There is no doubt that poker is a male dominated game and industry. All one has to do is to look on any poker table they are playing on to see how they far outnumber female players. But beyond that the industry itself in terms of room managers, tournament directors and the like it is immediately evident that women do not play a significant role in the game. One area in which this issue has come under scrutiny as of late is that of celebrity ambassadors for the game hired and sponsored by various online sights. Not only does the number of male sponsored players far outnumber their female counterparts, but it seems obvious that these sites are predominantly going after a male audience and clientele. This has upset a great number of female players as of late and the issue begs the question that we shall explore in this article. Just who's responsibility is it to grow the female player base and their presence in the poker industry?
When I first started to play poker back in 2003 there were a handful of female poker players that were prominent in the game, both due to their play and also for their roles in the industry. Players such as Kathy Liebert and Barbara Enright were respected veterans in the game and other such as Annie Duke, Jennifer Harmon and Clonie Gowan were also public figures due to their roles and stakes in Full Tilt and Absolute Poker respectively. But as the game grew during the poker boom a new generation of players would be ushered in as well such as Vanessa Rousso, Liv Boree, Mario Ho and Annette Obrestad. The accomplishments of these players cannot be denied as all one has to do is to look up their tournament finishes on the Hendon Mob page and as the game grew during the height of the boom, so did the profiles of such female players. While they still did not come close to matching the number of male players in the game, prominent female players were fixtures on television broadcasts such as the Big Game and Poker After Dark.
But poker would not remain as popular as it once was and with the waning of the poker boom, the popularity of many of the aforementioned female players decreased as well. Some of this had to do with certain players naturally leaving the game and moving onto other ventures. But the effect of the boom's decline saw a parallel in the male players as well. As the direction of the game moved more towards online play, figures of the old school simply could not keep up and were not producing the same results of years past. This was the case with female players as well but as with their male counterparts, a new generation of grinders would step into the forefront to replace the old guard. But with this change I have noticed a trend that I did not see before in the early and middle years of the boom. While I will not list them all here, of the female ambassadors that represent various sites at the moment it seems as if they all fit a type, namely that they all seem to be of a certain age range and look. I am of course speaking in generalities as matters such as attractiveness are subjective, but it is difficult not to notice when advertising and marketing trends follow that of other brands and industries. Females are often used in such endeavors along the lines of the old adage that "sex sells" and I think this can also apply to the poker industry as of late.
The photo above represents the first couple of lines of results when I google "female ambassadors in poker." I do not think it is out of line to observe and notice that all of the photos tend to follow a certain trend or set of characteristics. Now it could be that all of the current top female players happen to be of such traits, but I am probably far too cynical to reach that conclusion. All of this begs the question just who these companies are trying to attract. While the flaunting of these players for the public may have the residual effect of attracting other female players, I think the intent is clear that they are trying to gain mainly a male audience. Such a mindset can be seen in the recent decision by the GG Network to hire Dan Bilzerian as one of their ambassadors, a player of questionable poker credentials but one who has a huge social media following among males due to his depiction of the poker lifestyle filled with beautiful and half naked women in most of his posts. This of course upset a great number of female players but so far GG has stayed the course and has not reversed themselves but have rather defended their hire in most instances. While some may question the ethical nature of hiring Bilzerian, I think it is clear that such was a "business" decision. I think it unlikely that GG was unaware that this would upset most, if not all, of the female player base. But they obviously did not think that they stood to lose more than what they would gain with the addition of Bilzerian to their lineup of ambassadors.
Does this then speak to the notion that the influence and presence of female players has decreased in the game of poker? I think it does in that there has been a great dilution of known talent in the game over the years as we have moved past the peak of the boom and the game has shifted more online. In the beginning years of the popularity of the game there were players that even almost every casual player could recognize; Helmuth, Ivey, Negreanu and the like. This effect bore the same results for female players as well in the names I listed above. But many of these figures have long since gone, along with the female players, and what remains is a sea of unrecognizable names. As poker is broadcast less on television and reaches less eyes, both male and female, such has had a detrimental affect on the growth of the female playing base and with other recent events such as covid the situation has only grown worse. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact of where poker is still growing as a game around the world. For example I live in a third world Asian country in which the game of poker is still growing in popularity. But the game and industry is almost completely dominated by males and females from staff to players themselves are often still referred to by derogatory terms such as "honey."
Given all this what relief, if any, are female players to find in an environment that is growing increasingly hostile. Some may think that things will take their natural course and if the presence of women continue to drop then so be it. And while that may very well happen, I personally feel that would be a shame. We are currently existing in a game that is in dire need of new players and fresh blood and a boom among the female playing population would greatly help. There was great interest in the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2012 when both Gaelle Baumann and Elisabeth Hille finished 10th and 11th respectively. Any new infusion of players would greatly help the game grow at this moment and an injection of female players would accomplish such just the same. Does the future of this game hinge on a female player winning the main event? It most likely does not but I can certainly see it helping as such an event would result in increased media coverage that the game desperately needs. But their run was nearly a decade ago and as I mentioned less female eyes are on the game than ever before.
It seems both illogical and unproductive that female players would find fault with a game is completely male dominated, than turn to that very industry for help and relief. In the end it would seem that female players would need to depend on themselves to raise their own profile both in the game and industry of poker. But such presents a difficult situation and decision for women in general as it pertains to the gender as a whole and not just poker. Male players are created naturally from nearly every walk of life as there is no concerted effort on the part of our gender to reach out to young men and "make" new players. But this is exactly what women would have to do to encourage the young people of their gender to enter the field as both players and industry professionals from a young age. As poker is a difficult game in both aspects of playing and management, this would mean tapping the best and brightest of their gender to enter such roles. But do females in general really want to recruit those who might otherwise become doctors, lawyers, politicians or even better to instead become poker players? But then again rarely are answers in these types of situations gained by concerted efforts and coordinated strategies. Instead they are the result of cosmic accidents in which all the stars align in the perfect way in order for something great to occur. After all, the poker boom was not created or manufactured but rather happened because a man with the perfect name won the main event on a $40 satellite.
I previously wrote of how poker is growing here in Cambodia and how women are often treated here. I would be a complete hypocrite if I did not mention at this point that I often partake in such activities and behavior. I often refer to females in this country, both on and off the felt, by such terms and use the notion of female sexuality in the marketing of my own online poker agency. Once again the latter is a "business" decision and is employed due to the fact that it has proven to work in attracting the group that most dominate this game, namely male players. I do often worry about offending female players and perhaps losing out on that opportunity, but obviously I have concluded that I have more to gain than lose by employing such tactics. In the end this game is completely driven by money and profit and it is the humble opinion of this writer that women would gain more by approaching this issue in a similar manner instead of couching it in moralistic terms. In the end they must basically force the industry's hand by making their cause more profitable and appealing to them financially instead of grounds that are based on what is right and ethical.
Rounders is an iconic film for all poker players and besides the ending scene, perhaps the most memorable lines come from the opening monologue of the main character. As the movie opens Mike McDermott, masterfully played by Matt Damon, gives us a brief introduction into the world of underground poker clubs in New York. In it he calls no limit holdem the Cadillac of poker and that the swings are so wild that even the pros can't handle it. He goes on to quote Doyle Brunson who called it the only pure game left. This was of course set in a world before the poker boom, when poker was just starting to become popular with the masses. One could catch broadcasts of the World Series of Poker on television but there were not any hole card cams as of yet and the prize at the main event was still $1 million. Nothing to scoff at of course but the number pales in comparison to what the purse would become over the years after Chris Moneymaker's historic win in 2003. I was a no limit holdem player for 15 years and I cannot help but to think of this scene nearly every single time I log in to play poker online. And the reason for this is not because I still play holdem and the words are echoed in the sessions that I play, but rather for the exact opposite reason. I have not played holdem in 2+ years, having chosen PLO6 as my main game. And as I play what I consider to be the craziest game in poker, I cannot help but think that the nature of holdem has changed forever and that 6-card is now the true Cadillac of poker
I remember playing a session about a year ago in a $0.30-$0.60 PLO6 game in which I had 4 tables open and played for about 8 hours. I would go on to lose $1,500 that day, an astonishing feat I thought at the time. I am not sure what I was thinking right after the session as both my mind at the time and my memory are very hazy. But what I do remember is that I did not want to give up and figured that if I was already down this much, I did not have much more to lose and should just keep going. So I went downstairs on the very next day to the pub that resided beneath my apartment building and did the exact same as the previous day; opened up 4 tables of $0.30-$0.60 PLO6 and grinded for 8 hours. I went on to win $1,800 that day netting a profit over 2 days of +$300. It was not a bad result over 2 days considering the stakes I was playing. The decision to keep playing after my horrendous day was perhaps one of the best in my life and maybe I would not be where I am today had I thought otherwise. I remember something an omaha player told me several years earlier, namely that I would never make a good player in this game because I had no "gamble." While he did not intend to use that word literally as poker is a game of math and probabilities, his point nonetheless resonated with me many years later. There is no great reward without great risk in poker and nothing exemplifies that more than omaha games. Whenever holdem players tell me stories of bad beats, down swings and how bad they have been running I always tell them this story.
