Jason Strasser sheds his black flip-flops and draws his knees close to his chest. A wrinkled white undershirt and olive khakis hang loosely from his slight frame; his thin, scraggly brown hair falls on his forehead. Indifferently curled in a cushioned chair in front of his computer, Strasser opens four $5-$10 no-limit tables on PokerStars.com and buys in for an even thousand dollars on each. ¬∂ His shoebox of a dorm room, on the first floor of Duke University's Wayne Manor, is a riot of dirty socks, T-shirts and bath towels. Half-filled soda bottles flank Strasser's desktop, and posters--NFL wide receiver Santana Moss, reproductions of Munch's The Scream and Dali's The Persistence of Memory--paper the institutional white walls. Strasser apologizes halfheartedly for the mess. ¬∂ Each of the four tables occupies a quarter of Strasser's 17-inch flat-screen monitor, and he makes rapid, almost perfunctory cycles through them, only his eyes and his right index finger lively, blinking and flicking. Orthodox strategy in Texas hold 'em, by far the predominant online game, dictates that Strasser immediately fold at least three quarters of his starting hands. When he does enter a pot, the sheer volume of high-stakes hands he has played in his short career--tens of thousands, a sum that before the advent of online poker required geologic time on casino felt to accumulate--makes most of his decisions routine. The door to his room closed, Strasser chatters as he plays, a fine stream of philosophy and kibitzing.
"This guy open-limped?" he says with a moan, after the first to enter the pot does so by calling the $10 blind bet--limping, rather than raising, an amateurish show of weakness. "Some of these guys are awful." A few minutes later Strasser seems put-upon when he picks up a small pot with ace-7 on a 5-7-queen-6 board, after his opponent folds to a minimum raise. "Strange play," he says. "Kinda fishy." Fishy, to Strasser, does not mean suspicious. It means easily duped.
In the expanding universe of online poker, fish abound. More than 1.8 million users play each month, according to the independent tracking service PokerPulse.com. They wager an average of $200 million a day, and the industry generates $2.2 billion in gross revenue annually. On PokerStars, one of the most heavily trafficked sites, players can upload images to represent themselves; at one of Strasser's tables there's a mug shot of the actor Matt LeBlanc and a San Francisco 49ers logo. Strasser's icon is Gollum, from Lord of the Rings. "They call me that around the Manor because I retreat to my cave to play," he says. "It's annoying because I'm a social person." He then giggles and does a Gollum falsetto as he palms his mouse. "Give me your money."
The simplicity of hold 'em accounts for much of its popularity. Each player receives two cards face down, and a round of betting, initiated by two forced bets (the little blind and the big blind), ensues. Three shared cards (the flop) are then dealt face up, and more betting follows; players wager again after a fourth shared card (the turn) and a fifth (the river) are dealt. Hold 'em's appeal lies in part in its attractive ratio of private to public information: There is room for both deception and deduction.
May 29, 2005
Finally, Strasser picks up a hand--a pair of 10s--and, facing two limpers, raises to $40. Both limpers call, and the flop comes 6-8-9 with two clubs: The three undercards make it playable; the potential straight and potential flush make it risky. Strasser begins the next betting round, leading out $120--the size of the pot. He habitually leads with a pot-sized bet, with strong and weak cards alike, a practical way of disguising his hand.
A housemate, Matt Sekac, has stopped by with six rumpled $20s to square a debt. As Strasser plays, Sekac says with a laugh, "I love how that bet was the pretty significant amount of money I just owed you." The first limper calls, and when the turn brings an off-suit 8, Strasser fires out $250. The limper calls again. Momentarily confused, Strasser idly riffles two stacks of chips with the bony, almost dainty fingers of his right hand. "What's he got?" he asks Sekac. "Nine-seven?" Sekac nods in assent. Nine-seven suited could have withstood Strasser's preflop raise and now would give his opponent top pair (a pair made with the highest community card) and an open-ended straight draw, a plausible calling hand.
