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

The Main Character Influences of Quorum

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 ChronicleThe world of Quorum is most assuredly made up of fictional characters. While we have set the backdrop of our story against real-world events, our portrayal of those events is far from historically accurate. That said, if you find some of the characters in Quorum intriguing, you may also find enjoyment in some of the colorful characters making a name in the real world of professional poker.

Oddly, Jimmy Harmon probably takes his greatest influence from live players as opposed to online players. For one thing, in Quorum we would mostly be depicting live poker as opposed to online play, so it was important that he have a personality that could be compelling in that atmosphere. Daniel Negreanu’s amiability was a strong influence, as well as some of the showmanship of Antonio Esfandiari. Negreanu has an ability to project an uncanny ability to read opponents, and Esfandiari — often nicknamed “The Magician” — can perform some compelling chip tricks (something I often imagine Harmon doing on the side). And, of course, WSOP Main Event champion Joe Hachem’s outsized personality influenced Jimmy — a fact I wrote directly into the story with his less-than-successful Australian impression.

Peeps is an amalgam of several female poker players, all of whom are successful players, but are often relegated to being portrayed as good “women” players, with televised stories often playing up their ability to use their femininity as a factor (rather than merely acknowledging their table skills). Dual World Series bracelet-winner Jennifer Harman stands out, as do Annie Duke and Clonie Gowan, and even actors-turned-poker-players Shannon Elizabeth and Jennifer Tilly. She takes her crazy pattern-recognition skills from the aforementioned Daniel Negreanu, and at least some of her personality from Fiona Dourif’s portrayal of the holistic assassin Bart in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

“Big Mike” Dalton actually adapts characteristics from a number of old-school poker players, the group of long-time pros who continue to garner respect across the board. Doyle Brunson has always been a personal favorite, someone who truly exemplifies the idea of the old poker pro (right down to his ubiquitous cowboy hat). And it may be the hat, but I also drew influence from Chris “Jesus” Ferguson (whose card-throwing skills I loved watching) and poker legend Amarillo Slim. Brunson also stands out in having managed to parlay his live success into a modicum of online-play respectability, a trait that Dalton attempts to emulate. Dalton’s influence in both online play and televised poker most closely mirrors that of Howard Lederer, who frequently guest-starred on the Learn from the Pros show (which was a thinly-veiled promotion for the Full Tilt Poker site) and Gabe Kaplan (yes, Welcome Back Kotter’s Gabe Kaplan), who hosted the cash-game show High Stakes Poker.

Wiktoria Sałkiewicz isn’t directly influenced by anyone in the poker world, but came about as a result of my research into Las Vegas history and its various criminal power brokers over time. While the Italian mob is most frequently depicted in popular media, I found several instances of smaller groups — still often bound together by ethnic ties — which wielded influence in smaller spheres. The Polish mob was not particularly influential in Las Vegas (other than the Polish heritage of mobster Meyer Lansky), but that led to the notion that someone of a less-prominent “family” might be more likely to survive the string of anti-crime initiatives over the decades. Similarly, making her a woman in not one but two male-dominated professions (organized crime and the casino business) made for a much more compelling character history.

Of course, none of these characters are direct counterparts to any real-world personalities. But after watching dozens (if not hundreds) of hours of televised poker, and delving deep into the history of the city surrounding the game, I wanted to acknowledge at least some of the significant personalities who all-too-often outdo those of the fictional world.

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

Poker on Television

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 ChroniclePoker has been televised in one form or another since CBS started airing the final table of the World Series of Poker in the late 1970s, but the appeal of these shows was limited, as viewers had no idea what cards the players held, and there were limited options for real-time on-screen graphics, making it difficult to follow the action.

Those limitations changed in 1997 with the advent of the “hole-card camera,” a camera positioned underneath the table that captured the player’s hands. The cameras came about in Europe, and were first used on the British poker show Late Night Poker. But their potential was truly realized after filmmaker Steven Lipscomb produced a documentary on the World Series of Poker for the Discovery Channel, and the network saw substantially higher-than-anticipated viewership.

Using these hole cams as a critical building block, Lipscomb worked with others to develop the World Poker Tour, a televised series of poker tournaments produced independently and adopting a sports-television style. The show premiered in 2003 on the Travel Channel, and was the network’s highest-rated television program to date. ESPN’s World Series of Poker broadcasts fully incorporated hole cams that year, along with improved graphics and a live-sports feel. Coincidentally, that year also saw the Main Event win of amateur player Chris Moneymaker’s, inaugurating the so-called “poker boom.”

In addition to the regular World Series of Poker broadcasts (hosted by Lon McEachern and Norman Chad) and World Poker Tour shows (hosted by Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten), a number of shows became staples of the televised poker scene. Here are just a few representative examples of shows that most heavily influenced the fictional shows we portray in Quorum:

Part of the appeal of many of these shows was not just the game play itself, but the array of colorful characters, many of whom would clearly exaggerate their personalities for the camera. As televised poker became more widespread, opportunities for corporate sponsorship abounded — and one’s ability to attract an audience became just as important as (if not more important than) one’s skills at the table. Many of these sponsorships (both of individual players and the shows themselves) came from online poker sites — which naturally led to a seismic shift when the poker landscape changed in 2011…

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

The World Series of 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 ChronicleQuorum doesn’t specifically cover the World Series of Poker, but several references are made to it throughout the show. My hope is that we’ve explained things sufficiently enough for listeners to follow along to the degree necessary (without over-explaining), but some of you may enjoy a bit more background.