The swings are so wild in PLO6 that even omaha pros cannot handle it, let alone holdem grinders. The day that I described is an extreme example of course and that does not occur every day. But the types of players that make up the ecology of this particular game allow for such crazy action. On most nights every table I am sitting on will have at least 2 players with a VP$IP of 60% or higher. One simply cannot find this sort of action in a holdem game. And the reason these types of players love to sit in these games is precisely what we just spoke of, namely gamble. Those who lose and can afford to do so love to gamble and they are going to play in a game that affords them that opportunity. All such notions have now left holdem as players hardly ever get it in without a iron clad lockdown on the hand. I always say jokingly, although it is not too far from the truth, that in holdem every big pot is a cooler. No one is getting it in unless it's flush over flush, aces vs kings or full house beaten by a higher full house. Conversely in omaha players are forced to get their money in when often times the outcome is still very much uncertain. Flopped top set of aces? Well that hardly matters to the guy holding a full wrap with a flush draw and a backdoor in his hand that crushes yours. So gamblers are not entirely wrong to prefer this game as the equities run so much closer that they feel like that they have a fighting chance. Of course they will still lose in the long term, but they will stick around much longer to find that out than they would in a holdem game. Players cannot continue to expect losing players to join them in a game where they stand virtually no chance of winning. At some point we do have to meet them half way and give up some equity in order to enjoy their continuing presence on the felt.
As an agent of online poker apps, I am not trying to completely dump on the game of no limit holdem. I still have several clubs with good games that I can recommend to players with a clear conscious. But I will admit that is getting harder to do and I can see a day when it might be near impossible to find great games in holdem as we have been accustomed to up to this point. And it is becoming apparent that players are noticing this trend as well as I have observed a migration of sorts in this past year. More grinders are having a tougher time maintaining their win rates in holdem and are seeking out greener pastures in omaha games. Even recreational players are curious as they seek out games that are more entertaining than their current holdem tables. Among those in my agency, omaha players have always received the most rakeback. But for the first time ever clubs as a whole that focus more on omaha games are generating more rake than holdem clubs. And while some may think that regulars seeking out this game may cause them to get worse, there is a learning curve involved as converts from holdem rarely jump right in and start crushing. And as mentioned previously, more and more recreational players are seeking this game out as well.
There are signs of this shift in the media as well in this time of the corona pandemic. As more of us stay inside the consumption of poker media has shifted towards online platforms and one of the more popular events this past year was the Galfond challenge in which the Blue Fire founder took on all comers in this PLO challenge. I anticipate that more streamers on platforms such as Twitch will become increasingly popular this year and that we will begin to see even those that stream omaha sessions. I have personally attempted to grow a Twitch channel in this past year during which I play PLO6. While the stream has been inconsistent due to my commitments to family and the online agency, watching any particular episode bares out the fact that it does not take long for action to take place in these games. It has been entertaining for me to do and hopefully for others to watch, and I would encourage other players of such games to join in a similar effort as I am willing to believe that viewers might enjoy watching players lose or win 3,000 big blinds!
Although I personally play PLO6, what I am writing about can really apply to any omaha game or any game that is not holdem. Players should want to be wherever fish are and if a losing player wants to punt in a game that others are not familiar with then they should learn fast. Don't forget that even Mike in the aforementioned movie Rounders played Seven Card Stud. I once sat in a holdem game in which the fish on the table all wanted to play omaha. But most of the holdem players refused and basically chased all the fish away after 15 minutes as they were bored out of their minds. Theoretically it is true that these holdem players would have a bigger edge over these fish had the game remained the same. But such an edge is meaningless if the players all leave and there is no one to play against. In this particular room that I was playing in, there was a both a $2-$5 omaha game and a smaller holdem game. And whereas there was very little action in the holdem game and everyone was very quiet, the omaha game would be filled daily with players who were screaming at the top of their lungs as thousands of dollars passed from one player to the next every few minutes. It boggled my mind at the time that the players on the holdem game never thought to themselves that this is a game they should pick up. If they cannot have the biggest edge possible, they rather have no edge at all. I certainly hope that such thinking does not spread, especially to those who are reading this article.
A little under three years ago I returned to Phnom Penh after an unsuccessful stint running a poker room in a Cambodian beach town called Sihanoukville. There was a mass migration of Chinese who had moved into the city that created an uptick in the poker industry but the situation was very new, unstable and volatile. Our room lasted only six months, which was actually longer than most of the games that had also started in town around this time. In either case I returned to the capital city without much prospects towards working in another live room and was at a bit of a crossroads in my life. Managing rooms had basically replaced having to play for a living but now I was faced with having to play again. But the truth of the matter during this time was that I no longer enjoyed the same level of success in poker as I had previously. While it was a painful truth, I had to admit to myself that I could no longer beat no limit hold’em which had been my main game up to this point. So I had a decision to make to either leave the game completely and do something different or to make changes in my game to get better in my current game or to play a different one altogether. Regarding the first option I had played poker for nearly 15 years at this point and had a near two decade black hole in my resume. The prospects for starting a new career were not great. I also concluded that I was just too far behind in hold’em to catch up to any sort of meaningful level. So I essentially decided to start all over, but within the game of poker, and play an entirely new game in pot limit omaha. I realized that such an endeavor would take a great amount of time and that I would not be making any money for a while, but I truly do love this game and it was something that I was not ready to leave yet.
I lived and played poker in Las Vegas from 2006 to 2011, a tenure that ended with me going broke. When I returned to Los Angeles my game was stagnant, a state that would continue for the next few years. I never moved neither forward nor backward in my game as I admit now that I had not mentally recovered from going broke. The game was changing rapidly as heads up displays (HUDs) and other software were near ubiquitous by this point and while I did put in significant volume, I did very little to keep up to date on the latest trends of the game. This continued into my time in Cambodia when I arrived in 2014 as I did play often but spent little time studying. By this time there were more resources available than ever before with books, online articles and the beginnings of the online academies and training sites we see so much of today. Fortunately for myself my life would soon change as I would come to jump to the management side of things in poker and playing became less important. When I did play it was to help start games or keep games alive and my results took a backseat to the health of the poker room that I was managing. But I was still able to notice a trend in the game that was unmistakable, mainly that it became increasingly difficult to have fun while playing. As we moved further away from the poker boom and the game was maturing, it was undeniable that a fewer number of people were winning most of the money and that more players were either losing or at best breaking even. Never was this more apparent than when I was working to keep a room alive in Sihanoukville as most of the managers and I had to play in the game for many hours every day in order to keep it going. There were days and nights in which the three of us would have to play over ten hours each. It might have been bearable but the experience and environment of the game was growing more miserable by the day. And with trends in the live game to constantly raise the rake burden, most of the players were taking quite a beating every day. For all of the action that the Chinese were providing, the circumstances of the games would create very few winners and those that would emerge and remain successfully in the game when the entire experience was over. When I returned to Phnom Penh, the last thing that I wanted to do was play hold’em and I did not want to see two cards thrown at me by a dealer for quite some time.
It was more apparent than ever before that I was no longer beating this game, but more importantly I did not wish to try and learn to get better. If I was going to continue and progress in the game of poker it was to be something that would keep my interest and retain what was originally a deep love for the game. When the poker room closed in Sihanoukville I took my wife for a quick holiday in the quiet Cambodian city of Kampot. There I had a chance to clear my mind and thus made the decision to change my game to pot limit omaha. This was a game that I had some experience with, but nothing that I would consider extensive. I did briefly think of switching to even more exotic mix games but I concluded that such were not popular enough for me to put in the amount of volume that I would need to begin anew. I did not have much of a bankroll at this time so I would have to start at the micro level. I remember posting about this in the 2+2 online poker forum and someone replying that there was no way that I would make a living playing so small. This I already knew and such was not my intent as it was rather to learn the game to the point that I could play higher and earn significant money. At this time I had a small online poker agency that was somewhat keeping me afloat, but my financial situation was not great. I reached out to a few friends to borrow money to help me on my journey and I was grateful that they were able to oblige. I realize that as poker players we often talk about never lending other players money, but my friends were all confident that I would do everything in my power to pay them back. I still had some money saved and with what my friends were able to lend me along with the small amount I was making with the online agency I was able to provide for my family and to try and learn this new game. Every day I would wake up and then head over to my friend’s apartment who was also playing omaha and trying to progress in the game. We played in the same online club but played different stakes so we would spend hours in his apartment each day, both grinding away on our respective laptops.
While I had hoped in the back of my mind that I would win right away, it became apparent very quickly that would not be the case. I struggled greatly during this time but I would soon get two welcomed distractions shortly that would help me financially in the short term. The first distraction came in the form of a small $0.25-$0.50 no limit hold’em game that a couple of my friends were running in the aforementioned quiet city of Kampot. I was asked to come down to the city to help them run and play in the game, an opportunity that I am very grateful for to this day. It was a game that I could afford and beat and the additional salary that I received for my assistance was exactly what the doctor ordered to help me push through a difficult period in my life. So I was playing no limit hold’em again, albeit in a very recreational game with a soft field. I was able to beat the game for about $600 per month and with an additional $800 that I was getting paid monthly, it was enough to maintain a life in a very inexpensive city and to have some left over for my family. I even moved the entire family down there after a couple of months and we ended up staying for what was a very enjoyable few months.
