Building the L.A. of “All That Glitters”: Out of the Past

This article excerpt, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in full — along with expanded audio content — exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleThe film influences that went into crafting the Los Angeles of “All That Glitters” are too numerous to mention. (Or at least too numerous to iterate in a single Chronicle entry.) After all, many of the signature characteristics of the city — at least within the crime genre — are common to nearly the entirety of the noir ouvre. Not that The Gambler’s Tale fits definitively in the noir model: I like to think the world we portray isn’t quite as irredeemable as is the case in true noir, which is why I tend to refer to our story as a hardboiled crime drama — a subtle distinction, but distinct nonetheless. I’ve always thought of it as a sort of hybrid with roots in film noir or hardboiled crime fiction in general. With that in mind, it’s only right to at least attempt to highlight a few memorable standouts.

[What] makes Los Angeles unique as a setting is that the omnipresent sunshine and wide-open spaces serve to make the dark alleys and backroom dealings all the more jarring.

Two of Billy Wilder’s classics immediately come to mind. First, 1944’s Double Indemnity, which presents L.A. as a place where otherwise appealing people are willing to do terrible things, executing an intricate, cold-blooded fraud and murder scheme in the service of all-consuming ambition. Second, 1950’s Sunset Blvd. throws into sharp relief the ultimate futility of ignoring reality in favor of a preferred fantasy, as well as the dissonance between the utter corruption and moral bankruptcy of Hollywood and its irresistible appeal. And both of them highlight the sharp divide between the way things work for the rich and powerful and the less well-connected among us.

That same divide comes through in Howard Hawks’s 1946 classic The Big Sleep, which also deserves credit for explicitly portraying an illicit gambling operation — The Cypress Club — that villain Eddie Mars operates without the slightest fear of legal complications. Of course, we can only hope to recapture a fraction of the chemistry between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in that film — though I do think we manage to resolve our mysteries a bit more cleanly. The Big Sleep also features a memorable scene where the protagonist, Philip Marlowe, attempts to decode a mysterious cipher, a task Jimmy also tackles in “All That Glitters” (and which may be of particular interest to anyone who listens all the way through Quorum’s end credits).

Be sure to check out the complete article, in both text and enhanced audio formats, along with the rest of The Quorum Chronicle series, at our Patreon page. And thanks so much for your continuing support of Jabberwocky Audio Theater!

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

Building the L.A. of “All That Glitters”: Obsessing Over the Details

This article excerpt, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in full — along with expanded audio content — exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleAs an author, when crafting any new story, it’s important to make sure your environment is fleshed out as much as possible. For one thing, even if much of that background material is never explicitly referenced in the final result, it helps you avoid inconsistencies — which careful readers, viewers, or listeners will notice, no matter how much you might try to convince yourself otherwise. For another, it gives you a foundation on which to make revisions — and rest assured, no matter how confident you are in your initial outlines, there will be revisions. And finally, it ensures that your world has the same kind of tonal consistency as your story and characters.

The Hall of Records is a genuine location, and one I couldn’t readily fictionalize without breaking the illusion of reality… but for the sake of storytelling, I opted to retain the location while dramatizing its contents.

The first season of The Gambler’s Tale, “Outstanding Debts,” was set in and around Las Vegas, and I took great pains to make sure my representation of the city was as thorough as possible. That’s not to say it was completely, factually accurate, but it was based in reality — which meant that any time I deviated from reality, I did so intentionally, and made sure that within the bounds of my tale, everything remained consistent. The casinos and other locations may have been fictional, but I made sure I knew where each of them was situated geographically, even to the point of checking traffic routes and distances between them. Anyone who’s spent any time in Las Vegas — and, admittedly, my time there has been limited — will know there’s a big difference between the classic casinos on Fremont Street and the Strip-based megaresorts.

