The rise and fall of poker is a fascinating glimpse of an industry based on dreams and greed. Rank amateur Chris Moneymaker dared every Joe Normalton to believe miracles could happen when he made a legendary run to World Series of Poker Main Event victory in 2003. There’s a pivotal moment in the final one-on-one battle when Moneymaker stared Persian poker professional, and part-time Bond villain, Sam Farha in the eyes and pulled off an outrageous bluff that swung the momentum in Moneymaker’s favour.
It is not only a script that Hollywood would have spurned for encroaching on hyperbolic clichés but it caused an astonishing ‘boom’ in the poker industry that saw ‘America’s past-time’ spread across the world, inspiring the golden age of online poker. Poker phenoms and teenage millionaires have come and gone in the years that have passed, but none so astounding as an unknown twenty-something going by the name of Isildur1 who stunned and reignited the poker community by having epic duels with the best players of our generation. Not only did he beat the greats of our time, he destroyed them with a maniacal style
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that won over $5 million dollars during a few nights in November. More astounding perhaps was that this 22 year old Swede wasn’t on suicide watch after losing that amount just as quickly as he’d won the sum. Isildur1 became something of a folk hero in the poker community for his love of the sport and willingness to shy away from nobody.
As we approach the new year, the clamour among the poker community for another catalyst like Chris Moneymaker or Isildur1 to arise has never been more apparent. On April 15th 2011, a day now dubbed ‘Black Friday’, the USA’s Department of Justice suspended the gaming licences of the three largest online poker companies in the industry for allegedly defrauding poker players of over $300 million. That brought the poker community to its knees as many professionals found their online bankroll frozen for the duration of the investigation meanwhile casual players have been turned off by Black Friday’s events. The upshot of which is pulling away the curtain of fame and fortune and witnessing a global community experience turmoil for the last 18 months.
Since Black Friday, there has been much unrest within poker community message-boards over the feeling that a new scandal was being broken week by week. Readers may recognise the name ‘Full Tilt Poker’ (FTP) and their tag-line “play with the pros” from associations with late night poker television shows as well as being the site of choice for Isildur1’s stunning run. Pre-Black Friday, FTP was the second largest poker company in the industry but behind the poker-face was a boardroom loaded with over-fuelled egos whose greed and incompetence revealed their grand ponzi schemes. The owners allowed poker players to withdraw money that the company simply didn’t have whilst making exorbitant ‘loans’ to the heralded pros that they sponsored. That inevitably brought the company to its knees and saw FTP become the major focus of the Department of Justice’s efforts to reclaim $300 million in funds.
The poker world has been under a microscope during this arduous process and that applies to the players as well as the corporations. One story in particular beggars belief in an altogether different fashion from Moneymaker’s rise to stardom. In August, a series of chat-logs were posted to internet message-boards which alleged Matt Marafioti, a high-stakes poker professional, had been conspiring with a well-connected Swedish IT expert named Samer Rahman to hack the poker accounts of other high-stakes professionals. It wasn’t long into their plotting that Marafioti discovered he was a pawn all-long after finding trojans and key-loggers on his computer which had been planted by Rahman. Then, revelation after revelation began to unfold from the story. Rahman was found to be linked to Mohammed Kowssarie, a notorious figure in the poker community after, allegedly, stealing millions from Scandinavian poker professionals, as well as being very open about his strong ties to the “Bandidos”, a violent biker gang based in Sweden. The Bandidos’ presence is overtly prominent, widely known to intimidate individuals and influencing aspects of online poker and the nation’s culture in the process. For instance, the day after the Marafioti scandal broke, the founder of poker news site PokerListings, Andreas Oscarsson, was found shot dead, the consensus being that the Bandidos had made the hit in order to prevent Oscarsson from giving testimony against a former business partner. What may have began with Matt Marafioti’s greed ended with the Swedish Hell’s Angels silencing a witness.
Fortunately, one of the stories from the last 18 months have had a somewhat happy ending as Full Tilt Poker was acquired by Pokerstars, the market leader, with the promise that every FTP player would be receiving their money back when the site re-opens on November 6th after nearly two years of doubt. Howard Lederer, former CEO of FTP, is currently doing a PR crawl, perfecting the art of saying “I don’t know” to interviewers who ask probing questions about how they could have possibly let things at the company get so out of hand.
Meanwhile, contenders for the void in the poker hero have started appearing. A Russian amateur under the guise of ‘maratik’ won over of $1,000,000 in the World Championship Of Online Poker’s $5200 buyin main event having entered through a series of qualifiers at the equivalent cost of 14p. Maratik’s winnings would be enough to enter himself into the ‘One Drop’ poker tournament which held its inaugural event this year and boasted a knee-trembling prize pool of $42,666,672.
Despite all the struggles poker has faced in the last year and a half, it is a sport that is in the ascendancy. The cries from the community to better police itself have rung out loudly throughout Summer and there is a buzz within the community that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow after all.