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Ultimate Poker: Reinventing Online Poker in America’s Most Exciting City

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Jul 10, 2013


Luck, someone once said, is when opportunity knocks and you answer.

It’s partly about the right place, partly about the right time, and partly the talent to be there when they intersect. It’s why so many people come to Las Vegas. Because Vegas is a city that’s open to being constantly reinvented by people who come to reinvent themselves.

Five years ago, the city was wracked by a financial meltdown and the subsequent recession. Now, opportunity is knocking once again.

Fifty thousand people will arrive this summer to seek their fortunes at the World Series of Poker. Thousands more will come to see the greatest mixed-martial artist in the world — Anderson Silva — defend his UFC middleweight title on “Fight Week.” Countless more will play Ultimate Poker, the first fully licensed real-money Internet poker site in the United States, which is at the cutting edge of the new gaming landscape. And all the while, downtown is being redeveloped in bold strokes by one of America’s young visionaries.

These stories are a soundtrack to the city, to all it is, and all it hopes to be.


Part-owner, UFC

Here’s the thing about Vegas.

Nearly any other city you’ll find a lot of old money that’s been around for generation after generation. When I lived in Boston, everyone was over educated. I remember working at a hotel there when I was 19 years old. We had security guards with master’s degrees.
This is the only city in this country — probably in the world — where it doesn’t matter where you went to school, how much schooling you have, who you know. If you have a great idea and you’re willing to work your ass off, you can make it big in Las Vegas.

In Boston, the oldest restaurant in America is still operating. They treasure it. They don’t tear that down. In Vegas, something gets old, they blow it up and build a new one.
If you were at the MGM a year ago and you went to Studio 54, you liked hanging out there, well, guess what? I’ve got news for you. It’s gone!

They ripped it apart and built a crazy club called Hakkasan.

You cannot come to Vegas with an attitude of: Oh, I’ve been there before. No, you haven’t, because it’s completely different.

Could the UFC have become as big as we are without Vegas? That’s a great question. There’s no way of knowing for sure. But this is the fight capital of the world — and we’ve definitely had our share of Vegas moments.

When I say we came from humble beginnings, I’m talking humble beginnings.

Back in 2000, I called Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta and told them that the UFC was for sale. Gave them the whole pitch. Cost two million bucks. A month later we owned the business.

When we started, our goal was to get on free TV. We faced an uphill battle. You have to understand, this wasn’t allowed on pay-per-view when we bought it. Porn was on pay-per-view! But UFC was not allowed! Some states had laws against no-holds-barred fights, and venues wouldn’t even let us hold UFC events at their sites. When I would try to set up meetings with pay-per-view execs, they wouldn’t even take them.

We worked our asses off to regulate the sport and got the first ever sanctioned mixed-martial arts card in Las Vegas scheduled a couple of weeks in 2001 — a couple of weeks after September 11th.

The event sold out the minute it went on sale. But then came 9/11. I don’t know if you remember what it was like here after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This city became a ghost town. There was nobody coming in. And we were, like: Oh, man, this is our first big pay-per-view. Is anybody going to show?

Two weeks later, the Mandalay Bay was packed. The country had gotten over the shock and started to unite. Everybody was saying: They’re not going to shut this country down. So it was an amazing moment for the UFC.

The problem was every fight on that card sucked. The place was going crazy waiting for anything to happen — and nothing happened. Every fight went to a decision. Lying on the ground — horrible, boring bullshit.

On top of that, the fights went so long that we went over our pay-per-view window. So people who’d bought the pay-per-view didn’t see the last three rounds of the title fight, and a lot of them wanted their money back. I was so depressed I almost did a backflip off Mandalay Bay.

Over the next several years, we ended up $33 million in the hole. We finally got “The Ultimate Fighter” on cable, and as the first season came to a close, we were $44 million in the hole.

The cable company wasn’t sold on “The Ultimate Fighter” through that first season. Their execs were wishy-washy. We didn’t know where we stood, and we didn’t have another deal. If “The Ultimate Fighter” didn’t work, we were f***ed.

Then, on that last show, right here in Vegas, Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar step into the octagon and put on one of the best fights you’ve ever seen.

All you had to do was be in the building that night and you knew how big it was. We had all our chips on the table and we hit the jackpot. The guys from the cable network went into the alley afterward and cut a deal with us for the next season.

