Join Bridge Winners
A First Person History of a Card Boom
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Circa 1998-1999. Location, Hollywood Park Casino, Inglewood CA. Los Angeles Sectional Bridge Tournament.

I had been playing bridge off and on a bit with a new partner that I met in the lunch room at the law firm where we worked. There was a foursome that played and, I, considering myself far too advanced for them, kibbitzed. I had some sectional wins under my belt from my days in Omaha, D14. I invited one of the players to play at Beverly Hills Bridge Club and we had some success early on.  We tried this Sectional, but as we did not scratch, I can't give you an exact date.

However, the location of the tournament would interrupt my bridge career for over 10 years as my interest turned to the action on the poker tables, where one was not hampered by the frailties of one's partner. You have no partner at poker. It's just you against 8 other players. At that point, in order to be the poker champion of the world, you only had to beat out around 500 other challengers. Today the number who pony up the $10,000 for a shot at the World Series of Poker Main Event bracelet is more than 10 times that number.

It was a sleepy little game, relegated to the backrooms and worst floor space in the casinos in Vegas. It did better in CA where Vegas style table games were banned. Grizzled old guys who seemed to know so much more about the game than me sat for hours and even days in the same chair, not moving, pulling in cards, peeking, folding, calling, raising, scooping pots and losing more. The noise, clatter and most of all the chips had me before I bought my entry for that day's sectional.

I would stay out all night playing cards. That was another advantage. The bridge game ended at 10:30 or 11 at the latest. Poker never stopped. A player might go bust, dig into an empty pocket, do the walk of shame over to the ATM, unable to return because there was no reprieve in the account. But there was always a board, on which were the real or contrived initiials or names of another eager player, desperate to get in on the action.

We had a scruffy little newsprint magazine, Card Player and we had our bricks and mortar casinos in CA or Vegas or Atlantic City. And virtually nowhere else. Oh sure, pretty much everyone you knew could play at a friend's home game. But home games were short, not well run, and focused more on beer and sandwiches than the subtlties of play.

There were a couple of authoritative texts, nothing like the libraries full of materials that I had consumed as a bridge player. And now I had arrived. I was a card player,, after all, not just a bridge player. From the time I was 5 years old and had to sit on the phone book to see over the kitchen table to play, I had played dozens of variations of cards: rummy games, pinochle, hearts, spades, pitch, cribbage and a game that Mom called 500, pretty much the closest thing to bridge that hit my youth. And never poker. But as a teen I read a short section of a book on poker. And like every poker player everywhere, I was convinced that that little bit of reading gave me an edge on the whole world. Despite never having played the game. Ever.

So in 1997 you have maybe 20-40 cardrooms nationwide running maybe 100-200 tables a day of poker. No big deal.

Also, around 1995, maybe 93, I dunno, Al Gore, you remember him, invented this thing called the internet and I used it to play on Sierra Bridge where we had a grand old time until AOL came along, bought it and closed it. And we saved our $100/month after that.

I opened my first online poker account in November 1998 on a site long ago shutdown called Planet Poker. Dunno why that one.  JKP1 was the handle. Then, not too much later, I was 4Jacks on Paradise Poker, with a Carribean theme skin. 4Jacks in honor of the wired 4Jacks (in the first 4 cards that I had been recently dealt in the Hollywood Park $6/$12 7 card stud game).

I had read Doyle Brunson's Super System, David Sklansky's Theory of Poker and a few other books by this time. But the pickings were slim. When I hit that 4th Jack, I dutifully checked, no matter how obvious it seems, just like Sklansky advised. Sure enough my OPP reraised my raise on 5th street and a lot of pretty green chips went into the pot.

Around this time, my wife suggested that we buy this movie "with really great actors" (Matt Damon and Ed Norton) from PPV on our DirecTV account. I said OK. And the first line hooked me. "Here's the deal. If you can't spot the sucker in the first 30 minutes of play, then you are the sucker." The main character is a law student, sort of. But really he's a poker player. By the end, he drops out of law school to head for Vegas to chase a dream of winning the World Series of Poker. Benny Binion (or the kids, if was already dead), should have sponsored the movie.

So there were cardrooms. And young(er) guys (like I was then) quoting rounders lines every time something happened at the table. And spotting suckers and being suckers and dreaming of telling the man to F' off. And then going home and playing in these little online cardrooms and running up debt on their credit cards, but it was OK because it was 1999 and there was so much money everywhere from the dot com boom that everyone could afford to be a loser in the name of learning the game.

Meanwhile, the nicest lady in the world, let's call her LJ, who would become a friend of mine and poker confidant, liked to go on cruises. So to get herself a reason to cruise and free cruises besides, she started a company called Card Player Cruises. And another online card room was taking the space by storm by concentrating both in Europe and in the US and it was called Party Poker.

So LJ got Party Poker to sponsor a tournament on one of her cruises and everyone had great fun and most of the cruisers became PP players and LJ got a cut of the rake and there was much money raining down every where because it was 1999. And on one of these cruises, this CourtTV guy who lucked into the OJ trial, so everyone thought he was a genius, was on the cruise. And the idea for the World Poker Tour was hatched. And poker was on TV and you could see their hole cards. Maybe the CourtTV guy really was a genius.

So pretty soon every college kid in America was playing online poker professionally, even though it's a negative sum game due to the effect of the rake. But you cannot go to college without learning Texas Hold 'Em. More popular than bridge on college campuses in Goren's heyday. Seriously. And these WPT guys become celebrities even though most of 'em have to go into debt to get entered into the tournaments. It was said about one of them, "He's sold so much of himself that he can't afford to win." Like The Producers, right?

And from here, a lot of the story is public knowledge so I'll stop.

But, just remember, it was the most disrespected card game, even more than bridge. Certainly then, and maybe even now.  And some people with an honest love of the game and a nose for the right help and a willingness to work harder than heck for a long time with little appreciation, made it into one of the hottest fads of the first decade of the 21st Century.

Oh, some things I wanted to get in here but forgot. The poker community had it's own corner of the universe where Sklansky and his comrade Mason Malmuth held court and reigned supreme . . . 2+2 it was called, and like BridgeWinners only worse (or better) experts contributed, and some not so experts too. Debates raged. Flame wars got people banned. And a great deal was learnt. Some of it right too. And soon, some 2+2'ers knew more about the modern game than the Poohbahs, Sklansky and Malmuth. I think Jerrod A. is over here now, or at least I saw a similar name the other day.

And poker drew so much money out of the pockets of people that their dads called their friends at the Fed and the Justice Dept (this is not political, Eugene, honest) and got the whole racket shut down. Sort of. Because you never really kill a boom like that. And here's a hint: Does a card player ever really quit playing cards? Or does she just shift games?

But it started one day from far less than what the bridge world has today in infrastructure. Whether that was good for poker and bad for bridge, I can't say.

I can only say that with the right chemistry and a little magic fairy dust, it could happen to our game too. If people would be a little more open-minded about letting people play as poorly as they want to without getting yelled at for fixing an old-time pro one time in the Monday afternoon club game.

I didn't check for typos, but may later.

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