well and after having done nothing but just playing poker at the Bike for a few months, I decided to restart my game. This time I got some friends together to pool our money and rented a warehouse on the north side of Los Angeles. We had a twelve month lease as a party planning company. I figured that was a good cover for why we had so many poker tables around as I had told the leasing agent that we specialized in casino night events. So I had six custom made poker tables built, bought some sixty chairs, cards and the rest and off we went. I remember on one particular night I had my partners and the staff we had hired stay all night in the warehouse putting stickers on the chips we had purchased. I remember the name of the club vividly as I called it Chesterfield West. It was an homage to the movie Rounders as the name of a club they played in was called the Chesterfield. In the scene where they all run into each other at the same table in Atlantic City, one of the players remarks "Welcome to the Chesterfield South" as a joke that they had just transplanted their entire game southward.
I initially thought that the game would just run from where we left off when I ran it in the internet cafe. But such was not the case as some of the players had moved away or lost too much money to continue playing. I had spent about $15,000 to get this game off the ground so I had to do something and so I took a huge risk. There was no Facebook back then as MySpace was still the most popular social media platform. So I did a search for people in my area who had listed poker as an interest and sent out a mass invite to all of them. Over the next four days I received several messages from people wanting to play and thus the game was born again. We would play $1-$2 on most nights, sometimes playing $2-$5 and it was a good game. I had the dealers trained very well and had them running the games efficiently. Word got around town and soon we were running multiple tables and having new faces show up nightly. The staff, my partners and I would gather nightly at 6:00 PM at a local Chinese restaurant to have dinner then slowly make our way to the warehouse around 8:00 PM to start the game. The games were going so late that I would basically sleep at the warehouse on a couch that we had put in the lounge. I would have to go to my friend's house in the afternoon just to take a shower.
We were taking some huge risks back then and the biggest one was perhaps continuing to allow underage kids to play. We certainly had plenty of them wanting to play as they could not play in the casinos. On one particular weekend, one of these teenagers came in and lost about $2,000 on a Friday night. He had told his older brother about it, who happened to be a lawyer. What happened next I cannot be completely sure about, but I soon got some visitors in blue who would basically order us to stop the game. When everything was said and done, we got off fairly light. Our landlords were told about what was going on of course but they still would not let us out of our lease. So we could not run the game anymore but still had to sit on that warehouse and pay the rent for another six months. I still slept in the warehouse as I figured I should get some use out of it. So I moved out of my apartment so I would not have to pay double rent and spent most days and nights in the warehouse either playing poker online or watching movies in the lounge that we had built.
When the lease to the warehouse was finally over, I decided to look for a new apartment with some friends. After a few days of not finding anything we liked, I remember a couple of us sitting in my car and concluding that we should move close to a casino since we all loved playing poker so much. But then in a moment of clarity, we looked at each other and all said at the same time, "We should just move to Vegas!" From that moment we began to make plans to move to Sin City. Nothing was really holding us in Los Angeles anymore as I was not working, did not have an apartment and my would be roommates had just graduated from college. About a week after we had agreed to move, we took a tester trip out to Vegas to see what the apartment market was like. There were plenty of apartments available in the city that were much cheaper than what we were used to in Los Angeles. So on the second day of our trip we signed a sixteen month lease on a three bedroom apartment in a suburb of Vegas called Henderson for $1,100 per month. After a few nights of poker and some ill advised blackjack, we headed back to Los Angeles to pack up our belongings and make the move to Las Vegas.
To be continued...
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.