I remember the day Black Friday happened in America. For those of you outside the States that are unfamiliar, Black Friday was the day that the FBI seized the domains for the top online poker sites and essentially made online poker illegal in America. I was living in Las Vegas at the time and I remember my roommate waking me up telling me that the government had seized all the sites for Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet. I thought to myself at the time that this was nothing new and that they should be back up within the same day. But that did not happen of course and playing online became a very different endeavor after that date in America. I saw a variety of reactions online on the various forums, Facebook and Twitter. But what I found most peculiar was that those associated with live poker rooms seemed to rejoice at the news. Some poker clubs in Los Angeles raised their rake a bit as a result and even poker celebrities such as Doyle Brunson tweeted a challenge to online pros, basically writing that they would not do as well since they now had to play "real" poker in live card rooms. It was of course long believed that the casino lobby had a lot to do with the events of Black Friday as they have much power in the government and had pressured them to take this action. I always did think that such actions were misguided as poker has been in a state of somewhat free fall ever since. For the casinos this was a complete freeroll as even if the popularity of poker waned, they could always replace them in their floor space with other games that were most profitable. But for the players this was a complete loss as events since have more than demonstrated that live and online poker go hand in hand and that one cannot grow without the other.
The poker boom of course started back in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker took down the Main Event of the World Series of Poker for a cool $2,000,000. The story is all too familiar now that he qualified through a series of online satellites, paying $40 instead of the entry fee of $10,000. Moneymaker was not a poker pro but rather an accountant from the South and with his win began a craze during which quite literally every man thought they could obtain such riches and glory. And not long after that commercials started to appear on every TV channel for Party Poker, Full Tilt and the like. Poker was everywhere and it hardly seemed as if one could turn on ESPN, Fox Sports or the Travel Channel and not see a televised poker event. Other sites would soon open to fill the new market and sites like Absolute Poker, Paradise Poker, Pacific and Cake would join the ranks of the established platforms. With money being easily moved on and off of sites through banks, credit cards and debit cards the live rooms started to fill up as well as the game grew in popularity like never before. I spent the first few years of the boom playing in the live rooms of Los Angeles and I remember every game imaginable was being offered at the time. One could play anything from hold'em to omaha, from Mexican poker to 7-card stud hi-lo. After a few years of grinding the tables of L.A. I soon moved to Las Vegas where both online and live versions of the game grew as well.
When I lived in Vegas I played both live and online and this was a common phenomenon for poker players in sin city. There was money to be made in both arenas so we did not see any reason not to take advantage. During my peak I remember months when I would play 6 hours live and another 6 hours online 5 days per week. There was just that much money to be made back then and none of us wanted to waste the opportunity. And much like L.A. the game grew in the casinos as from somewhere around 50 poker rooms, the number would ultimately grow to over 100 in the city. Having spoken to casino managers at the time though, poker was never something that these entities wanted to run. In previous years poker rooms took a limited amount of floor space in a few casinos. But after the boom it was simply something that every facility needed to have as too many customers asked for the game and wanted to play. It was only a few short years after the boom that the casino lobby had started to attack the online industry and had even convinced some players that online poker was harmful to the game. But what most did not realize was that online poker was an introductory experience for new players. It may be difficult to realize for those of us who have played the game for years, but going to a casino and sitting in a game where others may be better than you is not an easy task. The online game allowed players to learn the game gradually and graduate to a live game, where they were probably still outmatched but at least they were more willing and likely to play at the casino. All one has to do is think about the mechanics of an online game vs live, especially in terms of the money that is being handled. In a casino game a player will have to take a few hundred dollars at least to play any meaningful game. But in an online experience one can simply deposit $50 just to get their feet wet, just as I did with the first deposit I ever made in Party Poker.