I say only a few months because like a lot of live games in this country this one did not have a long shelf life. But then a second distraction would come in the form of a new poker room opening up in the city of Sihanoukville. Some people were set to open a lavish room with eleven tables and they needed someone to market the room to the poker players in the country. I had done extensive marketing through social media of the rooms I had worked in and they were impressed with my efforts. They asked if I could move back to the city and not only help with their marketing but also to serve as a house player with an hourly salary. My confidence was higher in no limit hold’em after my stint in Kampot and while this was a higher game at $2-$5, it would be another soft field with mostly recreational Chinese players. I absolutely crushed in this game and was the second most successful among the stable of house players.
I was able to set some more aside and even send some back each week to the family who had stayed behind in Kampot. But once again the situation in Sihanoukville did not last long, the parameters of the deal changed and I decided to leave and head back to Phnom Penh with the family as the game in Kampot was over as well. With what had happened to both rooms I was more convinced than ever before that live poker would not be the appropriate route and I was more convinced to resume my PLO journey online.
One thing did change though once I returned to Phnom Penh, namely that I was not as sure about PLO4. There were other no limit hold’em players that were converting over, the games were a bit more reg filled than I originally thought and more of the action seemed to be on PLO5 games. So I made the decision to switch again to a similar game, but with one more card that would make a world of difference. I was surprised to see good results immediately in PLO5 as something with the extra card seemed to agree with me. I was able to maintain a certain level of success and I even received a staking offer from someone who was monitoring my progress as I was posting about it on social media quite often. I initially did well on the stake and was able to move up in blinds a couple of times. But then the app I was playing on made the decision to open up PLO6 tables and much of the action on PLO5 dried up as many of the whales and fish preferred a game with even more cards. I was forced to switch games once again, this time during the stake and my results this time around were quite erratic. There were weeks I did well and others during which I did quite poorly. It all culminated on one weekend when I lost a considerable number of buy-ins. My benefactor offered to continue the stake as he was confident I would bounce back. But I thought to myself that it might take some time to get comfortable in the game and decided that it was more appropriate to return to playing on my own money. Certainly continuing the stake would have provided me with a safety net, but I felt that it was a bit disingenuous towards my staker. Two things would happen at this point that would really help me survive and push through. The first was that my best friend Thomas agreed to a $6K loan to help me grow the online agency and also to provide monetary support while I tried to progress in PLO6. The second event was that a new poker app was introduced in the form of PokerBros, one that would prove to be very popular with players and help grow my agency immensely. Here is where I would love to say that I crushed PLO6 from the beginning and it was solely due to my play that I was able to rise up from the ashes. But seldom do any player’s story go this way and in truth most of us need some help along the way. For myself it came in the form of the growth of my online agency and I cannot emphasize enough at this point how important a source of actual income was to this process. With growth in the agency and a level of security that I had not enjoyed in a while, I was able to learn the game at a reasonable pace and play with more confidence without a worry of risk of ruin with every big pot. The new financial stability in my life did wonders for my game and it showed in my results. The better my results the more I would play and my bankroll was the beneficiary. As I was playing in a club I was agenting for I was able to give myself a generous rakeback and the fact that I was playing in a low rake club to begin with did not hurt either.
That was about one year ago from the time of this writing and I currently play $100 and $200 PLO6 and sometimes I take shots at $400. I have paid everyone back, save one person, who I just made arrangements with today on a payment schedule to begin next month. I was even able to pay back the $6K loan my best friend gave me, something that he admits that he never expected to see again. I am not sure that I would recommend to others the route that I chose, but I can say through all this that perseverance does pay off with enough dedication. I have worked harder in these past two years than I ever have and it has easily been the most difficult period of my life. I often forget that all of this happened while my family was growing in number and my first child was being introduced into this world. If nothing else perhaps my story can serve as inspiration and as a model for other players who might be struggling in their own poker journey or more specifically having a difficult time with no limit hold’em. Some decisions I made were rightly questioned, it was certainly a struggle and I definitely got lucky in more than a few instances. But then again I do not believe in such a thing as luck as it is really just a byproduct of hard work.
News broke a couple of days ago that the GG Poker Network had decided to bring on the notorious Dan Bilzerian as their new ambassador for online poker. Those of you who are active on social media should be no stranger to Bilzerian whose antics with women, degeneracy and firearms has made him a polarizing figure in today's pop culture.; there is no middle ground as most either love him or hate him. And this is largely what GG is counting on as on one side he is massively popular with their core male audience who idolize his lavish lifestyle filled with beautiful women. But the decision has thus proven to be massively unpopular with female players and women in general. And while GG is betting on the notion that those who approve of this decision far outweigh the detractors, this may yet prove to be another short term gain that may have more negative effects on the game of poker in the long run.
Allow me to begin by stating that I do not oppose this decision by GG. As a conservative and a capitalist I do not consider corporate entities the same as individuals and thus do not expectations that they behave "morally" as long as they act within the bounds of the law. In the end they should be able to make whatever decision they choose that will help their bottom line. And that it definitely will as there can be no doubt that sex sells as proven by the massive popularity of Bilzerian on social media. I would have to be a hypocrite to oppose this move as I have employed a similar marketing tactic in the past and still do to this present day to a certain extent. I live in an area where the sexual aspect of the nightlife is a huge attraction among male players and I have used it to its full capacity to bring many to the country and also push forward my own brand. But unlike an online network, my audience was limited and confined to a physical locale for the majority of my time here in Southeast Asia. The number of male visitors to the Kingdom far outweigh that of females and this is even more the case when considering poker players. I was looking at one audience only and knew that the minority I might offend was far outnumbered by those who might be attracted to what I had to sell.
I am certain that GG has had similar considerations when coming to their decision to hire Bilzerian. There is no doubt that the majority of their clientele is male and that most of them would not be offended by such a decision. And even if a considerable number of males were to disagree with it, forming a bigger faction with women who most certainly would be offended, they have most likely concluded that not enough of them would leave due to their current offerings in terms of the World Series of Poker. It can be best summed up perhaps by the movie Fight Club in which Edward Norton's character explains how a decision is made to recall certain cars after a major malfunction:
If this is in fact their reasoning, it is one I happen to agree with. Knowing many poker players myself, this decision will prove to be a popular one with a largely male playing audience. And in the worst case scenario most will prove to be indifferent meaning that they do not stand to lose what is the core of their paying clientele. Once again I reiterate that I do not think morality should play a role in this decision as their responsibility is to their shareholders and to grow their bottom line. If it is GG's belief that this decision will move their company towards this end, they should be left alone to do so. And I think that those who oppose this decision have to realize that victory does not only come in the form of forcing GG to reverse their decision. Many female players, and those amongst the male playing population that support them, have flocked to social media and have filled the pages of Twitter and the like to voice their displeasure of this hiring. If enough momentum is developed on this side, it may very well lead to a competing platform to hire their own ambassador, one that does not offend the audience in question but rather courts them. In a free society and market the end goal should not be to force any entity into a decision, but rather to have the ability to freely voice opposition and to develop choices and options for who we can do business with.
GG has an audience that is wide, varied and certainly exists on a global level. And while they have to concern themselves with potentially offending any segment of that audience with every decision, it seems that they have still concluded that Bilzerian's hiring will prove to be a positive decision for their interests moving forward. In the end those who try and force corporations to behave morally will find such to be a futile endeavor. Individuals must ultimately also consider their own bottom line and decide whether to abstain from a certain business on moral grounds. For those who play the game recreationally and for fun, there is less of a bottom line to consider and it may be easier to stand on a higher plain. But for those who play the game for income, choices of where one can make money are becoming less in number and thus the choice becomes more difficult. And one's location may also come into play as not every platform is available in all areas. I once made a public decision to no longer play in a certain Vegas poker room due to their treatment of their staff. But my decision was easy in that I had over 50 other rooms to choose from on a daily basis. But if one lives in an area without physical card rooms or in a country where only one or a few sites are available, I think it would be unfair to criticize those who may struggle with any decision to abstain over moral grounds. In fact it is very difficult to discern what exactly is "moral" in that issues are rarely so clear cut nor are they black and white. It may be easy for us from Western and developed countries to consider options such as being able to abstain from certain businesses and corporations. But for those in areas or life situations where such choices are not afforded to them the issue is much more grey. If any one group wishes to exert their own sense of what is right and wrong over others, it may rob some of any choice altogether and end up stifling the very persons that such a group sought to foster and nurture in the first place.
Speaking from a personal standpoint I do hope that the female segment of the playing population does grow as the game of poker moves forward. For the most part my experiences with female players has been positive, both on and off the felt. I recently had the privilege of serving as co-host for a podcast that is hosted by two women and I came away from the experience thinking how different the interaction was from my normal ones with male players. I have met many great friends on the poker table over the years, but generally speaking spending 8-10 hours on a poker table with 8-9 other players is not an experience I would wish on my own worst enemy. In an era of the game in which its popularity is declining and there is less of an influx of new players, I often feel as if we are being left with the worst of what remains. I do not mean to generalize towards either sex, but the standard douchey behavior I experience on most live tables appear to be absent when playing with a female crowd. I am sure that women are just as capable of acting like jerks on the felt, but perhaps the absence of this behavior has much to do with the fact that the game is not as popular with this segment and that they are not as familiar with such antics. But no matter the reason, if there is a new segment of the population that has a desire to play they should certainly be encouraged to do so as the game badly needs and injection of new life. The current player base should go out of their way to help foster growth in this segment, not because they are women, but rather simply because they are new.
