Sharks by the Pool
Swains, Howard, The Independent (London, England)
How poker found a hot new home A decade after the online gambling boom began, it's still going strong. By Howard Swains in Nassau
Late on Sunday night on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, long after the January sun had dipped beneath the pinky-orange towers of the sprawling Atlantis resort, a 27-year-old Bulgarian named Dimitar Danchev won the best part of $1.9m (1.2m)in a poker tournament. The following night, a 28-year-old Yale law graduate named Vanessa Selbst won $1.4m (900,000) and a week earlier, Scott Seiver, 27, won a little more than $2m (1.25m), also playing poker at Atlantis.
Danchev, Selbst and Seiver were the champions of the three flagship events of the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA), the second-largest poker festival in the world, and the biggest outside of Las Vegas. The PCA has been held annually in the Bahamas since 2004 and celebrated its 10th birthday this year, offering five prizes of more than a million dollars to its biggest winners.
The festival has spanned almost precisely the first 10 years of the so-called poker boom, ignited in 2003 when an accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker won $2.5m (1.6m) at the World Series of Poker, the most prestigious event in the world. Moneymaker had qualified for $40 (25) playing online, and his unlikely success, coupled with a tremendously appropriate name, convinced anyone with an internet connection they too could become a world champion - a notion the online poker operators did everything they could to encourage.
The game underwent an unprecedented boom over the past decade and there are countless major poker festivals every year in the post- Moneymaker era. This year's PCA featured 40 tournaments contested across 10 days, the largest of which attracted 987 players and had a total prize pool of roughly $9.6m (6.5m).
However online poker has been subject to some high-profile scandals of late, including indictments of company executives by the FBI, which resulted in the large-scale withdrawal of the online game from the American market. Its future had seemed imperilled; the previously unstoppable poker juggernaut had apparently been halted.
But it seemed few in the Bahamas last week had got the memo.
In down times at the PCA, the players either gambled among themselves in side games, or glugged cocktails in beach bars, beside yachts, lagoons and dolphin coves. Money rarely seemed to matter to any of them, unless it concerned the logistics of wiring vast sums to their bank accounts, or paying off bets made at restaurant tables as to who would pick up the bill.
The tournament won by Seiver - known as the "Super High Roller" event - cost $100,000 (60,000) just to enter. Forty-seven people - including private equity millionaires, a co-owner of a student loan company and some of the fiercest poker sharks in the world - anted up the money and joined the fray. Greg Jensen, the co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, with estimated earnings of $70m (according to Forbes), finished sixth, won $286,200 (175,000) and donated it to charities supporting the victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting in his native Connecticut.
Meanwhile the American press became fixated on the appearance of the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who played the $10,000 (6,000) "main event" sporting a backwards baseball cap and shaggy black beard - a "hipster" guise that attracted little but disdain. A rumoured appearance by the poker-player turned US-election seer Nate Silver did not materialise, leaving the familiar faces of the international poker circuit to go about their business largely as usual.
"I just can't get that excited when my friends win seven figures anymore, it happens eight to 10 times a year now," tweeted one player named Jonathan Aguiar, with tongue only slightly in cheek.
Post-Moneymaker, online poker sites rapidly became billion dollar concerns, with their branding attached to television shows and live poker tours snaking the globe. …