Confessions of an online gambler - Sunday 12th of June 2005

When I first learned how to play Texas Hold 'Em after watching Late Night Poker on Channel 4, I was the only person I knew who played. And that, of course, meant that I didn't. A poker player without anyone to play against is not a player at all.

That's when I discovered the internet. Although few of my friends could be tempted to sit around a table with nothing but a deck of cards between them, logging on to any number of online card rooms meant I could find a game at any time, for any stakes, with any number of players.

I could compete for 'play' money if I didn't have the real money to lose, or I could sit myself down with a week's wages and gradually distribute it across the world. I had neither the knowledge nor the bankroll to enter the intimidating surroundings of a bricks and mortar casino, but two or three nights a week I could be up against players from Las Vegas, Tokyo or Stockholm without ever leaving my home.

These were the relatively early days of online poker, and though on the surface little has changed since, it is no longer such a solitary pursuit. Barely a day seems to go by without a news story surfacing about online gambling, and words such as "epidemic" are even used when discussing the recent surge in interest.

Its success, though, is not surprising. Just as eBay managed to create and then fill a niche for global person-to-person trading, the major online poker sites brought together prospective players from around the world and offered them the opportunity to pit their wits against one another whenever they desired.

The sites make their money from taking a percentage cut of any money wagered (up to a pre-defined "cap") and most recreational players hardly even notice this disappearing from the table.

The boom in online poker was already well under way when the appropriately named Chris Moneymaker, a 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee, won first prize at the 2003 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, the biggest "real" poker tournament in the world.

Moneymaker had won his $10,000 entry fee in an online satellite tournament, costing $40, and when he went on to triumph against a then-record field of 839 players, he had in effect parlayed $40 into $2.5 million.

PokerStars, the site where Moneymaker had won his seat, seized the marketing opportunity with both hands, making the married, clean-living recreational player, the poster-boy of responsible gambling.

Thousands of new players logged on, all hoping to become the new Moneymaker, and when Greg Raymer, another internet player, won the World Series in 2004, the field had swelled to 2,576 players and the first prize to $5 million.

This year's tournament, scheduled for Las Vegas in July, is expected to be a 6,600-player sell-out, more than half of whom are likely to have qualified online. The winner is guaranteed considerably more than just their approximate $12 million prize with ESPN's television coverage certain to create another poker celebrity.

Apart from an obvious gulf in ability, I am no different from either Moneymaker, Raymer or this year's winner. I have a regular job and a steady income and wager some of it in online poker tournaments. Although the chance of that big win remains a distant prospect for 99.9 per cent of players, myself included, the poker bubble shows no sign of bursting.

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