The decision to hire Dan Bilzerian is a bit of a gamble for the GG Network. Imagine if you will a woman winning this year's Main Event of the WSOP online, which at least in part is being held on GG's platform. The decision to use Bilzerian as an ambassador at that point might look very foolish and at the least very awkward. And even if that does not prove to be the case, their decision still seems very short sighted. A woman winning the Main Event would go a long way towards propelling the game into the future and perhaps even starting a second boom, having an impact similar to the Moneymaker effect of 2003. Back in 2009 when both Elizabeth Hille and Gaelle Bauman made deep runs in the Main Event, I thought to myself how great it would be for the game should one of them win. I understand the reasoning of what GG did, thinking that a player known to surround himself with beautiful young women and plays poker would do much to promote the game. And while this decision may not result in enough of the current player base leaving GG, it may serve to alienate future players in the female playing population should that segment continue to grow in numbers. A woman winning and succeeding in the game would stand to attract not only future female players but would also go a long way towards growing the male population of players as well.
I once presided over a $2-$5 NLH game as manager of a poker room here in Phnom Penh when an unexpected whale from Thailand arrived. It was clear from the beginning that the gentleman just wanted to have a good time and that the money was not that important to him. So unimportant that he also put his girlfriend in to the game, who had even less experience than he did. The fun began at about 9:00 PM and over the course of the next 8 hours the whale and his girl dumped thousands of dollars to nearly every other player on the table. At about 5:00 AM he asked for two racks and began to rack up his chips in order to cash out. At this point nearly every other player on the table asked for a rack and also began to leave. Upon seeing this the whale exclaimed, "Oh I see how it is! The fish leaves and no one else wants to play." The players could not have made it more obvious what they were doing and a fish may be a fish, but he was not an idiot. I recently ran into this player a few months ago, back in the same poker room although I was no longer the manager. I told him that it was great to see him after so many years and to this he replied that he had been back in Cambodia several times, but that he just did not play in this room due to the incident I mentioned above. The point of me telling this story is to drive home the notion that poker players are often their own worst enemy. I can understand wanting to leave in an online setting or even in a casino where traffic is plentiful. But in a local's room full of regs, players such as this are hard to come by and everyone should have known to behave in manner that would have encouraged him to come back. The fact is he had three more days on his stay in Cambodia, but none of those were spent in this poker room.
The truth of the matter is poker is a dying game in terms of popularity. We have long passed its zenith and signs of decline are everywhere. In such a climate the question remains, who's responsibility is it to grow and cultivate the popularity of the game. The most obvious conclusion is perhaps to say that such a responsibility falls on the operators of the room. In most cases where poker is played we have to then discuss the role casinos play in the promotion of the game. But as many already know, casinos could care less about poker as it generates the least amount of revenue while housing the most number of staff and incurring the largest payroll of any department. I knew many poker room managers during my time in Las Vegas and one chief complaint that most of them had was how little support they received from the casino at large, especially when it came to money. Very little is spent by a casino towards the poker room in terms of marketing space both inside and outside the casino. Drive down the Vegas strip and you will see 50 advertisements for buffets and has-been 80's musical acts before you ever see a sign promoting poker. The best managers will do it on their own, creating mailing and contact lists, making sure that no player leaves the room without liking their Facebook page or by just posting on online forums to promote their room. But they often do this on their own time, with no extra pay and as mentioned previously without any support from the casino. The situation is even worse for a private card room as they do not even have a larger entity such as a casino to ignore them.
So how did this game get so popular in the first place? The poker boom started because of a perfect storm of events that will probably never be repeated. But once Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event of the World Series, online poker swooped in to provide the mechanism by which the game would grow. In a largely unregulated environment, literally hundreds of online poker sites provided for players easy access to real money cash games and tournaments. Players started to sign up and send in deposits in droves and this led to television networks picking up on the growing popularity of the game and making broadcasts of special events near ubiquitous on many stations. From airings of WSOP events to WPT tournaments and the Hollywood Home Game to Celebrity Poker Showdown, the game was everywhere. But this all came to a grinding halt once online poker was made illegal in the United States and domain names of popular sites such as Poker Stars and Full Tilt were seized by the FBI on that fateful day that we now know as Black Friday. Many speculate, and still do, that the casino lobby was largely behind this policy shift as they wanted a larger piece of the online market to eventually monopolize it for themselves. But I think something gets lost in this line of thinking, namely that the casinos would be completely fine if poker were to disappear altogether. There are other forms of online gambling that will prove to be more profitable and the waning popularity of the game would mean that they would not have to maintain a physical presence in their casinos.
Why am I discussing all of these things and presenting such a bleak picture? The purpose of this article is to point out the painful fact that the promotion of the game relies solely on the players. And this truth is painful because if one observes the landscape of the game today, it is filled with players who seem hell bent on destroying it rather than furthering its cause. From behavior such as the one I cited in the opening paragraph of this article to general douchey behavior on the table, players do everything and anything to repel the very players that should be encouraged to stay in the game. I have lost count of how many times a fish's play has been questioned or berated during a game, often causing said player to leave the table altogether. That is of course the worst case scenario, but even in the best case players often remain completely quiet while playing without engaging other players in the slightest. If one were to speak to a recreational poker player, it would be easy to realize just how badly they want to be good players themselves and how in turn they admire those who can win in this game. They speak about and discuss their favorite players, like one might of their favorite movie star or athlete. And just like athletes who may win over a fan for life by signing an autograph, so can poker players promote their game by engaging with their audience. But unfortunately many players often spend more time mocking such people and making fun of other players to leave any time to grow the game.
Let us consider those who have won the Main Event of the WSOP shortly after Chris Moneymaker's win in 2003:
• Greg Raymer (2004)
• Joe Hachem (2005)
• Jamie Gold (2006)
• Jerry Yang (2007)
Nearly every one of these names have been much aligned over the years when the truth is that they have done more for the promotion of poker than they are given credit for. Now consider the list of those who have won the ME since:
• Peter Eastgate (2008)
• Joe Cada (2009)
• Jonathan Duhamel (2010)
• Pius Heinz (2011)
• Greg Merson (2012)
• Ryan Riess (2013)
• Martin Jacbson (2014)
• Joe McKeehen (2015)
• Qui Nguyen (2016)
• Scott Blumstein (2017)
• John Cynn (2018)
• Hossein Ensan (2019)
Ask any poker player who won the ME of the WSOP in the first few years of the boom and most would recognize everyone on my first list. But ask the same question of those who won after 2007 and most would struggle to name half the list. There is a reason for this as whether by accident or design, these players represented the "every man" and they were true ambassadors of the game, either in fame or infamy. I actually met Jamie Gold on a few occasions as we were seated together on the same table during the L.A. Poker Classic at the Commerce back in 2010. I also played with him several times while he was ambassador for the poker room in the Tropicana casino the very next year. I have seldom met anyone friendlier on a poker table. And more importantly, he answered every question that players had for him even though he was trying to play in the event and not every comment nor question was all that friendly. But he did not shy from any of it and took the time to say hello, sign autographs and take a picture with anyone who asked. Every time a winning player stacks a fish on a table who has no idea what they are doing, they probably have one of the names on my first list to thank.
As poker has become a spectator sport to a large extent, I am encouraged by the new mediums in which the game is broadcast and promoted. As airing of poker on traditional television networks slows down, there seems to be an increase in alternative mediums such as YouTube and Twitch. This is important in that such sites trend towards a younger audience as many youths today do not even own a television set, but rather get all their media content online. I think it imperative going forward that more players make themselves available to the public in this manner, from broadcasting a vlog or playing an entire session live online. While I understand that many players desire privacy and do not wish to broadcast their life nor strategies for the viewing public, such is a tradeoff in the effort to keep the game not only alive, but to keep it growing. Social media personalities such as Doug Polk and Joey Ingram do much to promote this game in a fun manner and they should be lauded for their efforts. But there are countless others, while not as popular, but with thousands of followers themselves who deserve to be emulated and admired. I have a friend who recently started a Twitch stream along with a YouTube channel and how he is doing it should be considered textbook on how to promote the game of poker:
Engage your audience through honesty and storytelling, an often lost artform for those who stream on such formats; be an authority but don't speak down to your audience; offer players a desired lifestyle and provide for them a roadmap by which they can obtain it for themselves. This will especially be important as we move forward in a post-covid era, one in which the game has undergone drastic changes. Tournaments are being cancelled all over the world, Macau has shut its doors and even the venerable Las Vegas is down to just 29 poker rooms. Poker will be more difficult to find for the average person than ever before and we need a new generation of creative thinkers to reach out to the masses in order to engage a new audience and keep the game growing.
I once saw a poker documentary called "Bet, Raise, Fold" which chronicled the history of the poker boom and the rise in prominence of online poker. While most lauded the efforts of those who made this film, I came away from it with a different feeling. I thought to myself that if I were a novice player, I would never want to play poker again after watching this movie. The film came off as intimidating, talking about the technical aspects of the game and the use of software such as HUDS. Listening to the players in the film talk about their strategies, how they play 16 tables at once and crush their opponents, the entire thing sounded like a not so humble brag rather than a roadmap for how others could achieve their level of success. If my friend's new Twitch and YouTube channels is textbook in how to promote the game, what this film conveyed was exactly the opposite. But most of the figures I have discussed in this article are now long since gone and the game is ready for a new crop of players to take over the game and help propel it towards the future. Many can learn from the mistakes of the recent past in order to present this game to a new, younger and eager audience in a manner that enhances the ecology of the game of poker.