The harmless jack of hearts peels off on the river, and Strasser pushes all-in, betting his entire remaining stake of $611.75. The limper calls once more and turns up queen-9, meaning he had a pair but no shot at a straight or flush--an even worse hand than Strasser had thought. Strasser's 10s prevail, and he drags a pot of almost $1,500.
He snorts. "Way to play that, fish."
According to the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, the number of 18- to 22-year-old men in college who play cards for money each week doubled in the last year, to 12.5% of that population. Strasser, a 20-year-old sophomore majoring in biomedical and electrical engineering who's up about $50,000 in the last year, his first as a serious player, belongs to a burgeoning niche among them. Outfitted with high-speed Internet connections and insatiable appetites for poker strategy and theory, these players have developed affinities for profits reaped, they believe, by the sheer force of their intellects--five- and even six-figure incomes earned while sitting in their dorm rooms in boxer shorts.
Players like Strasser are inconceivable in the faded world from which Doyle Brunson emerged. An immense, Jurassic road gambler with capped front teeth and the nickname Texas Dolly, Brunson has found an improbable celebrity during this poker boom. Though he won the World Series of Poker in 1976 and '77, his latter-day fame comes mainly from the chapter he wrote on no-limit for the strategy volume Super/System, published in '78.
The most widely read work on the game, Brunson's chapter preaches aggressive play--summarized, the joke goes, as "raise"--and an intimidating table image. The testosterone that floods most of today's games owes its existence to Brunson's philosophy of attack, the outlaw whiff of his style, the cowboy jingle-jangle of his prose. An updated edition of Super/System appeared earlier this year, and in a cursory section on Internet poker the 72-year-old Brunson lamented, "Part of the thrill of the poker I grew up with is that you can send your opponents home with their tails tucked between their legs, whimpering and whining.... Sadly, that thrill is gone from online poker. You can't send opponents home whimpering, because they're already home whimpering."
Brunson and the players of his generation hold a palpable, almost proprietary nostalgia for poker as a lifestyle on the margins, an existence carved out in rough-and-tumble back rooms, now obsolete. That lifestyle is an artifact to a player like Strasser, who spends as much as three hours a day online but has never set foot in a casino, not least because he's underage and fitted with a face that will get him carded until he's 30. While Brunson's skill arose from hard-bought experience, the slow grind of trial and error, Strasser's is book-learned, steeped in the rigorous writings of David Sklansky, which read like calculus textbooks. Strasser spends the small hours rehashing hands and refining strategy not in bars or around smoky card tables but in rapid-fire posts to the message boards maintained by Sklansky's publisher at TwoPlusTwo.com, a virtual clubhouse for bright twentysomething players.
"In college you live wired," Strasser says. "The Internet, instant messaging--it's an access thing. The grizzled old pros, they're used to their lifestyles, but young people who want to improve, they're in chat rooms, putting in ideas. The number of hands you can play, the amount of thinking and studying you can do about those hands--everything's accelerated."
Like the regulars in Strasser's Wayne Manor game, the dozen undergraduates who rotate through the $1-$2 no-limit game at Yale's Trumbull College are precocious, sometimes maddeningly so, and play for the highest stakes on campus. The motto of Trumbull, a looming neo-Gothic dorm of 420 students, is Fortuna favet audaci: Fortune favors the brave.
Just shy of four in the morning on an April weeknight the Trumbull game persists, indefatigable. Yale junior Ilan Zechory gestures from behind his rampart of chips at a vacant chair whose occupant went bust and slipped out a side door 15 minutes earlier. "He looks like a bad guy from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," Zechory notes. Says senior Dan Berger, immediately, "F--- yes, that's an amazing comment." Thus spurred, Zechory begins a self-conscious digression, in the style of Tarantino or Kevin Smith, about Bebop and Rocksteady, the cartoon henchmen. "They weren't good at anything. If I were Shredder, I wouldn't have kept them around." Zechory pauses, reconsidering. "O.K., maybe they were good at the small stuff, like getting sandwiches."