Eight years later and we’re on Fox — free television. Maybe it all could’ve happened somewhere else. But it didn’t happen somewhere else. It happened in Vegas.

Jack Binion

Former owner of Binion’s Horseshoe

Vegas has taken a lot of ordinary guys and made ’em geniuses. It’s put them in the path of an avalanche of money.

Not many people knew about the first World Series of Poker. It all came about when a guy named Tom Moore invited us to Reno for a gambler’s convention. It was really just a giant poker game. In fact, that’s where I first met Doyle Brunson. This was back in the late sixties.

The next year I called and asked if they were going to do the convention again. They said no, so we picked the idea up and brought it to the Horseshoe.

We called it the World Series of Poker because I thought “World Championships” was a little presumptuous. It never dawned on me to do it in a tournament format. To determine a winner, I thought I’d go around and ask the participants who each thought was the best player in each category. There was one problem with that. Almost inevitably, everybody I asked, said: “I am.”

So then I asked: “Well, who’s second?”

Whoever got the most second place votes was the winner. That’s how it went down in 1970, and Johnny Moss was the first winner.

We’d only invited people we knew, and outsiders really didn’t know about it. So we didn’t get immediate publicity out of our first event. It never occurred to us that this would become that popular.

Somehow, two reporters for the Cleveland Plain Dealer found out about it a year or two later and wrote up a big article in the Sunday paper.

That’s when I realized this must have some PR legs.

The guy who came up with the tournament format was Amarillo Slim. It caught on and, as they say, the rest is history. Poker is a great spectator game. But what really set it off was the card camera, and then came the Internet.

There were a lot of guys who fortune smiled upon over the years. There’s one nice thing about being a poker player. As Doyle likes to say: “Everything a gambler says, he prefaces with: ‘I play. I play poker. I play sports, meaning I bet sports. I play golf, meaning for money.’” Play. Play. Play. They don’t have any limits on what they do. If they don’t want to get up, they don’t have to.

Johnny said it another way. He said: “It’s all kind of relative. The only difference between a really successful poker player and one who’s not very successful is that the one who’s not very successful will have to play cheaper and the broads will be a little older and fatter.”

But all professional poker players are marching to a different drummer. They just don’t have those outside parameters to them.

The way I see it, that’s what makes all poker players financially secure. See, I’m financially insecure. I’m afraid to go broke. But poker players will take a shot with their last dollar because they have total confidence that they’ll bounce back no matter what.

Jason Somerville

Professional Poker Player

I was born on April 15th — tax day, the day the Titanic sunk, the day Lincoln died and Black Friday.

But it balances out. Because I was born…and I get to play in the World Series of Poker.
What I love about it is that there’s never going to be another area in my life where I’m going to be able to compete against the elite in the world. I mean, you’re playing against Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu.

In 2011, we started with more than 3,000 players in Event 20. It got down to 27 of us. I had decent chips, but wasn’t in the lead. We battled all day, there were ups and downs, and I got to the final table.

On the very first hand of heads-up, I have five million chips. The guy I’m playing, Yashar Darian, has five million chips. He’d been playing crazy, and so I had this small-pot strategy in my head, where I’m not going to invest too many chips in each hand. I really wanted to wear him down.

So guess what happens? On the very first hand I get two aces. I raise. Darian re-raises. I make it 100,000. He bumps it up to 300,000. I’ll never forget the numbers. I make it 900,000. Which is very big. Obviously, this is a dream situation.

He goes all-in. I’ll never forget it. I stood up and said: “Call!” It was the most definitive call of my life.

I put the cards down. He had K-6 offsuit — which is a very poor hand.

I walked over to Negreanu — he was watching me — and looked at the monitor. The flop was a king. I thought: Oh, my God, if he turns a six or a king I’m going to be devastated.
It’s for all the money. Half a million dollars. Turn was a brick. River was a brick. In one hand, I won my first bracelet.

Tony Hsieh

CEO of and visionary for the Downtown Project

Vegas has been, and always will be, the city of possibilities.

Several years ago, a bunch of Zappos employees, including myself, started hanging out in an area of downtown called Fremont East that most tourists don’t know about. It’s actually the most community-focused place I’ve ever lived. I grew up in San Francisco. But I’ve never lived in a place where the bar owners hang out in each other’s bars just to help each other out.