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I had written previously that it seemed as if everyone you speak to these days in a poker room is a pro. But seeing as how that is statistically impossible, I thought it may be cogent to discuss what it actually takes to be a professional in this game. The obvious disclaimer is that I myself am not a pro. But I still put in a significant amount of volume each year, have a positive win rate and have discussed this issue with a myriad of others who do play for a living. And I fully admit that I do not do everything that I am about to list off here in this article. But the best advice often comes from those who do not follow it themselves and perhaps this is one of those situations. I have played this game for 17 years, many of them for a living, and I have seen just about everything one can see in this game. Becoming a professional is not something I advise anyone to try normally, but let us forge ahead since this topic seems to be the obsession of even the most recreational of poker players.
ABSOLUTELY NO BOOKING WINS!
If it is one thing I hate hearing is when players tell me they only played a short session in order to "book a win." I would go on to define what this phrase means but I am still not exactly sure myself. You often hear this term from live players and this is the one area in which they are completely different from online players. In the mind of the online player there is no such thing as today, tomorrow, this week, month or year. This is just one long game that goes on seemingly forever until the day we die or go broke. For live players it seems to be all about this day, this session or this hand. The thought of losing even one big hand repulses them to the core, even if the truth is that they played it correctly. Just ask a live player to tell you a story about any time his aces got cracked and you will know exactly what I mean. Any online player who multi-tables has aces cracked multiple times in a session and for us it is no big deal because it is simply supposed to happen. There is no such thing as a hand that has 100% equity preflop and that includes aces. If you are a losing player and book a win, all that means is that you are delaying your losing by one day. If you are a winning player and heaven forbid you book a win, all you are doing is missing out on a chance to win more that day and delaying such winnings for one day. If you win you play and if you lose you play. The whole point of beginning an endeavor to play poker for a living is to find out if you can actually do it, to know whether or not if you are truly a winning player. And if you are one of the lucky few who knows that you are a winning player you should take every possible opportunity to play and continue on in games where you have an edge.
BUM HUNT UNTIL EVERYONE HATES YOU
There is so much hatred centered around this word and I have never understood it. If you are reading this article and are considering becoming a poker pro but do not know this term, perhaps you should reconsider. Bum hunting is the practice of following terrible players and only playing in tables they are on for the purposes of winning their money. It mostly applies to heads up matches online in which those who practice this refuse to play anyone not weaker than then they are but I think it could easily apply to those who play in regular 6-max games as well. The entire purpose of this game for those who endeavor to play it professionally is to win money and to win as much of it as possible in the shortest amount of time. The notion that one should play stronger opponents as a regular practice sounds rather ridiculous when said aloud, but there remains an immense amount of vitriol surrounding this practice. Much of it has to do with some sense of machismo I suppose, a belief in the idea that you are only the best if you beat the best. I could care less about being the best player in poker and while there is a certain amount of arrogance and confidence needed to play this game, the end goal simply remains to win as much money as easily as one can. Poker is a predatory game and concepts that include the word "hunt" or "hunting" should be entirely appropriate towards how one approaches this game. If we consider the world of actual predators in the wild, a pack of lions after killing their prey will not then turn on one another. They will simply wait for the next opportunity to hunt another weaker prey. In much the same way the notion that good players on a table should battle it out against one another after a mark has left seems ill advised at best.
This is a word often used when discussing this game, but one that is hardly practiced. People underestimate just how much discipline is needed to play this game, especially for a living. If you are reading this article and are the type of person who already has their life in order and practices a great amount of discipline in areas of life, health and love then playing poker for a living is probably the furthest thing from your mind. The truth is one has to be at least a little "off" in order to consider doing this for a living. Those attracted to this notion are usually those that are more attracted to the lifestyle more than anything else; the late nights, the money, baller lifestyle, hookers and blow and all that. And in truth those elements do and should exist in the poker lifestyle to a certain extent. After all, what is the point of doing this for a living if you cannot enjoy it like a true baller. But all of that should come after your session and only up to a point that it does not bleed into your session the following day. However f'ed up your life is for the majority of the time, everything better come together in the right way for those 6-8 hours that you are seated in front of your computer to play because if it doesn't there are plenty that will gladly be on the other side of the table waiting to relieve you of your funds.
MAKE TOUGH CHOICES
This leads to my next point which is that sacrifices need to be made if one is to pursue poker as a profession. The truth of the matter is that poker takes up a lot of time, both in the amount of time actually seated on a table and also the devotion towards studying the game in order to constantly improve. I have already discussed limiting one's baller lifestyle and practicing a certain modicum of moderation in one's social life. But apart from having fun and enjoying one's "poker life", sometimes other realities and responsibilities of life may intrude upon one's ability to focus on poker. I would like nothing more than to spend every waking moment of my daughter's life playing with her and enjoying her company. But I also realize that in two years I will have to put her in a private school and that she requires food, milk and a suitable place to live. I try to confine my playing hours to ones in which both my wife and daughter are asleep. And if I have to play during hours they are awake I will tell my wife that I absolutely cannot be disturbed and will lock the door. If she cannot follow these guidelines, I will simply leave and play somewhere else on my tablet. In the end the actual responsible thing to do is to sacrifice time with loved ones in order to devote yourself to a game that can potentially pay for all the things that they need. Or perhaps the toughest choice of all is the decision to leave the game altogether if it cannot provide for those that are in your care. I cannot think of anything more irresponsible than continuing to play a game in which one constantly loses when they have mouths to feed at home.
THAT DREADED WORD "BANKROLL"
During my time in Las Vegas I had a bankroll of about $70,000 during my peak. I divided this in several ways:
• $3,000 per month living expenses * 6 months = $18,000
• $12,000 in online poker accounts
• $40,000 to play live $2-$5
Regarding the last point I usually bought in for $500 for the $2-$5 game at the Venetian, meaning that I had 80 buy-ins for that level. I will readily admit though that is the last time I practiced such bankroll management and in truth most players I know are exactly the same. But this sort of strict management is exactly what is required and perhaps this is the primary reason that I do not play for a living anymore. To play your best game, one needs absolute freedom from the worries of life in order to make every right decision during a session. If you cannot stick in that 4-bet because you have to pay rent the next week or cannot shove all-in with air against a player that you have proper fold equity against, then you should not be pursuing this game as a profession. This sort of idea also applies in-game as well as one should be mindful of what stakes they play against the amount of money they actually have. I realize it is more impressive to tell others that you play $2-$5 live or $2-$4 online, but to play above one's means is a recipe for disaster. Poker is a game of mistakes and I can guarantee that your game will be riddled with them if you play above your means. There are those that actually play for a living who will be waiting on the other side to capitalize on every single mistake you make. If you cannot make the correct decisions in a game due to money concerns, then the proper thing would be to step down in stakes or have another revenue stream until playing higher is more comfortable.
KNOW YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Studying the game of poker does not have to be confined to strategies. One should also be aware of where they are playing and the conditions of their environment; how much rake does the room charge, how much are they dropping for the bad beat jackpot, how much do I spend tipping dealers, etc. It is the popular thing to say that only nits care about such things or as I like to call them, winning players. To be mindful of all these things means that one needs choice and options on where to play. If you are playing live then you should be living in a city where there are a multitude of rooms and tables at every stake level. And if you are playing online then you should belong to a high traffic site or belong to several sites and/or clubs in order for you to table select. I have players in my online agency that have an account and money in each and every one of the 16 clubs I offer. Every day they simply open up each app, look for the softest games and then commence printing. There is no point to pursuing this if you are going to play the same 10-15 people every single day as even the most terrible of players get better over time. And if you are to play online be sure to get a good rakeback deal, but do not sacrifice the quality of the games just to get a slightly higher percentage. I cannot overstate the importance of rakeback when going through a bad down swing.
I am sure there is much more that can be said regarding this topic, especially concerning the actual play of the game. But for this article I only wanted to cover over arching principles and issues of mindset rather than strategy. I realize that I am knee deep in a sea of hypocrisy in discussing this topic as there are many points that I just wrote about that I do not follow myself. But then again that is why I made the choice to no longer to play for a living and gain other modes of making money. A better way to state it may be to say that the game made the choice for me. I am still in the field of the poker industry, but I no longer rely on having to win in order to survive. Having said all this, I will admit that I do miss solely playing poker for a living as there is no other better feeling in the world. I may sound as if I am overstating it a bit, but there is something to knowing that you can successfully do something that so few can. For those that come across this article, I wish you good fortune whichever road you may choose.
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An interesting thing happened recently in a live game here in Phnom Penh. A friend of mine walked into a game that was near full and took the only open seat. Upon sitting one of the players exclaimed that he did not want to play with another "professional" and cashed out. Other people did the same and over the next 30 minutes what was a full game was now finished. For the record my friend is a winning player and the assessment of the first exclaimer was correct. This was not an issue in the past as since the game of poker was more popular it was easier to maintain a balance between pros and recreational players. But with the waning popularity of the game and the shortage of new players, one can reasonably understand why some of those who play for fun may not want to play on a table with multiple players who are doing nothing else but looking to make money. This puts the poker room in an awkward spot as theoretically speaking they should be welcoming of all players who are willing to buy in with cash and follow the rules while playing. But they also face the prospect of losing those players that keep their game fun, friendly and more conducive for action. There are two solutions to this quandary that poker rooms, both live and online, have employed in recent years to varying degrees of success. In this article we will endeavor to examine both sides and try to reach a conclusion as to which one, if any, is the most viable solution going forward.