Zechory, a religious studies major, recently turned 21 but while still underage was eighty-sixed from Foxwoods, the massive casino in Uncasville, Conn., an hour's drive from campus. He was blackballed not for playing but after using a fake I.D. to order a beer. "I was going to play for 10 hours," he says. "I thought I'd have a drink."
"Mine's a generic lesbian I.D.," says Vanessa Selbst, the only woman in the Trumbull game. "The picture's got short hair, I've got short hair. Nobody can tell the difference." Selbst's brown hair is indeed shorn close, concealed under a worn blue Chicago Cubs cap. She is a genial, sturdy rugby player and wears a silver stud in her right nostril. A month from graduating with a degree in political science, she peruses, between hands, a photocopy of George Mosse's essay "Fascism and Sexuality," pecking at it with an orange highlighter. "The Nazis," she observes at one point to the nonplussed table, "were simultaneously homoerotic and homophobic."
This all-but-deserted basement lounge, the Buttery, where student managers dispense Oreo milk shakes and pizza bagel bites during business hours, seems exhumed, a caricature of the '70s rec room. Its walls are knotty orange pine, its scratchy carpeting an industrial blue, its couches vinyl; exposed pipes crisscross the ceiling. Here the play assumes a quiet rhythm. When a player holding two queens goes all-in against an opponent with ace-king, the queens an 11-9 favorite, junior Ariel Schneller suggests that the race (as this sort of close-odds showdown is known) be run three times: Instead of dealing out a single flop, turn and river and awarding the pot to the winner, the five cards will be dealt out three times, each for one third of the pot. The process, meant to minimize randomness, is common among pros.
Schneller, a member of the debate team, asks petulantly, "Our peer pressure aside, do you want to reduce variance or not?" Junior Alex Jacob quips, "Run it infinity times, and the result will converge. Or would you accept expected value?" Schneller fixes him with a mordant stare. This is a musty joke, it appears.
Everyone at the Trumbull table has read Sklansky. In a post to TwoPlusTwo.com, Nate Meyvis suggested a bet testing his ability to quote from memory passages in the catechistic Hold 'Em Poker for Advanced Players. Sklansky's work expresses the crucial, counterintuitive insight that although chance affects the fall of individual cards, poker is not a game of luck and elite players are not gamblers. As he puts it in the first chapter of The Theory of Poker, "Expert players do not rely on luck. They are at war with luck." To Sklansky, much of sound strategy rests on mathematical determinism: computation of the odds offered by the pot versus the chances of completing a hand, or quantifying the probability that a bluff will succeed. The Trumbull players run races several times because the most satisfying outcome is not the first, most random result, but the one that most closely conforms to probability.
Elite players believe the game nears perfectibility, and an essential arrogance informs this conviction; on a poker telecast last month Sklansky said dismissively that had he pursued physics instead of poker he could have won a Nobel Prize. With Sklansky's acolytes too--among them Strasser, who avers, "He defined how to think"--an air of certitude accompanies discussions of philosophy and tactics. A TwoPlusTwo.com thread cropped up recently after a frequent contributor named SoBeDude played a multitable tournament on PokerStars and made a debatable fold in the late stages: From the $8,000 big blind, he mucked his hand of 8-3 off-suit, despite favorable pot odds, after a short stack--a player with few chips--had raised all-in to $19,600.
As is common, a gaggle of aficionados on TwoPlusTwo.com was "sweating" SoBeDude, that is, observing and critiquing his play. ("Lurking," a cousin of sweating in which several people observe a tournament and instant-message suggestions to the player, also thrives, though it breaches the poker etiquette of one player to a hand.) In a postmortem on TwoPlusTwo.com, Strasser wrote, "This call is insta-automatic-essential-easy-ABC whatever, and I can not believe there are actually people advocating a fold here. First of all, [SoBeDude] is getting over 3:1 [pot odds, meaning the pot contains three times as much money as his call costs]. So mathematically alone, that single decision (call or fold), lined up against the range of hands the ss is pushing here, its OBVIOUSLY +EV." Plus-EV means "positive expected value"--a situation that, over repeated iterations, will be profitable. It encompasses not only probability but game theory, risk management and making reads about an opponent's likely range of hands and responses. Seeking plus-EV is the cornerstone of strategy.
