By JJ Yang
Time: Thursday night around 11 p.m.
Place: Crown-Merrill apartments.
Ten people huddle around a large circular table as a cloud of smoke fills the room. Pinned on the wall is a poster of Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, the messianic professional poker player. The group calls itself the "Rounders," after the 1998 cult film. The game they play?
No Limit Texas Hold’em.
"It’s a thrill ride with every hand you play," said Eli Schluman, the president and founder of the Rounders club. "It’s a great game because it combines elements of skill, luck, and flat out intimidation."
Texas Hold’em is the most popular variation of poker. Players are each dealt two cards, which they must pair with any of the five "community cards" to make the best poker hand they can. The community cards are dealt out first in a threesome-the flop. Players bet before and after the flop is dealt. Then comes the turn-another community card, and finally the river, the last community card. With so many rounds of betting, pots can grow quickly, making the game especially nerve-racking.
With each player buying in for $10, the winner tonight will go home $100 richer. After multiple flops, deals, bets and calls, the table eventually dwindles down to two players: Schluman and Dmitriy "The Russian Assassin" Kulikov.
Kulikov’s stoic personality immediately draws comparisons to Teddy KGB, the ruthless card shark played by John Malcovich in Rounders.
"I get teased a lot about that," Kulikov said with a rare grin on his face. "Whatever, I’ll use it to my advantage."
It works. Kulikov slow-plays his pocket aces to draw Schluman all-in with pocket kings. The flop, turn, and river are no help for Schluman, and Kulikov takes the pot.
"With classes the way they are, it’s great to come down once a week and blow off some steam," Kulikov says eyeing the prize money. "The money isn’t too shabby either."
Texas Hold’em has been booming in popularity since 2003, thanks to the emergence of online gambling sites and extended television coverage on ESPN. The effects of the poker boom have been felt all over the country, even as the future of Internet gambling and poker play remains uncertain in the wake of an October 2006 bill that limits credit card and bank transfers to online gambling sites.
Despite questions about the legality of online poker, real life games from the Las Vegas Bellagio to local card rooms are filled to capacity by a new generation of card players.
Jason Karar is a dealer for the local Ocean View Card Shop on Pacific Avenue. In his four-year tenure, he has seen the shop-a Santa Cruz cornerstone since 1988-reach new heights.
"Business has picked up in the past few years," Karar said. "Everyday, I see more and more people coming in to play Hold’em poker."
High-stakes tournaments are being held all over the world, with the most prestigious being the World Series of Poker Main Event. Jamie Gold, a Hollywood producer, took in a record $12 million after winning the 2006 tournament, televised on ESPN.
But while poker can be incredibly intense to play in person, the potential for winning big-or losing big-has been much greater online, where game play happens much quicker and individual hands can be worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
Liam*, a fourth-year UCSC student, started playing Texas Hold’em online after seeing the game on television. After an initial deposit of just $30, Liam accumulated winnings in "the high five figures" in just three years.
"I used to play quite a bit of home games around here, but the problem was that the people here just couldn’t compare in the stakes," Liam said. "We’d play No Limit with $10 or $20 buy-ins, but when I was playing with much higher stakes and winning or losing $300 pots, a $10 buy-in can’t compare."
For Liam, online poker became a job, as he played up to eight different tables at a time using dual computer screens. He credits his success to discipline and the large amount of time he spent reading books and studying the game.
But even he had bad days.
"The worst day, I lost about $8,000," Liam admitted, noting that he had more than enough winnings from previous game-play to cover that amount. "You have to consider poker in the long run. Two years earlier I lost $100 and it felt the same [as losing $8,000]. Poker desensitized me to money."
Liam added, "A lot of people get into debt."
THE SAFE PORT ACT
In October of 2006, President Bush signed HR-4954, the Safe Port Act, into law. Under the provisions of the homeland security bill, U.S. ports would be subjected to tighter enforcement laws and regulation. Buried deep inside the 240 page-long bill was the "Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act," a last-minute amendment added just hours before the vote.
Previous attempts to pass a bill to limit Internet gambling had not passed on their own.
The act specifically targets credit cards and their use on online gaming sites. The legislation also prohibits the transfer of funds from bank accounts to Internet gambling sites.
The bill passed, 409-2.
David Robertson, a member of the Board of Directors for the National Coalition against Legalized Gambling, praised the bill.
"Gambling over the Internet is like a drug that cripples people’s ability to function," Robertson said. "It’s the responsibility of the government to protect the general welfare of its citizens."
Santa Cruz Congressman Sam Farr was among the bill’s supporters, but not because of its anti-gambling provisions. Farr agreed that the bill was important in the fight against terrorism, but didn’t think it was such a good idea to attach an amendment regarding Internet gambling.
"[While] I think that Internet gambling is addictive and only makes it easier for people to rack up large amounts of debt, it was more important to have the necessary port security legislation than to defeat the bill because of the [Internet gambling] amendments," Farr told CHP via email.
