How poker became a winner on the Net

You don't even need a poker face when you play online - which may help explain a boom that sees nearly £100m wagered every day and has made a little-known internet betting company worth £1bn.
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Steve McQueen's steely-eyed card shark in the 1965 film, The Cincinnati Kid, who held his nerve in countless smoke-filled drinking dens, has been the face of poker for decades. But steely eyes and a poker face are no longer needed as millions of everyday punters have joined an internet poker revolution.

Steve McQueen's steely-eyed card shark in the 1965 film, The Cincinnati Kid, who held his nerve in countless smoke-filled drinking dens, has been the face of poker for decades. But steely eyes and a poker face are no longer needed as millions of everyday punters have joined an internet poker revolution.

So many ordinary punters are pouring their money into the online game that a little-known British internet betting company, which owns one of the world's biggest internet poker sites, is now worth £1bn on the stock market. This time last year, Sportingbet, owner of the Paradise Poker website, was only worth £164m.

Poker has always been glamourised by Hollywood as a macho game of chance, wit and tactics but its advent on the internet has made it accessible to all. Playing online poker has become a worldwide phenomenon, with tournaments available 24 hours a day to anyone who wants to play.

At 3pm yesterday afternoon, there were more than 28,000 people playing in online poker games round the world, according to an online poker monitoring service, Pokerpulse, and the number of players across the world is already thought to be in excess of 1.5 million people. More than £94m has been wagered in online poker games in the past 24 hours alone and punters have walked away with a total prize money of around £69m in the past 18 months. On Paradise Poker's site, there are more than 800,000 players and 10 games are played on the site every second. The company makes £141,620 a day from poker and has turned its owners in to millionaires.

The poker craze began in 2001 when the World Series, where hardened poker champions slug it out for multi-million-dollar prize money, was televised. Cameras under the glass tables revealed the players' hands to the watching television audience, creating compelling viewing as tensions on the tables mounted. Will he raise? Should he fold? The player on the right has two kings but has he guessed that his opponent across the table has two aces? Poker can be nail-biting stuff, a psychological minefield where a scratch of the nose, a cough, or a sideways glance can give everything away.

Having a double first in the mathematics of probability from Cambridge can help but bluff and double bluff is what will get the champion poker player through to the final hand.

The advent of televised poker has drawn in celebrity players, which has also served to heighten poker's cachet. The model and star of the recent Celebrity Big Brother, Caprice, has fronted an advertising campaign for Paradise Poker. Hollywood actors such as Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Tobey Maguire are regularly seen at champion poker tournaments. Challenge TV broadcasts Celebrity Poker Club, as well as the World Series and the World Poker Tour. Poker has become a club that everyone wants to join.

So, while interest in poker has taken off, most people on the street would have no idea where to go to play poker. And, even if they did know where their local card sharks deal a hand, the thought of joining in a live game would be pretty daunting to the novice. Poker dens are actually illegal in the UK and poker can only be played in a properly licensed casino.

Enter online poker, which gives players access to another world from the safety of their computer screen.

Mark Griffiths, a professor specialising in addiction at Nottingham Trent University, said the challenge of testing your nerves and skill against real people all over the world from behind a computer screen gives online poker an irresistible allure.

"There are other online casino games available for punters, such as roulette and slot machine games. But many people are turned off by the idea of betting their money against a machine, or a pre-rigged computer programme. What is attractive about online poker is you are going head-to-head with other punters. It is a game where you use your own skills. You don't bet against 'the house', you are playing directly against your opponents. That sense of competition is hugely attractive."

In an online poker room, your computer screen presents a virtual card table at which you and your opponents appear as rather ghostly looking characters. There are "ring-games", where you can join in and leave at any time, and tournaments, which you can join for as little as $10 (most international sites operate in dollars). In a tournament, the money goes in to a pool, which the winner collects. The company running the website creams off a percentage of the winnings for hosting the game. Estimates from the research organisation, The River City Group, show websites are raking in £1bn a year.

So advanced is the technology that you can watch a game going on and get a feel for the "characters" you are playing against, before you pull up your virtual seat and throw in your virtual chips. You can choose your name, your gender and your race. The best part is your sweaty hands, your nervous twitch and the whites of your eyes are never seen by your opponents.