This season, The Gambler’s Tale heads to Los Angeles with “All That Glitters.” And once again, I wanted to make sure to present the city in as detailed a manner as possible. Again, that’s not to say it’s exactly accurate in the strictest sense, but any alterations to reality are made with deliberate intent. For example, we feature several real-life locations and landmarks — such as the Griffith Park Observatory, the Roosevelt Hotel, the Exposition Park Rose Garden, the L.A. Civic Center, and the viaducts crossing the Los Angeles River — but just as many fictional ones. As a general rule of thumb, in cases where I’d be depicting these locations as they appear in real life — or where they were too iconic to reimagine as fictional alternatives — I would go ahead and reference them directly. But in instances where the location was purely fictional, even if comparable to some real-life location, I’d take the time to give it its own distinct flavor, while still anchoring it alongside its real-world analogue (or analogues).

Be sure to check out the complete article, in both text and enhanced audio formats, along with the rest of The Quorum Chronicle series, at our Patreon page. And thanks so much for your continuing support of Jabberwocky Audio Theater!

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

The Most Famous Poker Game in Hollywood

This article excerpt, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in full — along with expanded audio content — exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

It’s said that California — and Los Angeles in particular — has the most poker playing going on of anywhere outside of Las Vegas. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t really matter; in a town that thrives on storytelling, the truth is at best a passing consideration.

But there certainly are a lot of often high-stakes games going on, whether at the regulated cardrooms or in private settings — which made situating the second season of The Gambler’s Talein the City of Angels a natural fit. And in filling out the environment of this tale, one real-life game served as at least initial inspiration for Margaret Florian’s undertaking in “All That Glitters” — that of Molly Bloom, as related in her memoir, Molly’s Game: From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker, and its film adaptation, Aaron Sorkin’s more succinctly titled Molly’s Game.

Be sure to check out the complete article, in both text and enhanced audio formats, along with the rest of The Quorum Chronicle series, at our Patreon page. And thanks so much for your continuing support of Jabberwocky Audio Theater!

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

Leaving Las Vegas: Gambling in California

This article excerpt, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in full — along with expanded audio content — exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleThe world of gambling as depicted in the second season of The Gambler’s Tale, “All That Glitters,” is decidedly different than that in “Outstanding Debts.” No longer is our story set against the backdrop of high-stakes Las Vegas poker, with its unique set of professional players and power brokers. Moreover, online poker is no longer an ongoing concern. As of the summer of 2012, when our story is set, not much had changed since the conclusion of our first season, at least not as will impact the world of Quorum — online funds remained largely unavailable to players, and the dust was still settling in terms of criminal indictments and civil actions. But most importantly, we’re not in Las Vegas anymore. And gambling in California is decidedly different.

Under California law, percentage games are illegal, but because poker falls outside that category, whether or not you want to consider poker “gambling,” that specific prohibition doesn’t apply.

Popular wisdom (at least in the United States) holds that gambling is legal in Nevada (and Atlantic City) but illegal pretty much everywhere else. But that is far from the reality. Still, attempting to apply any kind of consistent logic to the various legal restrictions can quickly become an exercise in futility. For one thing, as we touched on in one of our earlier entries in this series, coming up with a single, coherent definition as to what constitutes “gambling” is problematic at best. For another, most jurisdictions are more than happy to ban gambling — largely on moral pretext — right up until they have a chance to share in the often-substantial profits, or when the beneficiaries are charitable organizations (as if the purported immorality of promoting such an insidious activity as gambling miraculously changes based on who’s running the game). And sometimes, a particular form of gambling is just too ingrained in the public consciousness — or its operators are too powerful — to prohibit outright.

A prime example of this last point is betting on horse races, as is featured in this season of Quorum. The full history is far too complicated to go into here, but in a nutshell, horse racing is so ingrained into the nation’s culture that despite the underlying structure being effectively identical to comparable forms of gambling that are largely illegal, such as sports betting, it would be extraordinarily difficult to prohibit. (With specific regard to California, horse racing was legalized by voter referendum back in 1933.) That said, until 1970, all horse betting had to take place at the actual track. That year, New York became the first state to legalize off-track betting — that is, betting on a race taking place other than where the wager was physically placed. But after actual racetracks complained that they were losing revenue to off-site betting parlors, the federal government stepped in with the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978. This act certainly didn’t require states to allow off-track betting, but at the very least it allowed them a clear framework within which to do so, as well as establishing that states had the right to regulate the process. (California does allow such off-track betting and has a number of authorized betting outlets.) In a surprising parallel to the world of online poker, regular debates around the applicability of the Interstate Wire Act of 1961 to horse betting often raged. And in an ironic twist, while the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (or UIGEA) referenced in season one of Quorum was intended, at least substantially, to target online poker, that same act carved out an explicit exemption for online horse betting, enshrining its status as a legal form of gambling.