The World Series of Poker started out as a private-invitation event in 1970, when casino owner (and mob boss) Benny Binion invited seven of the best-known poker players in the industry to the Horseshoe Casino for a private tournament — a timed cash-game event with multiple game variations, after which the players voted on the overall winner: Johnny Moss. Moss was awarded a silver cup and proclaimed the first “World Champion of Poker.” The following year, a set buy-in ($5,000 originally, but raised to $10,000 the following year) and freeze-out format was introduced — and the game was limited to a single variation of Texas Hold ’Em — and the World Series as we know it was born. It has continued as an annual tradition ever since (sponsored by Caesar’s Entertainment since 2005).

Though the no-limit Texas Hold ’Em “Main Event” — which still retains its $10,000 buy-in price — remains the signature tournament, there are currently 74 different events taking place, representing an array of different poker styles and play levels. Winners of each individual tournament win a “bracelet” and a monetary prize based on the number of entrants and buy-in amounts. Entrants in the World Series, held each year in June or July in Las Vegas, number in the thousands, a far cry from the original seven players at that inaugural event.

But it’s the Main Event that remains the biggest draw, and it is the winner of that event’s bracelet that is crowned the World Champion of Poker (and is expected to serve as an ambassador for the game across their championship year, a “duty” that winners have achieved with varying degrees of success). Though the tournament is open to anyone who can produce the buy-in amount (or gain an entry slot by winning a separate “satellite” tournament), winners were traditionally professional players — a logical expectation, given that these were the people most likely to develop the skills to beat such a large pool of opponents.

That all changed in 2003, when an unknown amateur player named Chris Moneymaker (a man with a name that would be considered too on-the-nose in the world of narrative fiction) took home the top prize. Not only was he not a professional player, but he had earned his seat by winning a $39 satellite poker tournament in an online game room. Suddenly, the floodgates were opened — amateur players the world over saw not only that an amateur could take on the best in the business and win, but that online poker was a viable way to play. The number of players in the main event jumped from 839 that year to 2,576 in 2004, 5,619 in 2005, and a whopping 8,773 in 2006 — a tenfold increase in just three years. (The number of entrants has since stabilized, now typically hovering around the 6,500–7,500 level.)

As an interesting side note, the Main Event tournament that Jimmy Harmon mentions as the first he saw on television was mine as well — the 2005 tournament in which Joe Hachem beat out Steve Dannenmann, and in which Hachem’s signature call-and-response to the crowd (“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” “Oi, oi, oi!”) became immortalized.

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum

The Criminal History of Las Vegas (at Least as It Relates to Quorum)

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 anyone who’s seen The Godfather or Casino will tell you, Las Vegas has a long historic association with organized crime. Crime bosses helped build the casino industry back in the 1930s during the construction of the Hoover Dam (which brought with it an influx of outside construction workers), but what most people think of as the real heyday of the mob in Las Vegas came when Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky opened the Flamingo in 1946. After Siegel’s death in 1947, mobsters saw a golden opportunity in Las Vegas gambling, and built multiple casinos along both Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas and along what became known as the Strip (South Las Vegas Boulevard).

Mob influence continued through the heyday of the “Rat Pack” era, though it was much diminished after Howard Hughes started buying up properties and media outlets in the 1960s. Still, efforts to legitimize the city ran into one major obstacle — the Strip was technically outside the bounds of Las Vegas proper, meaning the city wasn’t able to bring in any tax revenue from the casinos there. An attempt to annex the Strip was foiled when the mob preemptively registered the Strip as its own entity — Paradise, Nevada — an action that (due to the complexities of governmental regulations) prohibited the planned annexation.

Criminal syndicates continued to hold at least some influence all the way up until the 1980s, when more legitimate businesses began taking over, building the megaresorts (starting with the Mirage) that now dominate the Las Vegas skyline. Popular wisdom holds that the demolition of the Dunes hotel in 1993 — on the site where the Bellagio now stands — signified the end of the mob-owned casino era.

These new legitimate entrepreneurs initially thought to expand their customer base by rebranding Las Vegas as a more family-friendly vacation destination — but since gambling remained such a vital source of revenue, this course was soon abandoned (as family time necessarily meant non-gambling time). Over time, most of the older casinos (particularly those on the Strip) gave way to hotels that emphasized luxury and elegance (or at least pretended to), leading to a dramatic shift in character between the traditional and the newer establishments.

Notably, though prostitution is legal in Nevada, it is illegal in Clark County (which contains Las Vegas), or any county with a population over 700,000. Though there are legal brothels in neighboring Nye County (within which Pahrump rests), there is more money spent on illegal prostitution — more than 60 times more — than at the regulated brothels.

Las Vegas suffered significantly during the recession of the mid-2000s, but has since recovered to a degree, and the dominance of the billion-dollar gambling industry remains unabated (though as a percentage of overall casino income, gaming revenue has decreased, representing only about 40 percent of the total).

Though the casino resorts of Quorum are fictional, they take influence from the vast array of real-life establishments — each with its own distinctive character — that currently line the Strip and Fremont Street. The Limelight stands in for the pre-1980s casinos along South Las Vegas Boulevard that still evince some classic-Vegas appeal; the Lyon Majestic (and the oft-mentioned Belle Époque) represent the newer megaresorts; and the Remington holds out on Fremont Street, somewhat sheltered from competition with the Strip casinos and able to retain its classic atmosphere — despite more showy additions to the downtown corridor, such as the illuminated Fremont Street Experience (which opened in the mid-1990s).

While organized crime — at least as we commonly understand it — no longer holds the influence it once did, the jury is still out as to whether today’s corporate masters have entirely abandoned the tactics of their predecessors…

— William R. Coughlan, writer/director of Quorum