Money would soon become more difficult to move in and out of poker sites as the years went on. It became common for players have to use third party payment processors such as Skrill or Neteller. But this did not prove to be too difficult and the game continued to grow on all fronts. But once Black Friday occurred it became nearly impossible to get money on and off. All sorts of creative measures were enacted in order for players to deposit such as prepaid credit cards or Western Unions sent to a woman named Guadalupe in Costa Rica. I remember I made a deposit once that showed up on my bank statement that I did not initially recognize as it was listed as a purchase at a furniture store in Connecticut. When I called the phone number listed on the statement, a man answered the phone and was very coy about describing to me why that amount appeared on my statement. Legally he could not tell me that it was for a poker deposit and after about 15 minutes of giving me hints I finally remembered that it was for a $500 deposit into Bodog Poker. And when it came to cashing out things were even more difficult as I remember one check taking 6 months to arrive. Another time a check arrived in four months but bounced as soon as I tried to cash it. Things got so desperate that I started to sell money on my poker sites on online forums at $0.75 for $1. Players had to go to great lengths to move money and it was not the sort of thing that recreational players were going to put themselves through.
This of course had a big impact on the live games as well. As it was becoming more difficult to play online, grinders did initially start to flood the live rooms. But they soon found the rake difficult to beat and without perks such as rakeback the transition was a difficult one. And without any sort of introductory forum such as online poker, recreational players were coming in to live rooms at a lesser rate as well. When I moved to Vegas there were something along the lines of 50 rooms in town, a number that would eventually grow to 100+. I remember even a gas station near my apartment had a poker table in the back that would sometimes run a $1-$2 NLH game. But with all these events the game started to be less popular and soon enough casinos started to close down rooms. The most telling is what happened at the Mirage where the most well known pros once played their "Big Game." I remember one day playing on a Sunday with a friend at the Mirage when he remarked to the dealer that what was happening to the room was very sad for him. When I asked him for an explanation he told me that we were playing on table #1, where the likes of Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan once played games as high as $200-$400 mix. My friend found it rather depressing that this table was now being used for a $1-$2 NLH game. Other casinos closed down their rooms altogether of course and soon the number of them in town was closer to the 50 of when I first arrived.
All of this is not to say that online poker has always been a perfect partner to the live industry. There have certainly been enough scandals of cheating over the years on online sites to scare people from playing. And with the game played in a measured environment that online poker provides, the use of stats derived from software has done much to make the game worse. But I would argue that such would have been the case regardless and had not certain powers waged war against online poker, such players would be part of a much larger field and their impact would not have been as great. A minority of the pool will always win the majority of the money in this game, but they need recreational players from which to feed on and such players have been decreasing over the years to a presently alarming rate. The more recreational players exist in the pool, the more regs will play and generate more rake. And as more players get introduced to this great game of poker via the online experience, more of them will also gradually make their way to the live felt. All of this will go a long way towards making the game more of a social experience, especially the live version. In the end that is what many live rooms are missing today, the social experience, as the presence of grinders becomes ever more prevalent while less and less new players get introduced to the game. There has been a resurgence as of late with the popularity of private game apps that have emerged in Asia and quickly into other parts of the world. Unlike the established sites, these apps have gone to great lengths to attract new players and not just crushers. For the moment those that operate live rooms have adopted a welcoming attitude towards such apps. As I am agent for several such apps, one manager of a poker room here in Phnom Penh even remarked to me that we mutually benefit each other. Such was a refreshing take on this whole phenomena, one that I hope other operators around the world also adopt.
Much like earlier sites during the early days of the poker boom, these apps exist in a legally grey area and remain largely unregulated. But all of this only demonstrates how much there exists a thirst for online poker, even among newer and lesser established players. Clubs are now emerging from America to help fill the void when the market was vacated by the events of Black Friday and online apps are seeing a resurgence of great games with action that has not been seen for years. It is the hope of this writer that history will not repeat itself and like here in Cambodia, both room operators and law makers will take on a more accepting attitude towards the virtual version of this great game of poker. When run in harmony poker is a game in which a variety of different parties can benefit and the online experience does much to contribute to this balance.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.