On this model, poker rewards nothing so much as academic mastery. This challenge in particular captivates Selbst. "I love the game theory involved in multiple levels of out-thinking your opponent," she writes in an e-mail. "I love the fact that there are so many intricacies to the game and so many different strategies that you can play differently every time. It's one of the most intellectually stimulating and the most fun thing that I've spent a good portion of my life doing." On the Excel spreadsheet she uses to log profits, losses and hours played, a half-dozen single-day sessions since February exceed 15 hours.
Like Strasser, Selbst multitables on Party or Stars, playing mostly $3-$6 and $5-$10 no-limit. She's wedged in the corner of a weather-beaten yellow couch in the three-story town house she shares with four roommates. Her back to a bay window that leaks afternoon daylight, Selbst cradles a borrowed laptop, her own motherboard having fried that morning. The spartan living room is outfitted with the accoutrements of collegiate transience: a low-slung wooden futon, halogen lamps, a coffee table upon which sit an empty Merlot bottle and a Scotch tumbler, two fingers full.
Selbst enters four $20 sit-and-gos--brief, 10-player knockout tournaments that pay the top three finishers--and buys in for $100 at a $1-$2 ring game. The piddling stakes do not reflect her usual level, but she has suffered a rough few days. "If I had a real bankroll," she grumbles, "I'd be playing fifties." Selbst's mother, Ronnie, who has just finished law school, supported herself as an MIT undergraduate by playing poker. Vanessa says it helps that Ronnie understands a swing of several thousand dollars to the wrong in the space of a week.
Selbst has tried in vain to bring other women into the Trumbull game, and recently she gave her girlfriend a poker lesson, which did not take. At Foxwoods, she believes, being a woman gives her an advantage. "Despite my not having a traditionally feminine appearance," she says, "there are some guys who try to outplay me." A few months back she picked off a $525 bluff--"the most obvious case of an old dude trying to push a college girl around."
In her first sit-and-go Selbst quickly dumps most of her stack when, with a sizable raise in front of her, she goes all-in preflop with ace-king. A shorter stack calls with ace-jack, a 3-1 underdog, but backdoors a straight. Lips pursed as though she's swallowed a mouthful of bad egg salad, Selbst murmurs, "That's gross." By "gross," her favorite multipurpose adjective, she most often means "statistically unjust."
Below her usual stakes, she feels as though she's slumming. "I'm very condescending when I talk about others," she says, "but these players don't know what they're doing. Calling all-in with ace-jack after a raise-reraise?" The affront to strategy seems to bother her most. In a seminar during spring semester in a computer science building equipped with wireless Internet access, Selbst read TwoPlusTwo.com during class. A math major during her freshman year at MIT before she transferred, she has near-photographic recall of the significant hands she's played, and she dissects them vigorously.
Playing $5-$5 at Foxwoods last month, Selbst dropped $1,150 on a bluff, yet she recapitulates it over dinner at Mamoun's, a Syrian restaurant near her house, not as a catastrophe, but as an exercise. Holding king-queen off-suit--top pair on a queen-5-4-3-5 board with three hearts--she read her opponent, a capable but tight player, for a flush. When the second 5 turned up on the river and the opponent put $300 into a $1,250 pot, she moved all-in, on the logic that she'd played the hand like a set and could now represent a full house, inducing him to fold. "I'm betting $1,150 to win $1,550, so if he folds half the time, it's a profitable play," she says. "I'm not thinking about the money there, I'm thinking about pot odds. I walked away from that table satisfied. I wasn't thinking that $2,700 was a lot of money--and if I was, only because it was one tenth of my bankroll. I was thinking that I made the right play."
Live games crackle with gallows humor. One borscht-belt joke asks, What's the difference between a poker player and a pepperoni pizza? (The pizza can feed a family of four.) Accustomed to betting unreal sums and moving casino chips or digits on a monitor, players often develop an indifference toward money's real-world utility, a disconnect between betting money and spending cash. Selbst, ahead almost $20,000 since February, thinks of her profit as a scorecard. She says her lifestyle has changed only in that she orders more takeout and tips more generously. Strasser agrees, "If I lose a ton of money, it's not that big a deal. It's like a video game."