That all means wannabe poker heroes who are too shy to go eyeball to eyeball with the likes of the Cincinnati Kid are using online poker rooms at an alarming rate.

"You can create a whole new identity for yourself in an online poker room and you don't even have to pull a poker face. You can be more daring than you normally would because you don't feel physically inhibited as you would if you walked in to a real-life card room," Professor Griffiths said.

Some people use the internet to hone their skills before heading out to a real-life game. The aptly-named Chris Moneymaker began playing poker online and, two years later, had qualified for a real seat in the live World Series in 2003. He went on to win $2.5m. These internet-to-real world success stories are also fuelling aspiring poker players.

The anonymity and open access of online poker is bringing women in to what used to be be a male-dominated world. Recent research for uswitch.com, a consumer website, found that as many as 40 per cent of online gamblers are women. Sarah Jessica Parker, star of Sex and the City, is known to be a poker fan, and a recent episode of the hit TV series, Desperate Housewives, had some of the cast playing a few hands. That kind of prime-time exposure of poker is serving to make the game appear an acceptable female pastime.

"There is an increase of women playing poker online, although it is undoubtedly still predominantly male," Professor Griffiths said: "The betting shop or the seedy casino are places that would be off-putting for women to enter. But online, no one knows who you are and you can test your skills on the same level as the next person."

There is another side to the glamour, of course. While the poker sites are keen to publicise the million-dollar winnings made by their customers, they are less keen to discuss those who are being ruined by the game.

Michael Smeaton, of the gambling charity, Gamcare, says, "You are betting against other people, so when you win, someone else has lost." Calls to Gamcare's helpline from addicted poker players are on the increase and the charity is preparing itself for a deluge of problems as more people start playing. "You can become so engrossed in playing, competing against others and using your skills, that you can easily forget how much time you are spending online. You don't have to leave the house, you don't have to go to the cash machine. You are playing with electronic money, which is much easier to spend than if you had to hand over a wad of £10 notes. Betting higher stakes than you would normally want to risk becomes more normal," Mr Smeaton said.

And, despite the millions waged on online poker, its legal status is a grey area. The US has taken a negative stance on online gambling and it is not strictly a legal activity there. The website companies cannot operate in the US and have chosen far-flung locations such as Costa Rica and Antigua from which to run their business.

The British Government, however, is seeking to update its laws surrounding the activity. Current gambling laws were made in the 1960s, before the internet. The Government's Gambling Bill, which is going through Parliament, seeks to regulate online gambling, forcing operators that have British customers to be properly licensed.

That will involve having to adhere to social responsibility codes, which the Government hopes will protect children from gambling online and ensure players are treated fairly by the website operators. The companies, however, will also have to pay tax if they want a UK license and, given how much money they have become used to making, they may choose to avoid the UK and its regulation, preferring to stay in their poker paradise.

WHO ARE THE REAL WINNERS?

Online poker has not only made some punters into millionaires, but the entrepreneurs who have exploited the latent card talents lurking in Britain's living rooms have also played themselves a winning hand by getting in to the business.

Ruth Parasol , a Californian lawyer, made a fortune from online pornography before moving in to internet poker and setting up Party Poker, which is now the world's biggest poker site.

She teamed up with Anurag Dikshit , an Indian computer expert. Russ de Leon , another American, and Vikrant Bhargava , an Indian marketing executive, later joined the duo. The company is now considering whether to float on the London Stock Exchange. If it does, it could be worth as much as £3bn, the same size as British Airways.

The founders of Paradise Poker, who pocketed £163m when Sportingbet bought the company last year, remain a mystery. But Mark Blandford (right) who set up Sportingbet, is a well-known figure in British bookmaking. He has seen his stake in the company grow to £50m over the past six years.

Poker Room, on the other hand, was set up by two Swedish students. Oskar Hörnell and Claes Lidell were classmates at university when they decided to investigate playing poker on the internet. Poker Room is now one of the top five sites in the world and is growing in popularity in the UK.

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