Be sure to check out the complete article, in both text and enhanced audio formats, along with the rest of The Quorum Chronicle series, at our Patreon page. And thanks so much for your continuing support of Jabberwocky Audio Theater!

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

La La Land

This article excerpt, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in full — along with expanded audio content — exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleReal estate speculation has long been a vital part of the American economy — and prompted more than a bit of illicit activity. To quote Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor (to whom we even give a little shout-out in our tale), “Son, stocks may rise and fall, utilities and transportation systems may collapse. People are no damn good. But they will always need land, and they will pay through the nose to get it.” And while Luthor’s plan — destroying half of California to create a new west coast — was appropriately grandiose, befitting an iconic movie supervillain, we’re definitely more grounded in Quorum.

The contentious Kelo v. City of New London Supreme Court case in 2004 affirmed that city governments had the right to seize property and turn it over to private developers, rather than solely for public works projects.

In my first outlines of the script, the specifics were vaguely defined. I was more interested in developing the character conflicts and general motivations than in the details — at least initially. But once I began researching the backdrop of Los Angeles in 2012 (since, just as “Outstanding Debts” was linked to a specific time, so too would our second story arc, “All That Glitters”), I uncovered a wealth of real-life drama that I could incorporate as backdrop, even if substantially modified to work within the scope of our tale.

The most memorable of these, of course, is the demolition and replacement of the Sixth Street Viaduct, which spans the LA river from the city’s downtown Arts District to Boyle Heights. Originally built in 1932, the bridge had long been an iconic fixture of the Los Angeles cityscape, being featured in countless films and television series, including Grease, Terminator 2, Gone in 60 Seconds, Tapeheads, 24, and Lost, just to name a few. It was even declared eligible for inclusion in the National Registry of Historic Places. But engineers discovered that the substandard chemical composition of the bridge’s concrete had resulted in a chemical process known as alkali-silica reaction (colloquially referred to as “concrete cancer”), causing it to deteriorate a mere 20 years following its construction. Various methods had been used over the decades to try and ameliorate the damage, but ultimately, seismic vulnerability studies revealed that the bridge was in danger of collapse in the event of a major earthquake, and the bridge’s inevitable closure and demolition planning began. A design competition was launched for the bridge’s replacement in April of 2012, with the winning submission — from architect Michael Maltzan and the Kansas City-based HNTB infrastructure design firm — being announced that October. The new design, called “The Ribbon of Light,” features sweeping cable-supported arches, and will accommodate not only the original bridge’s four traffic lanes, but also dedicated bicycle lanes and 14-foot-wide sidewalks, as well as multiple sets of stairs allowing pedestrians to descend from the bridge to the planned 12-acre Sixth Street Parc below. This new community space is expected to include basketball courts, soccer fields, fitness areas, a dog park, skate park, amphitheater, and several picnic and garden areas. In other words, a much larger development than simply replacing the existing structure with something comparable. Once I learned more about the project, I knew that — with a little creative embellishment — it would serve as a particularly apt anchor for one of the critical revelations in “All That Glitters.” Closure and demolition began in January of 2016, and after several delays, the bridge is finally scheduled to reopen in the summer of 2022.

Be sure to check out the complete article, in both text and enhanced audio formats, along with the rest of The Quorum Chronicle series, at our Patreon page. And thanks so much for your continuing support of Jabberwocky Audio Theater!