One solution and the one employed by many online poker sites recently is to simply ban those who win too much. This is exactly what the GG Network did in confiscating $130,000 from one Tobias Duthweiler. This player had previously been on this network before and had been banned for winning too much. Years later when he came back unknowingly through a different skin he ran up a profit of over $100K before the network noticed that it was the same player they had banned years back. They ultimately returned his initial deposit, confiscated his $130,000 in profit and dispersed it back to the players he had won it from. In their press release regarding this incident, GG cited Duthweiler's "bumhunting and predatory behavior" as the reasons for why he was banned and his funds taken. They further went onto state that he had only played on tables with the worst players, only giving action to said terrible players and would leave the table as soon as they stopped playing. Unfortunately such a practice is fairly commonplace in the online poker world and is not a recent phenomenon. The same model has been used by online sports betting sites to combat huge winners that use online computer modeling to give them an edge in placing wagers. Players on these sites are limited in how much they can bet, sometimes as low as $5 per wager, or they are banned altogether outright.
The other solution has seen its employment in the live poker scene as well as online sites. In this method rooms do not kick out nor ban winning players, but they rather adjust the rake and/or their rewards system in order to detract professionals who are more likely to play on low rake, high rakeback sites. There is no better example of this than what has occurred at Poker Stars and the changes they have made to their rake and VIP system over the last few years. Stars was at one point the friendliest site towards regular players who put in a high amount of volume. Their VIP system was well known in the industry as those who generated the most rake were dubbed "Super Nova Elite." I had a friend back in Las Vegas who had obtained such a status playing 20+ tables of $1-$2 NLH daily. When the calendar year was done and he had put in that much volume over the entire 12 months, he had amassed over $100K in bonuses alone. But seeing as how he had generated at least twice that amount in rake, it seemed like a mutually beneficial arrangement between both sides. But just as with other things being discussed in this article, all of this was during a time when poker was a much more popular game and there was no shortage of new players. But as this situation changed so did Poker Stars and a couple of years back Daniel Negreanu infamously stated in his defense of Stars' change in policy that higher rake was actually better for players. In his YouTube video Negreanu stated the logic of this action declaring that higher rake and a near non-existent VIP system would deter grinders from playing on the site and would make their games much softer. And while they did not outright ban winning players, their desired aim was the same namely to get these players off of their site.
Much of what we have discussed thus far lies in the world of online poker. That being the case it might be easy for some to conclude that the solution is to simply play live. But live rake is already worse than their online counterpart and is also trending upward. Outside of a few places such as Vegas where rake has remained largely static throughout the years, other parts of the world are employing systems of commission that seek to increase the amount taken in by the house. I have already discussed in past articles how in Asia the rake cap has steadily increased over the past 2-3 years. Factoring in the other costs of playing live, bad beat jackpot drops and the lack of rakeback live poker at many blind levels basically becomes unbeatable. Once again they are not banning players nor preventing anyone from joining their tables. But many live operators are now manipulating the rake in a manner that would deter any professional from playing and creating an ecology of those that play in a game they cannot possibly beat. Casinos and online operators are of course private entities and are free to run their businesses in any legal manner they see fit. But are these sites and rooms benefitting themselves in the long run or are they rather creating an environment in which the game cannot possibly survive in the long term?
Let us first tackle the issue of banning winning players. I think that sites overplayed their hand a bit on this issue with the recent worldwide corona pandemic. The truth of the matter is that online traffic soared during this time as players were forced to stay home and live venues remained closed. It was only natural that more would play online and this could have inflated the confidence of those that run these sites. It is easier to ban certain types of players in such an environment in which the player base is growing. But corona will not last forever and many live venues have already reopened with numbers once again taking a dip online. If the logic of banning winning players is that the operators would prefer an ecology of recreational players, the simple truth is that there just are not enough of the latter to justify such a strategy. Winning players are beneficial to online sites because they generate the bulk of the rake and because they can sustain themselves they continue to play. Losing players by nature are transitory and do not sustain the same consistency when playing online. In the end such players have to be constantly replenished in order to maintain the aforementioned balance between those that win and those that lose. But outside of a system in which a pandemic is forcing people to play online, these types of player are lacking in number in a manner that will not allow for such a replenishment.
For the same reason any manipulation of the rake in order to deter winning players will not work either. Any solution that seeks to eliminate or highly limit one important segment of the playing population will not work simply because there are not enough of the other segment. But beyond this there lies a fundamental and philosophical reason for why these solutions go against the very nature of the game of poker. The reason so many of us play this game is that it is supposed to be different from all the other games in a casino and the gambling realm. Whereas the house always has an edge in all pit games and players cannot win in the long run, poker is played against one another and potentially can be beaten by those who know the game well. But if winning players are being banned outright and systems are being put in place that make the game unbeatable, then poker degrades into a game that is no different nor better than any other casino game such as Black Jack or Baccarat. In fact I would argue that is exactly the point of these changes and implementations, namely to transform the game of poker into a casino game. I had the opportunity to run a game in the city of Sihanoukville here in Cambodia and there the casinos did not even hide the fact that this was exactly what they were doing. Unlike casinos in the West, venues in this city did not run their own tables. Rather they rented the tables to outside third parties and charged them rent in order to generate revenue. The casinos were nothing more than glorified landlords and it was those that rented these tables that really ran the games and dictated policy. The rents on these tables were often high but still appropriate for games like Baccarat as players had no chance of winning in the long run and thus they were able to generate a high revenue stream. Poker was often treated by the casinos in the same manner, as if they were just another table game. And so the rent on these tables were also exorbitantly high but revenue is generated much differently on a poker table. But in order to meet their monthly rent live room operators in Sihanoukville were forced to charge a very high rake to have any hope of making any money for themselves. Recreational players are not expected to beat the game of course, but in this scenario neither could a professional given the high amount of commission they were being charged. The fundamental problem with this is of course that the house, whether that be those that actually run the table or the casino that rents the table, are the only ones that generate a true revenue. And that is the very definition of a house game, where no one can win regardless of ability. Both good and bad players are melded together as one entity and the only one left standing to make money is the house.
So what then is the solution? Mason Malmuth, one of the founders of the popular 2+2 online poker forum, said something interesting many years back regarding live poker room promotions. He declared that running a successful promotion was not that difficult. A room should simply look around town, see what other promotions are running well in other places and then simply copy them. For this we do not have to look very far as a working model seemingly exists in the realm of online poker apps that have rose to prominence in the last few years. These apps run very differently from traditional sites and for them the key element to their success seems to be decentralization. Instead of being a monolithic entity these apps are divided up into unions, which themselves are comprised of several clubs who then employ agents to recruit players. And while some may scoff at this structuring system as some sort of pyramid or Ponzi scheme, I rather look at it as a much more efficient system in which new players can be recruited and money moved much easier. I mention the latter because that is a huge issue in the world of online poker and often a hinderance to the growth of this game. If a recreational player cannot get money in and out of a site, that player simply will not bother to play. But with the agent system matters are handled on a much more localized and personal level. Money is often handled in person or in close proximity, thus facilitating the entry of new and recreational players by making the entire process much easier. There is some risk of course to this model as the more levels there are to a structure, the potential for fraud exists at each level. But much like how the money is moved, such issues and threats are localized in this structure and does not involve every player. If a club goes under or if an agent decides to run off with player funds, only those that are directly under those specific entities are affected instead of every single player. We have seen too many times in the past when a monolithic and centralized site such as Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet go under and are not able to pay out the entirety of their player pool. But under a decentralized system such as the one employed by the apps, the damage is limited to a certain segment only and the remainder of the base remains unaffected.
The most important aspect of the agent system is that it seems largely successful in the recruitment of new players as the playing population on these apps have exploded in the last few years. Whichever method is employed, the goal of any operator should be the entry and inclusion of new players, not the exclusion of current ones. Other than the solution I have already proposed, both operators and players should work together to seek out new and creative solutions. I am a big proponent of more players promoting both the game of poker itself and the lifestyle associated with it on social media outlets such as Facebook and vlogging on public and popular mediums such as YouTube. As I previously mentioned the relationship between operators and players should be a mutually beneficial one and I do not see the game prospering in the future for either party if they cannot work together.
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It is not difficult to pinpoint the beginning of what most call the poker boom. In the minds of nearly every poker player, the genesis can be linked to Chris Moneymaker winning the Main Event of the World Series of Poker on a $40 satellite back in 2003. But what proves more difficult is just when the boom ended. For some it never has and these people would say we are still in a state of growth. When considering tournament numbers pre-covid and the totality of those that now play online I can understand why some would say that. But if we are to consider the health of the game, I do not think it can be denied that the game has long passed its apex. Without doing a ten page dissertation on the subject I think it would be easy to associate the end of the poker boom with Black Friday, the day that the FBI seized the domains for Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet. Ever since online poker was made illegal in America the game has certainly been in a state of decline in the States and such has had ramifications for the rest of the world. So will there be a second poker boom? I would argue that there has been already, or at least a preview of how another one can begin.