I certainly wasn’t the first to discover this area, but it’s the collaborative spirit of the place that initially attracted me to it. You get people from all different socioeconomic backgrounds colliding with one another.

When I first looked at downtown Vegas I saw a blank canvas with so much potential. The idea of Downtown Project is to turn it into a place of inspiration, entrepreneurial energy, creativity, discovery, and innovation . . .

We’re investing $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in tech start-ups, $50 million in education, arts and culture, and $200 million in real estate. We’re not really betting on anything that hasn’t already been proven before in some other context or at some other scale. There’s a lot of research that proves what we want to do actually works.

There’s an interesting book called Triumph of the City written by a Harvard economics professor who studied cities from different time periods. One of the statistics that he cites is that every time the size of a city doubles, productivity or innovation per resident increases by 15 percent.

Whereas when companies get bigger, generally, productivity goes down. Our goal is to avoid that fate as a company. So the question becomes: How do we participate in this weird hybrid between a corporation, community and city that’s never really been done before? What we have here is the idea of thinking of the city as a start-up.

How many times in your lifetime do you get an opportunity to help shape the future of a major city?

Tom Breitling

Founder, Ultimate Gaming

I drove into Las Vegas in a broken down car with about $100 in my pocket. January 1993.
I was joining my buddy, Tim Poster, at the hotel reservation business that he’d started. He’d opened it in a small office that had a desk, a chair, a pillow and a telephone.

I grew up in Burnsville, Minnesota. Tim, being an old school Las Vegas guy, liked to call it Barnsville. I’d never seen a hundred dollar bill until I went to college. Back then, it was my dream to be the next Bob Costas.

But I’d met Tim through my roommate, Lorenzo Fertitta, at the University of San Diego. And after a year of giving the same weather report nearly every day at KHIZ in Victorville — “It’s a hot one today!” — Tim convinced me to join him as his partner.

Tim had started his hotel reservation business just after Steve Wynn opened The Mirage, which was the first property to be built on The Strip in more than a decade.

Fifty thousand people were out front to watch the volcano erupt for the first time, and themed hotels sprang up and down The Strip. It was just the right time to be in the hotel reservation business.

One day I was answering a call in the office and a customer asked when he’d be able to make his reservations over the Internet. Back then, the Internet was in its infancy and most reservations were done through brick and mortar travel agencies.

That gave me the idea to take the business online. We must’ve got more online reservations in the first week than we had in the prior three months — and the business went through the roof. A few years later we sold it to Expedia for more than $100 million.

It was Tim’s dream to own a casino. So we put the money down on the Golden Nugget. We brought in Tony Bennett, had a reality show with Mark Burnett and started the National Heads-Up poker championship. In other words, it was a year-long party — with one exception. We nearly got taken down by a gambler on a $25 million roll.

Then we got an offer to sell the Nugget for more than a hundred million more than we paid for it. It was a good thing we took our chips off the table before the recession hit.

Timing is everything. Which is why I’m so excited about our next big bet: Ultimate Gaming.

Gambling is nearly a $350 billion market worldwide. Less than 10 percent of that business is online right now. I believe that over the next two decades there is going to be a major shift and we hope to be at the forefront of that shift.

There are more than 310 million personal computers and more than 90 million smartphones in use in the U.S. today. Aside from email, text, and browsing the Internet, playing games is the top activity on those devices, and poker has long been one of America’s favorite pastimes. It’s estimated that more than 50 million Americans play poker.

The problem was, over the last ten years, many unregulated online poker sites were taking in billions of dollars from American players without paying a dime in taxes. When some of these companies were shut down by the government on Black Friday, a lot of players couldn’t even get their money refunded. It was a huge blow to the entire industry.

Nevada is now the first state to regulate online poker, and our site, Ultimate Poker, was the first to offer a real-money online game.

We dealt our first hand on April 30th. In the first six weeks, we dealt more than 4 million hands. We’ve been hiring since day one, and taxes are flowing into the state. It’s a win-win-win. People now get to play on the safest and most innovative site.

Right now, it’s legal to play only in Nevada. But people have registered from all 50 states and from 91 countries around the world. As Frank Sinatra would say: “The best is yet to come.” ♠