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

Speedy Delivery: The Messenger’s Tale

This article excerpt, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in full — along with expanded audio content — exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleWorking in the design field in the days before the ubiquity of PDF documents and digital signatures, I had more than my share of experience with bicycle messengers. Whether sending design edits back-and-forth with a client, or checking proofs from a printer, bicycle messengers — with their trademark neon-spandex outfits and omnipresent single-strap messenger bags — were the go-to-delivery method for items that needed to get across town too quickly for regular delivery services, but which couldn’t be sent as faxes or scans because of their sensitivity or need for accuracy. (To this day, on-screen proofs are no real substitute for verifying printed colors off the press.)

At its height, the bicycle courier industry in Washington, DC, where The Messenger’s Tale takes place, had upwards of 400 riders.

Bicycle couriers have actually been around since the nineteenth century, with bicycles being used to transport mail and other documents, as well as for telegraph message delivery. But what we traditionally think of as the bicycle courier industry was born shortly after the second World War, when Carl Sparks founded a dedicated bicycle delivery service — called, appropriately enough, Sparkies — in San Francisco. Throughout the late twentieth century, the industry gradually developed a distinct counter-culture image, with messengers often viewed as hardcore, punk rock-infused anarchists. But across the 1980s and ’90s, a more collaborative atmosphere began to permeate the industry, and affinity groups for bicycle couriers began springing up, such as the Messenger Courier Association of America, as well as communal events like the Cycle Messenger World Championships, an annual competition composed of both proper cycling races and various stunts and activities meant to replicate the kinds of actions couriers encounter as a part of their daily work routines. And couriers also participate in so-called “alley cat” races — underground, unsanctioned competitions organized in cities around the world.

The technology used by bicycle messengers has changed dramatically over the years, from the early days of paper maps and in-person dispatching to two-way radios, mobile phones and GPS systems. But one area in which technology seems to have reversed — particularly since the mid-2000s — is in the only true requirement for being a bicycle courier: the bicycle itself. While messengers have long made use of a wide range of cycle types, based on everything from local terrain to personal preference, one notable standout among couriers is the fixed-gear cycle, or “fixie.” A kind of throwback to the very first bicycles ever built, a fixie has no freewheel mechanism — the rear wheel sprocket is locked to the wheel hub, meaning that pedal movement and wheel movement are locked in sync. This means the bicycle has no ability to coast — if the wheels are moving, the pedals are moving. But this also means the rider can use reverse pedal motion to brake, or even move in reverse. In point of fact, many bicycles in use have removed dedicated brakes entirely, relying solely on the rider’s own leg power. While all of this may seem odd, even anachronistic, the fixie does have several advantages. For one, not having the extra equipment makes the bike notably lighter than its more fully geared counterparts. For another, the reduced complexity of the design reduces the chance of mechanical failure — a critical concern when your livelihood depends on reliability. Many cyclists believe a fixed-wheel cycle gives them greater control, though this assertion is questioned by just as many others. And ultimately, such a simple, basic bicycle may be less attractive to bicycle thieves, an all-too-common danger in urban environments.

Be sure to check out the complete article, in both text and enhanced audio formats, along with the rest of The Quorum Chronicle series, at our Patreon page. And thanks so much for your continuing support of Jabberwocky Audio Theater!

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

Online Poker: The Walls Come Tumbling Down

This article, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in expanded audio form exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleOn April 15, 2011 — a date that would soon be known as “Black Friday” within the poker world — the U.S. Department of Justice initiated a grand sweep of the three major online gaming sites — PokerStars, Absolute Poker/UltimateBet (which had merged in 2008), and Full Tilt Poker — seizing their domain names and unveiling indictments against eleven stakeholders. Visitors to the online sites were greeted with nothing but images of the Department of Justice and FBI seals, along with a simple message stating that the site had been seized, along with assertions about the alleged activities and admonitions against illegal gambling. (The wording in the Quorum script is excerpted directly from this message.)

So what had changed? The wording of the law had not been altered to formally define poker as a form of gambling. But under New York state law, it was a misdemeanor — punishable by up to a year in prison — to operate any game of chance where bets are placed within the state. Under this rationale, even though none of the sites actually operated out of New York, because they accepted bets placed in New York, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was able to obtain felony UIGEA indictments.

