HANDS DEALT ||
AMOUNT WAGERED ||
2.5 million ||
$99.2 million ||
$2.6 million |
$17.2 million ||
$13.1 million ||
$10.8 million ||
$10.7 million ||
Jason Strasser sheds his black flip-flops and draws his knees close to his chest. A wrinkled white undershirt and olive khakis hang loosely from his slight frame; his thin, scraggly brown hair falls on his forehead. Indifferently curled in a cushioned chair in front of his computer, Strasser opens four $5-$10 no-limit tables on PokerStars.com and buys in for an even thousand dollars on each. � His shoebox of a dorm room, on the first floor of Duke University's Wayne Manor, is a riot of dirty socks, T-shirts and bath towels. Half-filled soda bottles flank Strasser's desktop, and posters-- NFL wide receiver Santana Moss, reproductions of Munch's The Scream and Dali's The Persistence of Memory--paper the institutional white walls. Strasser apologizes halfheartedly for the mess. � Each of the four tables occupies a quarter of Strasser's 17-inch flat-screen monitor, and he makes rapid, almost perfunctory cycles through them, only his eyes and his right index finger lively, blinking and flicking. Orthodox strategy in Texas hold 'em, by far the predominant online game, dictates that Strasser immediately fold at least three quarters of his starting hands. When he does enter a pot, the sheer volume of high-stakes hands he has played in his short career--tens of thousands, a sum that before the advent of online poker required geologic time on casino felt to accumulate--makes most of his decisions routine. The door to his room closed, Strasser chatters as he plays, a fine stream of philosophy and kibitzing.
"This guy open-limped?" he says with a moan, after the first to enter the pot does so by calling the $10 blind bet--limping, rather than raising, an amateurish show of weakness. "Some of these guys are awful." A few minutes later Strasser seems put-upon when he picks up a small pot with ace-7 on a 5-7-queen-6 board, after his opponent folds to a minimum raise. "Strange play," he says. "Kinda fishy." Fishy, to Strasser, does not mean suspicious. It means easily duped.
In the expanding universe of online poker, fish abound. More than 1.8 million users play each month, according to the independent tracking service PokerPulse.com. They wager an average of $200 million a day, and the industry generates $2.2 billion in gross revenue annually. On PokerStars, one of the most heavily trafficked sites, players can upload images to represent themselves; at one of Strasser's tables there's a mug shot of the actor Matt LeBlanc and a San Francisco 49ers logo. Strasser's icon is Gollum, from Lord of the Rings. "They call me that around the Manor because I retreat to my cave to play," he says. "It's annoying because I'm a social person." He then giggles and does a Gollum falsetto as he palms his mouse. "Give me your money."
The simplicity of hold 'em accounts for much of its popularity. Each player receives two cards face down, and a round of betting, initiated by two forced bets (the little blind and the big blind), ensues. Three shared cards (the flop) are then dealt face up, and more betting follows; players wager again after a fourth shared card (the turn) and a fifth (the river) are dealt. Hold 'em's appeal lies in part in its attractive ratio of private to public information: There is room for both deception and deduction.
Finally, Strasser picks up a hand--a pair of 10s--and, facing two limpers, raises to $40. Both limpers call, and the flop comes 6-8-9 with two clubs: The three undercards make it playable; the potential straight and potential flush make it risky. Strasser begins the next betting round, leading out $120--the size of the pot. He habitually leads with a pot-sized bet, with strong and weak cards alike, a practical way of disguising his hand.
A housemate, Matt Sekac, has stopped by with six rumpled $20s to square a debt. As Strasser plays, Sekac says with a laugh, "I love how that bet was the pretty significant amount of money I just owed you." The first limper calls, and when the turn brings an off-suit 8, Strasser fires out $250. The limper calls again. Momentarily confused, Strasser idly riffles two stacks of chips with the bony, almost dainty fingers of his right hand. "What's he got?" he asks Sekac. "Nine-seven?" Sekac nods in assent. Nine-seven suited could have withstood Strasser's preflop raise and now would give his opponent top pair (a pair made with the highest community card) and an open-ended straight draw, a plausible calling hand.
The harmless jack of hearts peels off on the river, and Strasser pushes all-in, betting his entire remaining stake of $611.75. The limper calls once more and turns up queen-9, meaning he had a pair but no shot at a straight or flush--an even worse hand than Strasser had thought. Strasser's 10s prevail, and he drags a pot of almost $1,500.
He snorts. "Way to play that, fish."
According to the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, the number of 18- to 22-year-old men in college who play cards for money each week doubled in the last year, to 12.5% of that population. Strasser, a 20-year-old sophomore majoring in biomedical and electrical engineering who's up about $50,000 in the last year, his first as a serious player, belongs to a burgeoning niche among them. Outfitted with high-speed Internet connections and insatiable appetites for poker strategy and theory, these players have developed affinities for profits reaped, they believe, by the sheer force of their intellects--five- and even six-figure incomes earned while sitting in their dorm rooms in boxer shorts.
Players like Strasser are inconceivable in the faded world from which Doyle Brunson emerged. An immense, Jurassic road gambler with capped front teeth and the nickname Texas Dolly, Brunson has found an improbable celebrity during this poker boom. Though he won the World Series of Poker in 1976 and '77, his latter-day fame comes mainly from the chapter he wrote on no-limit for the strategy volume Super/System, published in '78.