I would categorize the history of poker into several eras or ages. I would name everything prior to 2003 as the pre-boom era, 2003 to 2011 as the boom proper, 2011 to 2016 as the dark age and 2016 to present as the era of the mobile apps. We have already discussed the first era, bookmarked by Chris Moneymaker and Black Friday. The second era is characterized by the exit of America from the online market and the overall decline of the game. While many would argue that overall numbers grew during this time, I would point out that such was done at the expense of the overall ecosystem. By this time heads up displays (HUDs) were near ubiquitous and we also saw the beginnings of what would eventually become solvers in programs such as Poker Stove and Flopzilla. Also by this time high speed internet was near ubiquitous as well and in more homes than ever before. With this training sites, YouTube channels and generally a wealth of information were available to more prospective players. Although the game was continuing to grow in numbers, players were entering with much more knowledge than previously. With a vast population and the availability of online poker for most players, America previously served as a feeding system of recreational players into the poker ecosystem. With this system now gone, less recreational players were piped into both live casinos and online poker rooms and were replaced by those who studied the game for hours on end, making the game a much more hostile environment. There have been attempts during this stage to legalize online poker in America and reintroduce the game to a more recreational player base. And while some states have brought it back in some form, the ability to play is restricted to local residents of that state and has not been able to impact the rest of the world.
Some semblance of online poker still did exist in America during this time, with some sites choosing to still serve the market. But these sites were not as reputable as those previously mentioned and would often fold without paying players out. Money also became very difficult to move as the depositing process was hard enough. But getting money out for winning players was even more difficult with some players having to wait months on end in order to receive a check. I remember playing on the Cake Network during this era and checks would sometimes take 4-6 months to arrive. One such check I waited for many months, only to have it bounce once I tried to cash it. The situation became so desperate that I resorted to selling my chips on online poker forums at $0.75 to $1. It was during this time that many players decided to travel in order to play from areas where online poker was still allowed. All of this is to say that those in America who still went through all this trouble just to continue playing online was not the average and casual player. After recs were basically kicked off due to the lack of availability, what was left was a less friendly environment in which fewer and fewer players won most of the money.
It was during this time when I started to travel as well, having moved to Cambodia in 2014. The original intent was to reopen my Poker Stars account and start grinding online again, but I actually started to play live near exclusively once I arrived. As online games became tougher more players also started to travel for the purposes of seeking out softer live games in foreign lands. It was during this time around 2016 when a new era in poker would be ushered in which I like to call the age of the mobile apps. New apps were being developed out of Asia during this time, especially out of China, that were designed to be played on smart phones and tablets. On the surface these apps looked like any other play money app, and perhaps they were. But beneath the surface an independent group of people started devising a system in which games on these platforms could be played for real money. Groups started to form clubs within these apps and would employ agents that would recruit players for games that were basically a virtual version of a home game. These agents were very effective in recruiting recreational fish and whales and soon enough a multitude of them were popping up in the live rooms of Asia trying to recruit every player possible. This is what led many players to believe that a second poker boom was imminent and that China was the key as these apps were being developed out of that country and also many of the players were from that market. But even though the apps and player base grew in number, and China certainly played a role in this growth, nothing close to what anyone would consider a boom truly occurred. It was not until a new development that such would even come close to fruition.
Two events would then occur that would change the landscape of poker and greatly increase the growth of these mobile apps. Around 2018 apps were developed with an eye specifically on the American market, spurring clubs to form in that country with agents that would recruit players starving for online poker. With this reintroduction of the American player base, other players started to join these clubs on the new apps in droves. But things would not reach a critical mass until a tragic event occurred world wide far bigger than the scope of the poker world. The corona virus originated out of China in late 2019 and began its meteoric rise as a world wide pandemic. It reached America in early 2020 and once shutdown orders began and people were forced to stay home, the landscape of online poker as a whole changed dramatically. With only a few options for online poker in America, the nature of the local agent model made it easier for players to deposit into real money games and play their favorite poker games online. And once again with the influx of even more American players, the rest of the world would join in. I would argue that this is at least the beginning of a second poker boom, or rather a preview and an indication that America is the key element for such to take place. It is no accident that numbers started to decline and most associate the end of the boom right around the same time as Black Friday in America and once again it does not seem coincidental that the numbers are on the rise now that American players are being reintroduced to the ecosystem via these new apps.
I realize that many would scoff at my hypothesis and point out that these apps exist in a legally grey area at best and that more than a few players have lost their funds to illegitimate clubs and agencies. To this I would like to point out that the first boom had many, if not all, of the same characteristics. The sites during the initial boom were never considered legal in the United States and players lost their funds many times when sites or payment processors folded. Bank accounts of these entities were seized multiple times and most of us are too familiar with scandals linked to Ultimate Bet and Full Tilt. But all of this was coupled with unparalleled growth in the industry and it is this same type of growth that we are experiencing today. I do think that online poker will be legalized in the fullest sense in America in the near future and with that will come what everyone can consider a true second boom. But I remain unsure as to whether or not it will the app model that will survive to see it as the first ones through the door always get bloodied. What I do know is that both the U.S and online poker will be at the forefront of what will propel this game into the future.
I have now been playing poker for a little over 17 years, creating a near 2 decade black hole in my resume. And although not every one of those years has been profitable, it remains a passion in my life and something that I will continue to pursue in the future. Having said this I am very realistic about my results as for most of my years playing I have kept accurate and faithful records of my winnings. I have certainly performed better in the first half of the 17 years I have played than the second part. I am fairly certain at this point that I can no longer beat no limit hold’em online and I also realized that I was not winning enough in live games that I made the switch to omaha two years ago. And while I no longer claim to be a “professional” player, I can still look people in the eye with a straight face and declare that overall I am a winning player. This is not something many people can say and I hold it as a sort of badge of honor. The reality is that if we polled 100 random regular poker players, at most 10 are winning ones. And if we restricted the criteria to those who won enough to exceed their expenditures that number would most likely shrink to less than 5. And yet if you hang out at enough poker rooms and speak with other players it seems that everyone and their uncle plays for a living. This sort of thing is of course universal and not only relegated to poker. It would be too strong of a word to say that people were outright lying about their prowess as a poker player. People in other professions exaggerate all the time regarding how much money they earn. But in such cases, they still make something and are able to live. It is rarely the case that a poker player who oversell their results still wins but just at a lower rate as it is more likely the case that they are just losing players. So what is it about this game that allows so many to try and fool others or rather more importantly, themselves?
I noticed an interesting phenomenon a few years back here in Cambodia in regards to those who came here to play poker. For most that come here for such a purpose they start their play at one of the local card clubs instead of the casino. Such places get advertised more on online poker forums and there is a certain mythos to the whole idea of playing in an underground club in a third world country. For those that lost in this club, and this was the case with most players, they always had the option of trying their luck at a different location and playing at the casino. What I noticed was that of this group, they would almost universally report back with better results. Some of this can of course be attributed to the notion that the casino probably had better games. It is reasonable to think that a place with revolving foot traffic will have more recreational punters than a local’s card club. But having said that, with the passage of time I still did not observe anyone who was winning and saving any sort of significant money. As time passed, whatever these players won did not exceed their expenses and they stopped playing, started to play smaller elsewhere or just went home. I do not recount this phenomenon simply to malign these players as liars or speak of them in any sort of negative light. In fact I fell victim to the same thinking as when I first arrived I too started my play at a local card club, did not have good results, started to play at the casino and immediately saw better results and felt that I could sustain some sort of prolonged state of winning. This was during my first year in Cambodia and while I was fortunate enough to not go broke, when I did return home it was certainly with far less money than I arrived with. So what happened?
I should mention at this point that the caliber of the dealers in the two locations were quite different. In the local card club the dealers were more than competent and some were even on the level of the Vegas dealers that I had played with in the past. A few of them easily got out 20 hands or more in a 30 minute shift but the same could not be said of their counterparts at the casino, who got out about half as many hands. I can only conclude from this is that what all of us did not realize at the time was that we were simply losing slower rather than winning. In this one example exists the biggest issue with live poker in regards to trying to play this game for a living, namely its pace. To give a real life example, there was a week recently in which I played 12,000 hands online. Let us consider for a moment how long it would take to play these many hands in a live game. When I lived in Vegas the dealers in the casinos were of course of varying competence. But in a city such as this where poker is so important I would state confidently that most were able to get out 20 hands in a 30 minute shift. If we can assume a 40 hour play week then we arrive at the following:
By this calculation we can observe that it would take nearly 2 months to play the same amount of hands in a live game that I was able to play during 1 week. My point in formulating all this is to make the point that whatever happens in a live game can often feel like the norm, that such will always be the case or just feel like it will last forever. It is often said that the worst thing that can happen to someone who plays poker for the first time is win. Put that player on a 5 day heater and he will feel like he can quit his day job and become a full time professional poker player. Live players tend to measure the game in a manner that belies what is needed to develop a true sample size. If one plays in a live game for a week and absolutely crushes, that person tends to oversell in their own mind how much it is they truly played because they look back upon their week as 40-50 hours over 7 grueling sessions. All of this can seem like a lot to most reasonable people, when in reality it comes nowhere close to determining where one is truly in regards to winning or losing long term in this game. This effect can have many ramifications as those who win a lot in the short run can often deem themselves better than they really are, thus ignoring other important factors of the game such as studying and staying ahead of the curve and recent trends. Of course the exact opposite is true for those that play online as playing 24,000 hands over two weeks will easily enable most players to determine whether or not they are winning. It will also help them make adjustments and try to improve their game as results come in much faster, allowing more concrete conclusions to be reached.