The FBI was aided by the testimony of Daniel Tzvetkoff, who had run an Australian payment processor, Intabill. Tzvetkoff had been arrested in Las Vegas and charged with money laundering, bank fraud, and wire fraud. Moreover, the government had evidence that several of the executives behind the gaming sites had collectively used fraudulent means in an attempt to substantially invest in a bank in Utah, SunFirst, with the intent of using that bank to handle player deposits and payouts directly (while simultaneously disguising the transactions’ true nature).

The result was immediate — U.S. players lost all access to their deposited funds, and the sites were unable to conduct anybusiness within U.S. territory. Though it would eventually be revived in a substantially limited form, the online poker business within the United States was effectively shuttered. The poker world was floored — as much by the lack of warning as by the action itself. A prominent player affinity group, the Poker Players Alliance, immediately went into action, urging members to contact their congressional representatives. And they had allies across the political spectrum, including former Republican Senator Al D’Amato and Democratic Congressman Barney Frank. Antigua and Barbuda weighed action with the World Trade Organization, arguing that the United States was taking action against foreign nations for engaging in activity that was perfectly legal under international law.

The domain names for Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars were allowed to reopen a few days later, but only to facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. players’ funds. And on April 26, PokerStars did indeed begin paying back players’ funds. Full Tilt’s actions, however, revealed a far more sinister reality.

The principals behind Full Tilt Poker — including prominent poker personalities Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson, among others — had apparently been engaging in a Ponzi scheme whereby they had illegitimately paid themselves and other owners a staggering $400 million of players’ money. Although they now had the mechanism to return players funds, Full Tilt did not have the actual money to do so. And with U.S. operation shut down, they could no longer continue to hide the shortfall (let alone work toward any kind of recovery). In September, the Department of Justice amended its filing to include charges of fraud against the Full Tilt executive team. Though the individuals accused argued that it was a question of mismanagement rather than actual fraud, the writing was on the wall: Full Tilt Poker was unquestionably finished, and not just in the American market. The scandal — coming as it did on the heels of the initial closures — rocked the poker world, dealing a dramatic blow to the previously favorable reputations of the players involved.

Fortunately for online players who had been left in the lurch, PokerStars eventually arranged to buy out Full Tilt, agreeing to reimburse players and exit the U.S. market, settling with the Department of Justice in the process (and paying fines on the order of six figures). On the other hand, Cereus Poker Network (the parent company behind Absolute Poker and UltimateBet) declared bankruptcy, shuttering while still owing players more than $50 million.

In the years that followed, some states began to develop strictly regulated online poker systems — systems that could only be accessed by people within the physical boundaries of those states (as verified by IP address tracking). Nevada and Delaware kicked off this trend in 2012, with New Jersey following suit in 2013, all three states effectively pooling their players. (Pennsylvania has recently opened the doors to both live casino and online poker, but the details are still being ironed out.) Still, the number of players is a tiny fraction of what it was in the heyday of online play.

Oddly enough, despite testing the waters in the pre-Black Friday days, the larger tourist-oriented casinos — perhaps keenly aware of the minuscule player pool still available — have largely stayed out of the online market (though some may be petitioning for access to the upcoming Pennsylvania market). The first post-2011 online site in the United States, Ultimate Poker, was set up by the Station Casinos group (which had always targeted local residents at its physical casinos, rather than tourists), but the site shuttered once revenues fell far short of projections. Real Gaming, run by the South Point Hotel and Casino, similarly faltered., directly connected to the World Series of Poker, remains available (at least as of this writing) for online play in those states.

That’s not to say that traditional brick-and-mortar casinos didn’t benefit significantly from the events of Black Friday — even if they themselves aren’t rushing to fill the void left by the collapse of online poker, they are no longer competing for that business. Moreover, in January of 2019, the Trump administration reversed the Department of Justice’s 2011 determination that the Wire Act only applied to sports betting — an effort championed by casino mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands corporation. The impact that this reversal will have on those states that have legalized online poker remains uncertain.

And after everything else, PokerStars is going strong, clearly dominating the online poker market, even without the benefit of American players — or at least most of them. Players in New Jersey can once again play on the site, and plans are underway to allow play in Pennsylvania in 2019.

