Online poker: Five-card clicks

Virtual casinos bring the game right to your laptop. As The Independent launches its own poker league, Rob Sharp discovers why online gambling is becoming an even bigger deal
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The Independent Online

In a dusty room that has never seen the light of day, a concerned-looking man sits nervously behind a computer screen. He takes a moment to assess another man, who sits at a terminal nearby. They are locked into an anxious battle of wills. The first man looks his opponent slowly up and down, before quietly clicking on the computer mouse beside him.The two men are showcasing Virgin Poker, Virgin’s online poker gaming website, at Aspers, a casino in central Newcastle.

There are few things that would tempt out journalists on such a drab day in the North East, but online poker is big business. One million people gamble using the controversial card game in the UK each year, part of a global industry worth over £1bn. By logging on to or competitors can emulate their poker-playing heroes from the comfort of their bedrooms. An increase in the tax on poker profits from 15 to 50 per cent, announced in last month’s Budget, will clip the wings of traditional poker operators. But many online poker companies, including Virgin Poker, are based offshore and are thus exempt.

While encouraging people to gamble responsibly, today The Independent, in a joint venture with Virgin Poker, launches its own poker league via “Nowadays there are over half a million regular online poker players logging on and playing,” says Joe Legge, poker product manager at Virgin Games. “For some, it’s their profession but for most it’s a form of entertainment that is mentally stimulating and doesn’t have to involve risking a lot of money. The Independent’s poker league is a great extension of our commitment to the social side of poker playing.”Steph Boyd, from Darvel near Glasgow, known simply by the gaming moniker of “mole man”, is one of the people who relies on poker playing online for his entire income, not just for entertainment.

In 2006, his first year of professional play, he claims to have made £1.5m. “It’s a great lifestyle, it’s a great job,” he says, sat at a traditional poker table close to the online gamers in Newcastle. “To be honest, there are not a lot of other jobs I could do. Before I turned professional I worked as a fitness instructor, but then I made a serious amount of money in a very short space of time.” Three years ago, he created a bank account and deposited into it £1,000 to fund his poker. Soon he was able to regularly withdraw a monthly salary of £200. Before long he gave up his job to turn to poker full-time. Needless to say, for every poker tale of rags to riches there is another ending in ruin.

Former mayor Jayne Yeomans was jailed last month for stealing almost £65,000 to fund her online poker addiction. In an effort to cover her tracks, the 49-year-old forged her husband’s signature and remortgaged their house to raise £25,000 to pay some of it back. Kara Scott, who hosts the television coverage online of the PokerStars European Poker tour, plays at least three hours of online poker a day. She thinks cases such as Yeomans’ are not representative and give a misleading impression of the world of online poker players. “I think there are people out there with really addictive personalities who get addicted to anything,” she says. “Some people are always going to take it too far.

Thankfully, there are organisations out there [such as] you can get in touch with. And with most online poker sites you can select the option to deny yourself. You effectively tell the site about your problem and they will block you for six months or a year so that you can’t get back on.” As a condition of handing out poker licenses, the British government’s Gambling Commission insists poker companies encourage socially responsible gambling. Operators must verify people’s ages before allowing them to play (in the UK players must be 18 or over) and provide as much information about socially responsible gambling on their websites as possible.

Players are encouraged to contact a charity such as GamCare if they feel they have an unhealthy interest in online gambling (or are using it to escape from their problems, become restless when they are not playing, or continually try to stop but can’t). Virgin Games is licenced and regulated by the Alderney Gambling Control Commission, the Channel Islands’ own regulatory body for poker. Boyd is confident that for him, gambling is only a positive thing, and that he has found a way of making his online habit work for him. “My priorities are my wife and three kids. I have luckily been able to buy a new house and that is a great thing to have at my stage in life. My online poker playing is a wee bit of fun.

So far, it has been very good to me. It just seems to be common sense for me to keep going. My wife went to university three years ago and hopes to start a new job in finance. All in all, she has been very supportive.”Playing at home also has advantages for Scott. “I can see how coming to somewhere like Newcastle to compete in a traditional poker tournament with lots of burly men might be intimidating to some women,” she says. “That fear is definitely circumnavigated by playing online. And you do get a few men who do some really inappropriate things. Yesterday there was a drunk man among the crowd of people asking for my autograph. He asked me to autograph his penis. I said no. What I should have said is, ‘Do you want me to initial it?’”

Poker people: Winners and losers

* Chris Moneymaker, an American accountant, won a seat at the 2003 World Series of Poker after playing a satellite tournament in the PokerStars online poker room. It cost him $39 to enter the first game; he ended up netting the $2.5m first prize at the global tournament. “It's a contentious issue whether poker is actually gambling,” he says.

* Zachary Gruneberg, a 19-year-old player from Pennsylvania, dropped out of university last month to pursue a career as a professional poker player. In January he won $250,000 at Australia’s 2009 Aussie Millions Poker Championship. He’s too young to gamble legally in the US, so instead, he spends his time playing online. “There'd be days where I'd play 10-plus hours of poker online at school,” he says. “While you're playing, you can do so much other stuff. You can watch a TV show, talk to your friends, be on Facebook. It's all about multi-tasking.”

* Roy ‘the Boy’ Brindley, born in Dorking, Surrey, left a career training greyhounds to win £1m in online poker over an eight-year period. In his autobiography, ‘Life’s a Gamble’, he admits that gambling addiction has rendered him homeless at points in his life. Nevertheless: “To me, it’s massively satisfying. I was never good at sports and was 30 when I discovered a game that I could win at,” he says.

* Christopher Proudfoot, a finance controller, siphoned £1m of his employer’s money into his bank account between December 2004 and January 2008 to fund his habit. The 28-year-old fraudster, who now lives with his parents in Inverness, pleaded guilty in February to embezzling the cash. “The problem with some of these sites is when you win big they have their own way of getting it back,” he says. “When you’ve won a fair amount of money you can’t easily get it back. They don’t let you withdraw without letting everyone you are playing with know, so you carry on competing.”

Join The Independent online poker league, in association with Virgin Games. Sign up with our registration code and we will give you a welcome bonus |of up to £100 to play with. Each month, we’ll be giving away £1,000 to the best players until a final round where you can compete to win a trip for two to Las Vegas. To find out more details, go to