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Now That We're Getting Back Online

by John Vorhaus |  Published: Dec 11, 2013


John VorhausAs one U.S. state after another legalizes intrastate online poker, and as the national momentum starts to swing in that direction, it’s a good time to reflect on Internet poker, where it’s been, where it’s going, and what your place in it might be. I start by presenting you with an email I received in April, 2002, just as Internet poker was starting to get untracked:

How many times must players get burned before they realize that online poker is not a place to play for serious money? How many times must players place their trust in poker celebrity endorsements and get burned before they realize that online poker is not a place to play for serious money? If it walks like a duck, looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. Dragon Poker, Highlands Poker, Pokerspot, etcetera, all were scams. They let players deposit money, operated long enough for the deposited money to become substantial, and then shut down. The owner/operators disappear, and the players’ money disappears with them. They were scams and the players who played there were suckers. The players at the currently-running online poker sites are the suckers of the future. It is time to admit that online poker sites in general are scams.

There is no regulation, no oversight, no governing legal authority, the firms are not audited and do not release ownership information or financial statements. If you deposit any money in any of them, expect to be swindled in the future. (Signed) World Class Poker Player.

I remember thinking when I read this email that, Well, that guy’s pretty hysterical. (This even though the take-the-money-and-run shenanigans of, for example, Pokerspot, were already pretty well known.) Now, looking back through the prism of, especially, Full Tilt, we can see that World Class Poker Player was downright prophetic (if, okay, a little hysterical). Players did get scammed and players did get burned, and even though the new sites have respectable brands behind them, there’s no reason to believe that someone, somewhere, won’t have the same bright idea to build up a pyramid of players’ money and then tear it down by its base. So caveat ludio, right? Player beware.

But even if you’re playing on a legitimate online poker site, one that’s regulated, taxed, licensed, tested for sexually transmitted diseases, whatever, the fact remains that online poker is itself a pyramid scheme of sorts — legitimate, but a pyramid just the same. That’s because poker itself is a pyramid. The vast majority of net-minus players form the base of the pyramid. They lose their money to a smaller number of somewhat better players, on the next level of the pyramid. These players, in turn, lose to fewer, better players, and those players lose to the elite: the very few, very talented players who form the top of the pyramid. Not even considering house rake, that’s the sad fact, Jack: In online poker as in all poker, most players lose and few players win.

What does this mean for players of indifferent ability, talent, or commitment (and believe me, I count myself among this inillustrious herd)? Does it mean we should give up and stop playing? Of course not — not unless we’re also prepared to give up and stop breathing. The fact is that poker is fun, and for those of us who find it fun, the thought of not playing is anathema. So we’re going to keep playing. We might even go back to playing online. But before we do, we’d do well to consider our goals. If we envision the resurgent online poker community as a place to make our rags-to-riches dreams come true, we are (almost all of us) in for disappointment. If we’re just there to have fun, and we know it, then we’re going to be okay. But it helps to know the difference between these two goals, and it helps to be realistic in our expectations. The first online poker boom was a gold rush for a few, recreation for many, and a financial disaster for some. The next boom will likely be the same. Thus is it always in boom times: a few strike it rich, but most just strike out.

What’s different about this boom is the number of success stories from the last boom that will infect our thinking. The poker world is full of stories that basically follow this script: “I was in college when the Moneymaker Effect introduced me to online poker. I started making so much money that I dropped out of school, turned pro and never looked back.” That’s a happy ending for some, but for every story like this, there are a thousand or more (like that of World Class Poker Player) which follow this script: “I discovered online poker, bought in, rebought, rebought, rebought, rebought, lost everything, and never went back.” That’s the bottom of the pyramid, and sadly it’s the fate for most.

Do I sound like a big, big party pooper (or maybe even a Party Poker pooper)? I don’t mean to be a wet blanket, just a voice of reason for the coming unreasonable times. My advice for online poker players in 2013 is the same as it was for players in 2003. If you want to play for fun, play for fun and enjoy your good times. Never put more than recreational sums of money into the game, never gamble more than you can stand to lose, and if you do happen to make a big strike, be sure to bank your profits. If you aspire to more than that — if you want to be among the next generation of online lions — then you’d better be prepared to put in the hours. Not just the playing hours but also the learning hours, the research hours, the datamining hours, and the physical and mental preparation hours. Anything less than full commitment is not just unrealistic, it’s a little silly.

And what about me? Will I dive back in if/when my home state of California re-opens the pool? You know what? I’m not sure. I’ve missed online poker, but I haven’t missed it that much. I’m certainly not prepared to make the commitment it takes to be an elite online player. If I play at all — a big if, and I’ll keep you posted on what I decide — I certainly won’t play high. I’ll keep my eyes open and my expectations realistic. I won’t whine, like World Class Poker Player so prophetically did more than a decade ago; yet, I won’t be surprised if scandal strikes again. George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I can remember. It’s an open question as to whether I will repeat. ♠

John Vorhaus is author of the Killer Poker series and co-author of Decide to Play Great Poker, plus many mystery novels including World Series of Murder, available exclusively on Kindle. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from