Though Quorum is likely to be moving on from the world of online poker in future installments, the real-world roller coaster of events provided some truly fantastic fodder for our inaugural season. (For those interested in additional material — since we’ve really just scratched the surface here — I recommend the book Straight Flush, by Ben Mezrich, which covers the saga of Absolute Poker in compelling detail.) Thanks to all of our listeners for coming along for the ride.

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

Online Poker Faces Opposition and Scandal

This article, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in expanded audio form exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleWith the rising success of online poker, the U.S. Government decided to act — though support for such action was split, with some politicians arguing that they should in fact move to decrease obstacles to the industry. Central to that argument was the contention that poker was not truly gambling but fundamentally a game of skill.

Even so, the government made initial forays into pursuing the online gaming sites. Early efforts included the assertion, made by way of thinly-veiled threats of prosecution, that online gaming violated (or at least might violate) 1961’s Wire Act — an assertion that would later be undermined by the Department of Justice’s own determination that the Wire Act’s restrictions onlyapplied to sports betting… though more on that later. These threats were enough to keep the online sites on their toes (and sufficient to deter some smaller operators from venturing into the market, even in a support capacity), but not enough to undermine their activities entirely.

In early 2006, the online poker world was hit with its first major “multiaccounting” scandal (with which Quorum listeners may find a familiar parallel to Jimmy Harmon’s history). Online player Josh Field opened several different accounts on PartyPoker and entered the same tournament using two of those accounts — ultimately winning with one of them. Because this setup allowed Field to effectively “collude” with himself (for example, playing one account in a manner that would benefit the other), PartyPoker froze the winning account and ultimately confiscated more than $180,000. That same year, another online poker player, Justin Bonomo, used six different accounts to enter a tournament, and was similarly caught and fined.

In October of that year, President Bush signed the SAFE Port Act, ostensibly intended to improve port security; attached to that act was a seemingly unrelated rider called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, or UIGEA. While this didn’t go directly after the online poker sites — which, again, were located outside U.S. jurisdiction — it made the knowing transfer of any funds related to online gambling in any state where such gambling would otherwise be illegal a crime in and of itself. While the law was technically directed against “gambling businesses,” the wording encompassed financial institutions as well. In effect, this prevented any American bank from handling any funds going to or coming from these sites.

This was a blow to the industry — several online sites (including PartyPoker and 888) quickly shut down U.S.-facing operations — but ultimately not a fatal one. In fact, the departure of these sites presented a huge opportunity for those that remained. Payment processing companies located outside U.S. jurisdiction (including processors originally set up to handle adult-website traffic) took over the task of handling transactions, despite the legal risk. Moreover, that risk was mitigated by the general interpretation that (DOJ assertions aside) the UIGEA explicitly did not apply to poker: no definition of “gambling” had been codified into law (other than sports betting), and it could reasonably be argued that poker was a game of skill and not gambling. Believing that the government would be biting off more than it could chew if it attempted to bring an actual case, business went on as usual.

Another blow came in 2007 and 2008 with the revelation of cheating at both UltimateBet and Absolute Poker (which had apparently been going on since 2005). In each case, cheating software or “superuser” accounts allowed insiders to see the normally hidden “hole cards” of all players at a table, and transmit that information to online collaborators. (Estimates of illicitly obtained funds were approximately $10 million in the Absolute Poker case; a preliminary figure of $6 million in the UltimateBet instance was later revised to more than $22 million.) Both sites ended up addressing the issues, paying fines, and making payments to affected players, but the critical trust that allowed the sites to retain players had been damaged. Even so, the damage proved temporary. In the case of UltimateBet, an investigation determined that the main perpetrator of the hack was former World Series of Poker Champion Russ Hamilton, who steadfastly refused to make any effort at restitution (and has effectively been blackballed from the game since).

In November of 2009, a mysterious online player known only as “Isildur1” (later identified as Viktor Blom) sent shockwaves through the industry after amassing net winnings of nearly $6 million, beating several prominent professional players in the process. But shortly thereafter, he set the record for the greatest single-day loss in online history, losing $3 million… and then turned around and broke it again just weeks later, losing more than $4 million. Later investigation discovered that three of his opponents had data-mined more than 30,000 of Isildur1’s past hands, giving them an illegitimate advantage. The players were fined and censured for their behavior, but the results of the games in question were left to stand.