Of course the opposite can happen to a player in live games as they can simply lose during what they perceive to be a duration of time sufficient for a good sample size. But as much as good results are not an indication of anything significant in the short term, the same can be said for bad results. But the player may not see it that way and simply give up playing, reasoning in their mind that they had failed at the game. All of this is to say that if one were to solely play live poker, it would take a long time for them to truly realize whether or not they were winning players. But in this scenario time is often the enemy as factors that weigh in on the ability to win only magnify and have greater impact over a longer stretch of time. The most obvious issue, as with most cases, is the rake. I have already covered in previous articles how the rake in certain games can make it nearly impossible for players to beat the game. But there are other issues as well such as the cost of travel, food and of course tipping. Having determined previously that a regular $1-$3 player pays approximately $23,000 in one year in rake, if we add the cost of food, travel and tipping we can easily estimate that a player who sits regularly in a game as small as $1-$3 is paying north of $30,000 USD in one year.
Regardless of the title that I have given this blog post, I do not mean to say that the notion of a live pro is entirely a myth. Rather I am arguing that the whole idea is largely a myth and that it is much more difficult than how it sounds from seemingly every single poker player who claims to be a professional. There are of course live pros and if there are those reading this who would venture to follow in their footsteps, certain conditions and criteria need to be met:
To the first point I will just say now that in my opinion there is no such thing as a $1-$2 or $1-$3 professional. The money is too small, cost of living too high in most areas and the rake factors in too much to allow players to win at a rate that exceeds their expenses. One simply must play higher in order to not only win more money, but also to play in a game where the rake taxes them less. This is of course unless you play in many regions of Asia where rake goes higher the bigger one plays. This leads to the next point of choosing to play and live in an area where the rake is equitable to the stakes that are being played. I have mentioned in previous articles of how in cities like Las Vegas the rake remains the same going from $1-$2 to $2-$5 and are even better for bigger games such as $5-$10 that charge only a time rake. And playing in a city like Vegas will allow players to table select where even for games such as $2-$5 there are multiple venues to choose from. Minimizing one’s cost is also very important in order to play poker for a living. As much as I love the dealers that have worked for me in the past, players need to remember that tipping is completely optional. And while I am not a proponent of not tipping at all, still the task of paying for a suitable living for their staff should be on the casino or poker room and not the player, with tips serving only as a compliment to their salaries. In some rooms in Cambodia dealers are paid as little as $100 per month, meaning the onus of providing for their living is on the player via their tipping. As harsh as this sounds, players who endeavor to play professionally must worry about their own living as their primary concern before anyone else’s.
When contemplating the requirements that go into playing live poker for a living, there are really only a few cities that check every box. The reason that I have mentioned Las Vegas so many times in my previous articles is because they are one of the few places that meet most, if not all of them. I have not played in Macau but from what other players tell me it would seem they would fit the bill on most things, although it can be quite expensive to live there and their rake system is different from Vegas. Los Angeles is another great city to play with multiple venues, but the cost of living once again becomes an issue. I am sure there are many other cities that fit the criterias involved that I simply have not listed due to my limited travel experience. But it is cities such as these that one must choose if they endeavor to take on this grandiose task, because to become a live pro is a difficult task that requires commitment. One simply cannot play in an area where they play the same 10-15 locals every single day, no matter how bad they may be. All of this is to say that playing live poker for a living is a very big commitment. I remember an old interview once done with the famous movie director Quentin Tarantino. He had always dreamt of being in show business and so he made the decision to move to Los Angeles, even though that meant he had to work as a clerk in a video rental store for a few years before he got his break. He commented during the interview that this is what it took for him to make it in the business and that others should do the same. I often think of this interview when I think of poker players and playing live for a living. If one wishes to be on stage they must go to Broadway; one wants to be a movie star they have to go to Hollywood and if one wants to make it as a professional poker player they must go to Vegas (or a town just like it).
Love and money, two concepts that often go hand in hand in a place like Cambodia. The latter is a limited resource in the third world and the former is often used to obtain it. Every year many a men come to Cambodia looking for love but the truth of the matter is very few find it. They can find varying degrees of it at times in the form of companionship, and other times they will get scammed outright. But then again, the men in this scenario are not always innocent players either. The point of this article is not to point the finger nor assign blame, but rather to discuss the situation honestly as it exists. I have run the full gamut in my six years living here from first time visitor, to experienced single man to a family man with two children. Having experienced just about everything I question whether or not our Western concept of "love" can exist here, or whether it exists anywhere at all. Nonetheless, the experience of these past few years is one I would never trade in for anything nor everything.
So is it love or is it money? There are plenty of young girls in this country who love to have fun so the opportunity to hook up for an evening or two is certainly plentiful. But for anything long term it is doubtful that any woman in Cambodia is willing to be with a foreigner who cannot support her financially. This is not to cast the Khmer woman as some sort of evil gold digger, but rather because money is a resource that is in limited supply here. A Cambodian female that is looking for a foreign man simply cannot afford to be with one out of love only. There are of course those that marry out of love but in the majority of these cases they tend to marry their own. Foreigners often underestimate how strong ethnic bonds are in Cambodia, thinking that every single woman would prefer a foreign man. All things being equal, I think a woman would prefer to marry and build a family with a fellow Khmer. But when given the chance to be with a foreigner, the opportunity to have a better life, for themselves and their family, becomes the paramount issue. For us foreigners money will always be the thing that opens the door. Whether the open door is to her heart or something else is often a complicated issue.
I have been with my wife for four years, married the last two with two beautiful children. As much as I have no doubt that she truly loves me now, I have no doubt that she did not the first year or so that we were together. I often tell a funny story in which during the first few months that my wife and I lived together she tried to call me to ask if I can get her something from the kitchen. But when she opened her mouth to call out my name, she realized she had no idea what my name was and just froze. After a few awkward seconds she simply blurted out "brother" and then proceeded with her request. I laugh about it now but admit that I was bit offended at the time that a woman who I had been living with for three months did not even know my name. It just goes to show how these types of relationships initially come about. I am a fat hideous C.H.U.D. in his 40's and have no delusion as to why it was my then 22 year old wife initially came to be with me. But four years later we are still together and have two wonderful daughters. This is to say that true love can develop as neither one of us has any doubts presently about how the other feels. But the road to where we are now was a rough one and in many ways continues to be a struggle.
After our initial year together, my wife and I took a bit of a break as I had to return back home to the States. Once I returned I fell upon a financially beneficial situation and our lives seemed very secure. But that did not last forever as I fell on some difficult times about a year and a half later. That time was heart-wrenchingly difficult as there were weeks where I would struggle to buy a single can of milk for my daughter. To her credit my wife refused to leave my side during this entire episode and altered her lifestyle drastically in order to accommodate our new situation. There was a time when she probably did ask for too much, but money was plentiful at that time and I was glad to give it to her. But when all this changed she asked for nothing and even asked her family to stop asking me for money as well. For a period of time I lived in the city of Kampot, basically having begged my friends to let me help in their $0.25-$0.50 game so that I could earn some money. My friend was nice enough to give me a free room on top of his Sports Bar where I would stay with my wife and youngest daughter. All three of us were living together in this one room, but I remember the time fondly not only because my friends were all gracious enough to help me but also because my wife stuck by me during this entire time. Suffice it to say I have dug myself out of that situation and we live very comfortably now. But for what we went through I love my wife dearly, know that she loves me and will never leave her for it.
I do not want to comment on the relationships of others, but for myself it was impossible to truly know whether or not my wife truly loved me until we went through this episode. Now that our lives are much different I find myself struggling as I encounter many women who would want some of what I have for themselves. Once again I am not attempting to portray any of these females in a negative light. They often have their own children to support and give money to help their parents. And for uneducated but young and attractive women they have very limited resources from which to draw from in order to gain a foreign man who can support them. But as much, and often times more, than it is about love this is really a game of resources. As my wife has pointed out to me several times, every time I go out to a bar at night or buy drinks for a girl I am taking resources that could have otherwise gone to her or our children. And herein lies my greatest fault both as a husband and a father. Anyone who has ever hung out with me on the riverside can attest that I am nowhere near perfect in this regard. I contend that it is nearly impossible to stay faithful and true as a foreign man with money in this country. Girls are simply available everywhere and whether you go to a bar or meet a waitress at a restaurant, there are girls at every corner who are more than eager to meet a man who can potentially help them financially. Once again I do not wish to speak for anyone else, but the longer I live here the more I discover about myself that staying true in the past was more about lack of opportunity than anything else.
But I would not do anything in these past six years differently if given the chance as everything has led to the blessings that are my two beautiful daughters. In many ways both the joys and struggles of being in a relationship are similar here as anywhere else. But the issue of money is amplified to a great degree and colors every aspect of relationship life. Since the financial gap that exists between foreigners and many young women in Cambodia is potentially great, it can be difficult to enjoy a relationship with a similar paradigm as those back in our home countries. But at the end of the day you find someone to love, hope they love you back and then travail through both happy and trying times to live a life of true meaning that presents itself to you every morning when they wake you up early screaming for milk ;)
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.