Unlike casino gambling, which pits players against the house, poker functions as a pari-mutuel economy in which the losers pay the winners. Where, then, does the money come from? Says Jamie Capo, a Yale student who's playing online for a living during a yearlong leave of absence, "It's a sea of sharks and fishes, the way any sea works. The money feeds up from the bottom."
The money, put crudely, comes from people like Alex. An Indiana University junior who has lost $55,000 gambling, mostly playing online poker, he spoke on the condition that his real name not be used. Slumped in a booth behind a mug of beer and a basket of buffalo wings at Kilroy's, a grimy campus bar, he's itching for a game. He picks up his girlfriend's cellphone--he doesn't carry one of his own, because he owes two friends some $9,000 he's taken in cash advances on their credit cards and is ducking their calls--and inside five minutes has found a game at some friends' house. Alex says he has not played online since December; he regards this abstinence as controlling his addiction.
Alex belongs to one of the country's most vulnerable populations. "College is the riskiest demographic," says Jeffrey Derevensky, who directs the Youth Gambling Institute at McGill University in Montreal. "Students are at the highest-risk age. They think they're smarter than everybody else and invulnerable, and often a parent says, 'Here, take my credit card in case there's a problem.' There's still a strong stereotype of what a problem gambler is: the old horse player, the old casino player, the middle-aged male who's lost his family, his job, his home. Nowhere do you hear about college-age youth. We're very much aware that there's drug abuse on campus or binge drinking, yet we rarely hear about gambling."
Alex has a nightclub cast to him: thick frame, pitch-black hair gelled and spiked, five o'clock shadow and a stylish button-down shirt open to the chest. He jabbers, a little manic, in the heavy tones of the Queens neighborhood where he grew up, a half hour's drive on the Long Island Expressway from Manhattan. He began playing online as a high school senior, sitting alone in the middle of the night in the darkened ground-floor kitchen of his parents' house. He listened for the sound of his father, an early riser, waking up, so he could cut the monitor's power. "I had to play in secret," he says, "in what I guess you could call twilight hours."
He funded his gambling by scalping tickets to concerts and ball games online, collecting from the buyers through PayPal and transferring the proceeds directly into accounts on PartyPoker.com or UltimateBet.com; he never saw cash, nor did he provide proof of age. Though he lost consistently, his ticket business brought in enough to sustain him.
As an Indiana freshman, unsupervised and with 24-hour Internet access, he played and lost much more heavily. On his dorm floor, he says, "everyone I lived with was a crazy gambling addict. I had people watching me, cheering me on while I was playing." Danny, a classmate whom Alex has known since freshman year, regards him with awe. "I've never seen anything like it. I've never seen a gambler like Alex. Freshman and sophomore year, there was no stopping him." (At this, Alex smiles with wan pride.) By the end of the year he was overdrawn on several checking accounts and failing at ticket resales; he was forced to ask his father to bail him out, the only time he's done so. "He paid off everything," Alex says. "It's funny--we had always had kind of a friendship relationship, but then we became more like father and son."
On academic probation during his sophomore year, Alex limited his play, but by junior year, flush with cash from resales on the '03 Yankees--Red Sox American League Championship Series and from investors in his ticket business, he resumed poker. Then, however, he began playing in isolation, the door to his room locked and the lights out, often a lugubrious album called Give Up by the indie-pop duo the Postal Service on repeat. He lost tens of thousands of dollars, without interruption.
"I played for 12, 15 hours straight, wouldn't do anything but gamble," he says. "Playing with friends wasn't the same rush, but playing alone was so intense, it was exactly what I wanted. Just thinking about it makes me want to do it. It feels like an insane rush. Like the best drug I've never taken, the biggest rush you could imagine. If I was up, everything was perfect, and if I was losing, I was mad, frustrated. It was hand to hand. Because when you win a big hand, that moment right before the cards are flipped, it's like that moment right before tickets to a big concert go on sale. It's like you're a manic depressive. You're scared, happy, nervous, anxious...."