Still, even after these setbacks, online poker, as an industry, seemed to be a permanent part of the poker world. Professional live players still leapt at the chance to garner sponsorships from various sites, wearing site logos prominently at public appearances, lending tournament play an almost NASCAR-like atmosphere. Online sites regularly sponsored live tournaments and continued to advertise on televised event — though to skirt advertising restrictions, they only promoted their free-to-play “.net” sites as opposed to their real-money “.com” counterparts, a distinction that fooled precisely nobody. Full Tilt Poker set up a whole league of professional players — “Team Full Tilt” — and regularly positioned those players on ostensibly “educational” television shows, shows that actually served as direct marketing for the site.

But these ups and downs were nothing compared with the absolute game-changer that was on the horizon…

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

The Advent of Online Poker

This article, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in expanded audio form exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleAs is readily apparent from the opening episode, online poker plays a significant role in the world of Quorum — The Gambler’s Tale. But while our story is most assuredly a work of fiction, it does take place against the backdrop of real historical events — and while we take more than a few creative liberties in the interests of storytelling, I thought some background on its real-world underpinnings might prove illuminating.

Poker has historically been thought of as necessarily an in-person activity. At least part of the game’s allure has always been in the interactions between players, and popular wisdom holds that winning is less about the cards a player holds than it is about the ability to “read” the opposing players. And a game whose primary purpose is not just the activity itself, but the opportunity for camaraderie and personal engagement. The fact that it doesn’t require any specialized casino equipment — and doesn’t advantage a “house” over any individual player — makes it ideal for venues ranging from a casino operation to a friendly neighborhood gathering. So on its face, it seems an odd choice of game to transition to digital play (except perhaps as a learning exercise or a modest diversion), where the social aspect is removed almost entirely.

Still, there was at least some incentive for capitalizing on the game’s enthusiastic player base. Most people (at least in the American market) don’t live within range of a casino, making (legal) play options a fraction of what they could otherwise be. Moreover, traditional casinos were not especially interested in promoting the game, given its comparatively low margin compared with other games (even with a house percentage, or “rake”). And just about everyone knows how to play, at least in broad strokes, making it a potential draw for a large number or people of varying skill levels.

This last point actually led to another major (if largely unspoken) appeal: For those experienced players interested in making significant money playing the game, a larger player pool — especially one made up of capable but comparatively inexperienced players — could significantly expand the amount of “easy money” in play. Combine that with the increased rate of play online, where savvy players can play multiple “tables” at once, and the potential financial payoff for such players is substantially increased.

From the organizing site’s perspective, with revenue based on percentages of each game’s winnings, the massive number of potential tables in play made for a commensurately large revenue opportunity — as contrasted with live casino play, where physical space (and time) constraints limited such potential.

Early on, one of the biggest obstacles to setting up an online poker site was the questionable legality of such an enterprise. Given the differences in state laws (not to mention less-than-clear federal guidance), it was an open question as to whether such an operation would be on stable legal footing. Would a player physically located in a state where such games were illegal even be able to play on a site located in a state where it was legal? Or would federal limitations on interfering with interstate commerce render everything legitimate?

Another obstacle to establishing a credible online game — particularly where real money is involved — is the issue of trust. How could players know the systems running the game (not to mention the people behind those systems) were handling both the game and the players’ accounts responsibly?

Despite these obstacles, several entrepreneurs opted to give it a try. By establishing companies headquartered (even if largely on paper) outside the United States, they attempted to skirt around the ability of U.S. (or individual state) regulators to interfere. And by recruiting top-notch coders and slowly building trust in their computer systems, these sites gradually built up a significant player base, apparently outside the reach of American law.

