Writing in the UK poker magazine Inside Poker this week, Alun Bowden asked some interesting questions about the future of high stakes poker and the development of the game on Internet nosebleed tables.
Following a week of particularly big pots and frenetic action on the high stakes tables at Full Tilt Poker it's a timely examination of the phenomenon.
Bowden notes that five years ago The Big Game at the private Bobby's Room at the Bellagio in Las Vegas was where the world's richest cash games could be found, an exclusive and discreet venue that produced legendary poker action among the planet's high rollers.
But, Bowden points out, "…walk into the Bellagio, anytime other than during the major festvials during 2009, and Bobby’s Room is likely to be empty. Instead, inside the gated communities around the outskirts of Las Vegas the high-stakes pros can be found playing online in games where pots of $500 000 are rapidly becoming commonplace.
"The highest stakes games in the world are being played online, available for anyone to watch. The stakes are higher than ever in poker history and rapidly running out of control."
Bowden goes on to examine the history behind this switch to the online environment, explaining the meteoric rise of high stakes online poker and reporting that in the early years of the Internet game – a mere five or six years back – the major poker sites were PokerStars and Party Poker, neither being keen on opening up high stakes cash gaming. It was the then PrimaPoker network (now Microgaming Poker Network) and UltimateBet that took the lead in this area.
"At UltimateBet, it was players like CardRunners founder, Taylor Caby and the legendary Prahlad ‘Spirit Rock’ Friedman who were killing the high-stakes action at stakes up to $50/$100," Bowden records. "But it was a European who arguably led the initial rise of online poker as a spectator sport. Norwegian, Johnny Lodden absolutely destroyed the big games on Prima during 2006, reportedly winning around $7 million.
"His fame blazed across the internet after he became involved in the [at that time] biggest pot of all time. The $465 000 pot sent online forums into meltdown as small-stakes grinders began to realise just how big the stakes were getting and a new type of poker icon began to be emerge."
Bowden goes on to claim that it wasn’t until 2007 that the major movement of big money action to the Internet really caught on, with young players like Brian ‘sbrugby’ Townsend dominating the high-stakes no-limit tables. New poker heroes in this genre now proliferate, with the swings in fortune and millions of dollars involving youthful players like Tom ‘durrr' Dwan being avidly followed by a new generation of Internet poker players.
"He [Dwan] quickly achieved cult status from a series of incredible hands posted online such as a famous one against [Patrik] Antonius where he called with third pair in a $400 000 pot. Suddenly the hands being talked about online were not those from the TV, but the huge bluffs and calls from the high-stakes online games," Bowden recalls.
The Inside Poker article records that by 2008 the big money was being made on the Internet high stakes tables, naming poker aces like Phil Ivey and fellow Big Game alumni Gus Hansen and David Benyamine as leading participants.
"It all but killed off the big live action, and live game specialists like Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein suddenly were without a game," the article claims, noting that on the Internet, the games themselves were undergoing a major evolution as the action moved from NLHE to PLO "…as the fish in the hold’em world started to vanish."
The stakes also kept rising, first to $300/$600 and then up to the massive $500/$1 000 games that run today.
Bowden looks at the extremes that have developed, remarking that this year Tom Dwan and Ilari Sahamies played a heads-up pot-limit Omaha game where the effective blinds were $3 000/$9 000. "The two players agreed to raise and re-raise before the flop every hand. It led to some huge pots, and arguably the highest-stakes poker game ever seen," Bowden reports.
The downside of these exhilarating developments is covered by Bowden in his concluding paragraphs, where he asks: "But how long can it all last? As Phil Galfond recently said the games are currently running so high that most players simply avoid each other. Could it be the high-stakes online games eventually start to eat themselves?
"Although Full Tilt must love the legions of railbirds that flock to the site to watch the games, perhaps the huge $500/$1,000 may prove to be a step too far for the poker economy. Nobody is really bankrolled for these games, and with the stakes getting ever higher will it eventually turn into a circus freak show and implode in on itself? Either way, in this new era of poker we can all watch it play out in front of our eyes."
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