The speed of his language ebbs, his words grind slow; he has lost interest. He picks at the plate of food in front of him. "You want to check out this game?"
Alex makes the short drive from Kilroy's with his girlfriend and steps into a large, bright living room where a dozen students have assembled around a kitchen table, a Nuggets-Suns playoff game buzzing in the background. Alex stations himself next to a friend counting chips out from a heavy silver case and peels two $20s from his pocket. He assembles two stacks of equal size, pushes them together and waits, expectant, for the first hand.
Under the gun, he raises the $1 blind to $5, and gets three callers. When the flop comes 3-5-7, with two diamonds, he opens for $5 more, and after a flurry of raises and reraises, calls for all his chips. He shows ace-4 of diamonds, meaning he's drawing to a deuce, six or any other diamond. His only opponent, Scott, flips 5-7 off-suit--two pair--which holds up when fourth and fifth are dealt. Alex's girlfriend turns, incredulous, from the couch where she's been watching basketball. "That's it?" she asks. Alex shrugs, sweating. "That's it."
Five minutes later he's standing on a stoop outside, shivering as a light drizzle begins to fall on Bloomington. He's just finished a bummed cigarette, and he's wired, unfocused, flitting between topics. He does not play strategically, he admits. He regards himself as too impatient for that. He'll pick up any two suited cards and play them fast, as he has just done. (Other players might say that when hands like king-9 suited start looking playable, it's time to get up from the table.) Locking himself in his dorm room, killing the lights, he suggests, re-creates those nights in his parents' kitchen, when he hid not from shame but from the fear of being caught. He cannot go back to his parents, for money or for psychological help, because he regards himself as a failure. Alex's sister had promised to help him find a job in film production but reneged because of his irresponsibility.
"My hands were still shaking when I had that cigarette," he says. "I'd been praying for that diamond. I was thinking I'd take this $40." He pauses, reassesses. "But I don't even have this money." Asked whether he has considered counseling for gambling addiction, he replies that he doesn't need it, because he can control his habit.
Hours later Alex sits at a round wooden table on the disheveled ground floor of Danny's house. He is in a careless way playing, and losing at, hearts. Elimidate thrums on a television in the corner; a woman is informing her would-be suitors, one of whom has announced he's not seeking a serious relationship, that she's six months pregnant. Asked whether he watches TV poker, Alex says he does, the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour, and that he most admires Phil Ivey, a 27-year-old pro who plays with a dyspeptic scowl sewn on his face. "He's so stoic," Alex says. "He has no emotions."
Several sluggish tricks go by, and two minutes pass in silence before Alex perks up from his cards, graced with an unexpected insight. "It's like he's playing alone." ‚ñ†
ONE DAY IN POKER
This was the estimated traffic last Saturday in ring games--which account for about three quarters of business--at five major Internet poker sites, according to PokerPulse.com
|SITE||PLAYERS*||HANDS DEALT||AMOUNT WAGERED||RAKE|
|PartyPoker.com||11,640||2.5 million||$99.2 million||$2.6 million|
*Average number of players on the site at any one time
"In college you live wired," Strasser says. "The number of hands you can play, the amount of thinking and studying you can do about those hands--EVERYTHING'S ACCELERATED."
"Sadly, the thrill is gone from online poker," the old-school Brunson laments in Super/System. "You can't send opponents home whimpering, because they're ALREADY HOME WHIMPERING."
Below her usual stakes, SELBST IS SLUMMING. "These players don't know what they're doing," she says. "Calling all-in with ace-jack after a raise-reraise?" The affront to strategy bothers her most.
Unlike casino gambling, which pits players against the house, in poker the losers pay the winners. Says Yale's Capo, "It's a sea of sharks and fishes. THE MONEY FEEDS UP FROM THE BOTTOM."
"Students are at the HIGHEST-RISK AGE," says Derevensky. "They think they're smarter than anyone else--invulnerable."