John Pappas, a representative of the Poker Players Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group of 130,000, also thought that the connection between homeland security and Internet gambling was inappropriate, stating that legislators have constantly tried to target the poker industry.
"I have strong reservations for a [gambling] prohibition act tacked on for a bill focused on national security," Pappas said.
Pappas instead suggests a regulation and taxation of the online industry, citing that prohibition doesn’t work.
"We have urged Congress to consider a study of online poker and how to regulate it," Pappas said. "Fellow countries like the UK, Ireland and Australia have been successful in regulating online [gambling], the United States should follow their example."
Supporters of the act are in favor of limiting access to gaming venues, because gambling is an addiction where unreasonable amounts of money are put on the line. The Internet provides an outlet for gamblers to go unnoticed and uninterrupted for large amounts of time, allowing them to spiral deeper and deeper into their addiction.
According to Robertson, an addiction may lead to an increased risk of suicide.
Robertson cited a study from the University of Connecticut that found 75 percent of all Internet poker players "addicted or seriously involved."
"Sure, the game has elements of skill," Robertson said, "but it still involves luck. If you can’t get the cards, you can’t win."
Harold*, a public relations chairperson for Northern California Gamblers Anonymous, takes a different approach to gambling addiction. His organization doesn’t have an official stance on the current legislation; instead, it provides support and help for people who recognize the dangers of their addiction.
As a recovering gambler, Harold points out that simply limiting access to online venues will not stop people from playing the game.
"In the 1970s I managed to play a game of poker with a pen and paper at the cafeteria of San Francisco State," Harold said. "Gamblers are smart, they’ll find a way."
He continued, "Gamblers are gamblers, poker is just a medium to carry out an addiction. There are no good seats on the Titanic if the ship is already sinking."
Daniel Negreanu, a well-known professional poker player, has a similar viewpoint on how some people can inevitably take their interest with poker a step too far.
"Poker is a game," Negreanu said in a previous interview with CHP. "If you allow your kids to play chess, basketball, or baseball, those are all potential gateways into gambling and if they have addictive personalities, then that is a possibility."
For Liam, the story is a little different. Despite winning enough money to cover grad school tuition, poker soon became more of a chore than a fun game to play. He had already quit playing before the legislation passed, and maintains that he never became addicted, but feels that the government should not regulate what people can do with their money.
"If a father has a gambling problem and he gambles away the house, then it’s a moral issue," Liam said. "Certainly gambling in general can ruin lives; I’m not going to sugarcoat this. But does that mean we should ban it?
"No, not to me, because there are millions who have fun. You can lose just as much money in Las Vegas. So why target online [gambling]?"
The effects of the "Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act" are evident even though industry experts predict that the online gambling industry-which the American Gaming Association estimates to have pulled in over $12 billion in revenue in 2006-will find a way to work around it eventually.
After the signing of the bill last October, Party Gaming, a publicly-traded poker company, saw its stock fall almost 68 percent.
In a November article from the Guardian Unlimited, a UK-based newspaper, Paradise Poker reported that it is looking at a 90 percent loss in sales and revenue as a result of the departure of American players from the online poker site.
However, Full Tilt Poker, one of the leading online poker companies, has not ceased all operations. Based in Canada, fulltiltpoker.com has continued to allow real-money transactions. Keith**, a senior customer support representative for Full Tilt Poker, explained why his cardroom has continued to service American customers.
"We are fully licensed and regulated to serve players all over the world, and the United States is no exception," Keith said, pointing out that the legislation does not specifically criminalize the act of playing online poker, only the use of credit cards on gambling websites.
And with huge online companies like Party Poker and Paradise Poker ceasing real money transactions for American players, Full Tilt has seen an increase of web traffic of over 50 percent.
"We firmly believe that online poker is not encompassed by this new legislation," Keith said. "As poker is a game of skill rather than pure chance, we hope that it will not be affected by this new bill."
Back on campus, with ten bills valued at $10 each safely implanted on his wallet, the Russian Assassin traces his steps back home. Remaining at the table all alone is Schluman, drinking a bottle of Diet Coke while looking at an application form to apply for Student Organization Advising and Resources (SOAR) recognition. Being SOAR affiliated would mean that UC Santa Cruz would officially recognize the Rounders as a campus club.
The university will not recognize a club if real money is being gambled. However, the Rounders, like FullTiltPoker, see poker as a skill-based game, rather than a gamble.
"The benefits of an SOAR affiliation are obvious," explains Schluman. "But people fail to understand that Texas Hold’Em is not ‘gambling’."
Schluman turns on the television and pops his favorite movie into the DVD player. Soon enough, Mike McDermott is on the screen talking…
"Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table of the World Series of Poker every year? What, are they the luckiest guys in Las Vegas?"
*Name chanaged at request
**No last name provided