The first major site to offer real-money play, Planet Poker, debuted in 1998, endorsed by professional poker player and author Mike Caro. Despite early software issues, the site was able to keep its business by virtue of being (for a time) the only option available. That changed when a competitor, Paradise Poker, entered the market the following year, with improved software, more reliable servers, and a wider variety of poker variants available. But 2001 saw the biggest leap forward in terms of customer base with the launch of PokerStars and PartyPoker, both aided by widespread marketing campaigns (including television and print advertising). In 2002, PartyPoker instituted a tournament with a guaranteed $1 million prize, an absolutely unheard-of amount.

As a draw, online sites began offering “satellite” tournaments — games where in addition to taking the cash prize, the winner would earn a seat at a high-profile live poker tournament. This became a massive boon for the online poker industry when Chris Moneymaker won such a satellite tournament, and went on to win the Main Event of the World Series of Poker in 2003.

Other major players in the online poker world were UltimateBet (launched in 2001), 888 (2002, originally called Pacific Poker), Absolute Poker (2003), and Full Tilt Poker (2004). By this time, the marketing model for these sites was fairly well standardized, with professional poker players quickly aligning themselves with one site or another. In one case, Doyles Room, the site was inextricably tied to its namesake, poker mainstay Doyle Brunson. And in the case of Full Tilt Poker, professional poker players were not just spokespeople, but actual principals behind the site. Poker-themed television programs became synonymous with their online-site sponsors (and multiplied rapidly).

Online poker was now a reality. But in the years to follow, business would hardly be smooth…

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

The Las Vegas “Underground”

This article, part of a series entitled The Quorum Chronicle, appears in expanded audio form exclusively for our Patreon backers. See our Patreon page for further details.

The Quorum ChronicleIn researching Las Vegas while writing Quorum, I was amazed to discover the existence of a hidden world beneath the city’s streets: the (officially) abandoned drainage tunnel network, which would prove critical to Jimmy and Peeps during their surreptitious return to the city. (Jimmy even gives a shout-out to one of several articles that introduced me to the subject.)

Originally conceived as a way to prevent flooding (which had become more common as Las Vegas construction intensified), some of the drainage channels date back to the mid-1970s. But the Hydro Conduit Corporation expanded the tunnels in the 1990s; the plan was to construct nearly 1,000 miles of tunnels over the next decades, but as costs increased, the project was scuttled. At present, there are about 300 miles of tunnels, out of about 450 miles of flood channels overall.

In 2002, murder suspect Timmy “T.J.” Weber used the tunnels in an attempt to evade police after murdering his girlfriend, a weeks-long manhunt that drew widespread public attention to the tunnels’ existence. This in turn prompted a series of articles on the tunnels — and the staggering homeless population that seek shelter there — by author Matthew O’Brien. O’Brien went on to write the book Beyond the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, and launched the Shine a Light Foundation to help the underserved population of the Las Vegas tunnel system.

There are, in fact, hundreds of homeless people living underneath the brightly lit streets of Las Vegas. An entire neighborhood culture has formed, with residents helping each other and forming communication networks to warn against the very real danger of flash flooding. But as is unfortunately common among the homeless nationwide, mental illness and addiction are all-too-prevalent afflictions, and civil and police oversight is effectively nonexistent. The world beneath the city is truly a world unto itself, almost entirely divorced from that of the streets above.

Curiously enough, the idea of accessing the casinos directly from the tunnels is not a bit of creative invention. Though the casinos rarely like to draw attention to the fact, the reality is that many of these tunnel exits offer near-direct access (though they are also frequently protected by motion sensors). And many of the tunnel denizens do venture up into the casinos in a nightly attempt to scavenge unclaimed slot-machine winnings (frequently gathering an average of $50 per day).

The character of Crunchy isn’t modeled on any particular person, but is an amalgam of various people whose stories were brought to light by O’Brien and others. One thing that struck me was how so many of these people tended to remain (on balance) positive, despite their circumstances. How they worked to form a community rather than pursuing self-interest at others’ expense. In a story populated by nefarious characters and pessimistic outlooks, I thought it might be a welcome break to take a brief interlude, to focus on the positive in spite of apparent adversity. Crunchy may be downtrodden, but he maintains his sanguine perspective throughout his time with Jimmy and Peeps. And that may leave a lasting impression on Jimmy that will prove significant in his adventures to come.

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum