Super high rolling: How poker’s elite took the game to unrecognisable heights
In autumn 2018, I was commissioned by the Guardian Long Read to write something about the super high roller poker scene. For numerous reasons, the article never made it to print, but what follows is a first draft. (The finished version would have been significantly shorter and, I am sure, better.) I’ve also included links to transcriptions of some of the source interviews with Adrian Mateos, Charlie Carrel, Daniel Negreanu, Dominik Nitsche, Erik Seidel, Fedor Holz, Jason Koon, Justin Bonomo, Stephen Chidwick and Winfred Yu.
To set the scene, this was not long after Bonomo had been on his incredible winning streak of the first half of 2018, culminating in his victory over Fedor Holz in the One Drop. Triton poker had just finished its second season of high roller events. Solvers were also being talked about much more openly.
Now, in Covid-gripped late 2020, this already feels like a period piece, but please enjoy this snapshot of the era.
A title match took place in Las Vegas in July that the ESPN commentator likened to Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier’s 1971 “fight of the century”, although the physiques of the competitors were not quite the same. This time the sluggers were a slender, 24-year-old German named Fedor Holz, who wore narrow-framed glasses, the early scratchings of a goatee beard and a scarf coiled around his neck, and 32-year-old Justin Bonomo, originally from New Jersey, who was wearing a blue-grey T-shirt over jeans and sat all but motionless except for the occasional fingering of a bracelet of black beads.
Though the stage was assembled in a cavernous casino conference facility, and a referee in a bow tie hovered behind them, Holz and Bonomo sat not in the corners of a boxing ring, but at either end of a poker table. They eyed one another over a teetering pile of bank notes in $10,000 bales. The two men were the last of 27 players who had paid $1m apiece to enter a poker tournament known as the Big One for One Drop. The winner was set for a $10m payday; the defeated man would have to make do with $6m.
The Ali versus Frazier comparison referred not only to the monstrous purse, but also to what had gone before. Around two years earlier, Holz had gone on a streak of poker tournament triumphs that few thought could ever be bettered. As a 21-year-old phenom, he emerged essentially from nowhere to win more than $22m in around 20 months, picking up six seven-figure paydays along the way. But through early 2018 Bonomo too tore up the high-stakes tournament poker scene and amassed winnings for the first six months of the year that stood at $14.9m. A further $10m would eclipse not only Holz’s run, but vault Bonomo to the top of the all-time tournament money list, dethroning poker’s best-known and most popular player, the Canadian Daniel Negreanu.
“The fans definitely got what they wanted with that one,” Bonomo told me a few months later, referring to his showdown with Holz. “It’s kind of a great story of passing on the torch of the ridiculous run-good. It was the heater-meets-heater battle. Who truly is the better, luckier player?”
On this occasion, Bonomo closed it out. His official ledger of winnings from January to July 2018 hit $25m — all from playing a card game. By way of comparison, golf’s highest money earner, Justin Rose, recorded $18.1m in on-course winnings through the whole of 2018. Bonomo also successfully leapfrogged Negreanu and rose to the summit of poker’s money earners. At time of writing he has $43.5m to his name.
Most poker watchers agreed: this moment had been coming. Bonomo’s elevation to the top of poker’s all-time money list merely added an official gloss to a changing of the guard that began with the launch of internet poker around the start of this century. The accessibility and convenience of the online tables introduced poker to millions of new players, who rapidly developed skills that previous generations could hone only by spending hours in casinos or underground spielers; a costly, time-consuming way to misspend a youth. In the past three or four years, the highest echelons of organised poker have gone through another transformation, with the proliferation of so-called “super high roller” tournaments demanding buy-ins of at least $50,000. Multi-million dollar prize-pools, previously reserved only for the annual World Series of Poker (WSOP), are now seen several times per month.
At the same time that the highest tournament prizes have grown ever more astronomical, the pool of players who might realistically expect to win them has shallowed. Skills among poker’s elite have increased spectacularly, aided by new computer tools that map out possible scenarios, plot the best plays, and apply the precepts of game theory to poker hands. These recent advancements, and their application by keen young whiz-kids, have been so pronounced that some of the game’s most celebrated, decorated talents have been forced to admit the jig may be up.
“I’m not embarrassed to say I don’t think I’m as good as these guys,” Negreanu tweeted in September last year after a particularly bruising series of high stakes tournaments in Las Vegas, dominated by a cadre of German young-guns. Negreanu was once poker’s tyrannical upstart himself — he is still only 44 and hasn’t entirely grown out of the “Kid Poker” nickname given to him during the early stage of his career. However, he estimated his own status as somewhere only in the world’s top 100 and committed himself to months studying a game he had every prior reason to think he had mastered.
But there’s another truth to contemporary tournament poker that the record books don’t show. By common knowledge, and his own admission, Bonomo has not actually booked $43m in raw profit from poker tournaments. It’s nothing close to that. And he didn’t win $25m in the first six months of 2018. He didn’t even pick up $10m for beating Holz in Las Vegas: when irresistible force realised it was faced with immovable object, the pair quickly entered negotiations and agreed an off-the-table split of the $16m between them.
What’s more, neither man had put up $1m of his own money to play. In fact, all but four or five of the players in the One Drop had sold small pieces of their action, turning their presence in the biggest poker tournament of the year into an investment opportunity for friends, regular backers and strangers from the internet. They had taken measures to minimise their exposure to potential loss, which meant their winnings too were split among the investors, once the players had taken their own agreed chunk.
The new skills of today’s elite poker players include managing bankrolls like stock portfolios, and examining the poker tournament calendar to identify smart opportunities for profit, hopping on planes to Macau, Manila, Monte Carlo, or wherever there’s a decent game. “Decent” usually means a contest featuring wealthy businessmen with deep pockets, but who lack the profound knowledge of poker strategy that is growing more sophisticated among the sharks.
There is a durable image of a poker player as a freewheeling, loose-living, devil-may-care maverick, lurching from skid row to the champagne lounges and back again. But in today’s ultra-professional, multi-million dollar game, it could not be further from the truth.
Everything about modern poker can be traced to a moment in May 2003. At Binions Horseshoe Casino, Las Vegas, a previously unknown 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee won the main event of the WSOP, the game’s most prestigious title. It quickly emerged that the new champion had not even paid the full $10,000 entry fee, but had instead qualified for the event by playing online, in a “satellite” tournament. He had parlayed an outlay of around $80 into $2.5m, at that point the biggest single prize ever awarded.
He was not the best player among the 839 entrants (he hit more than a few lucky cards after making questionable plays) and he was not the most photogenic (his final opponent, Sammy Farha, played in a suit and dark sunglasses, with a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip). But he did have the best name. The grinning everyman who “turned a matchstick into a lumberyard”, as one commentator put it, was called Chris Moneymaker.
Backed by the marketing heft of the rapidly expanding online poker sites — and in particular PokerStars, in whose virtual card-room the new sensation had cut his teeth — Moneymaker embarked upon on a tour of the talk shows and poker tables of the world, spreading a clear message: if he could do it, so could anyone. The “Moneymaker effect” ignited a global poker boom, bringing the game to mainstream television channels and packing tables both online and off.
The virtual game in particular propagated a new breed of professional player. Though the nature of poker allows luck to have a role in the short term — a single tournament perhaps, where a rookie might hit a run of cards and book a big win — players who make shrewd decisions consistently prevail in the long run, particularly if they play enough hands to allow their calculated judgment to overcome fluctuations in fortune. Internet poker allowed players to sit at multiple tables at the same time, seeing more hands in a week than some of the old timers would get to play in an entire career. The best players were more likely to be packing a statistics degree than a revolver, and underpinned their mathematical savvy and quick wits with hours spent playing millions of hands in their college dorm rooms. By the time they made their first visit to a casino, they were already experienced campaigners, with more tricks, and more composure, than players three times their age.
“I asked one of the other players if he was nervous, and of course he said yes,” Bonomo recalled of a moment in 2005, when he became, at 18, the youngest player to make a final table on the fledgling European Poker Tour (EPT). “And from his answer it was just so obvious to me that he was far more nervous than I was. And for whatever reason, that just made me so calm and so confident. And ever since that moment, I’ve never looked back.”
For around a decade, poker’s rise was unstoppable. Amateur players continued to be attracted to the game in enormous number, investing small chunks of a steady income to test their skills and sometimes secure a profit. Over the long term, their money would eventually filter upward to a comparatively smaller number of top players, who took the game far more seriously. The poker economy took the form of a pyramid, with the lower section packed with thousands of hobbyists content to pay for their pastime, but eventually financing those at the ever-sharpening peak.
The sites themselves became hugely profitable enterprises. As with their brick and mortar counterparts, online poker operators charge a fee for hosting games, known as the rake, but with far fewer overheads in the virtual space, and far more hands being dealt every second of every day, money poured in. The US was by far the world’s biggest poker market, providing roughly a third of all players. But the legislative landscape was, at best, uncertain. In October 2006, the height of the poker boom, President George W Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA) into law, which set out to prohibit websites from receiving money that would be used for gambling from Americans. The then biggest card-room, Party Poker, ceased trading immediately in the US, but other operators, most notably PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, continued to serve players, testing the limits of the vaguely-worded, poorly-defined legislation.
For nearly five years, not much appeared to change for the sites. But suddenly, on April 15, 2011, the authorities swooped. Overnight, the US-facing portals of the online poker giants were declared a crime scene. Players logging on were presented with the insignias of the US Department of Justice and the FBI. The shutters were emphatically drawn down and senior executives were indicted on charges including money laundering, bank fraud and running illegal gaming operations.
America’s poker players were faced with a stark choice: either give up the online game or begin life as a peculiar kind of economic refugee, setting up temporary home in poker-friendly countries around the world. For the most successful and committed — many of whom talked about “printing money” playing online poker — it was a no-brainer: they examined the terms of residency visas, and talked to realtors in Costa Rica, Canada, Mexico and Malta. But it was similarly straightforward for the millions of part-time dabblers. Instead of turning on the computer when they came home from the bar, they would clear the kitchen table and reach for the nickel and penny jar. On a day that became known as Black Friday in the industry, the poker pyramid split through its middle.
Despite this, the live poker scene, which had swelled in tandem with the online game, continued to flourish and organisers were already testing players’ appetites with ever increasing entry fees for tournaments. Staff at Melbourne’s Crown Casino first experimented with a tournament costing AUD $100,000 (approximately $75,000 at the time) in 2006, which immediately found a market. Other tours began to add six-figure buy-in tournaments, prompting the Crown to introduce a AUD $250,000 ($247,000 at the time) event in 2011. What had once seemed impossible was almost inevitable when it arrived in the summer of 2012: Guy Laliberte, the billionaire founder of Cirque de Soleil and a keen amateur poker player, announced a tournament with a $1m entry. The full allocation of 48 seats sold out almost instantly, and Antonio Esfandiari, a professional player from the US, went in the record books as an $18m winner.
The complexion of the field in what was called the Big One for One Drop set an important precedent: nearly half of the players were businessmen — hedge fund managers, movie producers, casino executives, CEOs — whose powers at the poker table lay principally with their financial clout. They could afford to play and lose, extracting their value from the enjoyment of crossing swords with the sharpest minds in the gambling world. (Poker is unlike any other pursuit in the way rank amateurs can play against the very best.) For professional players, the appeal was also obvious: so long as they could find the entry fee from somewhere, they were hot favourites to multiply it many times over.
“This market hasn’t been created by the nosebleed tournament players, it’s been created by the recreational player,” Jason Koon, a regular in the super high roller world, told me. “If there were a $10m tournament next week and there were four recreational players who wanted to play, well, me and my crew would show up. We would accommodate that.”
Lance Bradley, a poker journalist and author of The Pursuit of Poker Success in which he interviewed 50 of the game’s top stars, said: “If you told me when I started in poker that one day there would be a legitimate 45–52 entrant million dollar buy-in tournament, I would have laughed you out of the room.” But in 2018, there were 20 events with a buy-in of $100,000 or more, including the fourth renewal of the Big One for One Drop.
In October, I travelled to Rozvadov in the Czech Republic — a tiny town close to the border with Germany that is entirely unremarkable except for the presence of Europe’s biggest poker room. King’s Casino, owned by a Czech poker enthusiast named Leon Tsoukernik, was playing host to the European leg of the World Series of Poker (WSOPE), a festival comprising more than 60 tournaments over three weeks, with buy-ins starting at €100. The original schedule had one tournament with a €100,000 buy-in — billed, as is customary, as a “super high roller” event — but the presence in Rozvadov of a cohort of Asia-based poker converts, well known for their desire to play with stakes as high as possible, convinced organisers to add a second. A number of elite professional players from all corners of the globe were duly in attendance as the prize-pools for the super high roller events comfortably pushed past €10m.
The earliest iterations of the huge buy-in tournaments came with a comparably enormous fanfare. Not only were the entry fees bigger than many annual salaries, they also attracted the very cream of poker’s crop: the best players, the biggest hitters on the money list, the titans of the television tables, and the biggest egos. Poker festivals still featured all their previous characteristics — including a “main event”, usually at around the $5,000 buy-in mark, which tended to attract the biggest number of players and online satellite qualifiers — but the super high rollers generated the biggest buzz in the room. Players seemingly won and lost life-changing money in a matter of a few hours.
Familiarity has meant a lowering of the excitement levels recently, while the line-ups have also shifted. The ego-driven players were the first to vacate the scene, unable or unwilling to keep up with the rapid professionalism of their opponents. Meanwhile, a number of established players who could expect to prevail against weaker opposition were shrewd enough to back away when faced with a higher concentration of top pros. Poker players determine how profitable a tournament might be by comparing their abilities against the rest of the field. There is no point being the ninth best player in the world if the other eight are at the same table. Astute game selection is a crucial skill.
The pros who remained, and who today form a mostly fixed cast of around 40 of the undisputed elite, possess two key attributes: sufficient on-table skills to keep them ahead of the curve amid ever-developing poker strategies, as well as financial arrangements that can withstand the buffeting of a game in which volatile swings are inevitable, no matter how good you are. By way of ensuring both, most of the super high roller players are members of smaller cliques — groups who pool financial, intellectual and emotional resources, and who often share everything from hard-earned information about a particular opponent’s playing style, to hotel room expenses, as well as the ecstasy and misery of wins and losses. “We want to get better and working in a team is just smarter than working alone,” Holz told me of his core group of confidantes.
Though he has reduced his playing time significantly in recent years, Holz came to Rozvadov from his home in Vienna for the super high roller event, and hooked up with fellow members of the latest German crew making waves on the high stakes scene. Others include Dominik Nitsche, a four-times WSOP bracelet winner with $16.6 million earnings to his name, and Steffen Sontheimer, who Negreanu has previously nominated as the best player in the world. (It is commonly accepted that despite Holz and Bonomo’s legitimate presence among the game’s elite, their sensational streaks could have happened to any one of up to about 20 top players. The nature of random number distribution simply means that streaks are inevitable when the player pool is so small.)
Nitsche made the last five of both $100,000 buy-in events in Rozvadov, one of which was streamed on the internet, and which his friends watched closely on his behalf. “Live” broadcasts of poker actually hit the airwaves approximately 30 minutes after the action takes place, ensuring that players’ cards aren’t revealed at a time when opponents can immediately profit from the information. However it is common practice for otherwise indisposed members of poker crews to watch the broadcasts and pass on what they observed about opponents’ play. It’s just one way in which having close friends also at the top of the game can be beneficial.
Bonomo runs with a handful of top North American pros, many of whom he has known since the heyday of online poker when the luxury condos of the Panorama Towers, Las Vegas, became known as the hub for the world’s best poker minds. They included Bonomo and his friends Isaac Haxton, Steve O’Dwyer and Scott Seiver, each of whom is still in the top 20 global money-earners in live tournament poker. When Maxim magazine visited to profile the quartet in 2010, they pictured the “geeks turned gangsters” in dinner suits and with models pouring champagne into their mouths. It was at best a slight glamorisation of a life that principally meant 18-hour shifts hunched in front of a laptop.
“I just have a crazy thirst for knowledge and a crazy curiosity and I always have a burning desire to know what the best strategy is in any situation,” Bonomo told me. “Over my poker career, I’ve studied every single way that I could. First I read books, I found strategy forums, I met friends to talk strategy with, and also different pieces of software have come up over the years, and every single time a new one is released I study it as much as I can.”
Canadians feature prominently still in almost all super high roller events, including the identical twin brothers Luc and Sam Greenwood, and fellow Ontario-based players Timothy Adams and Daniel Dvoress. Stringent fees apply for Canadians bringing gaming winnings back from the US and thus they frequently hit the tournaments in Europe and Asia. Dvoress is unusual among people who gamble for a living in having never visited Las Vegas, yet he has recorded poker tournament cashes from Malta, Monte Carlo, Macau, Panama, Dublin, among many others. Adams duly took his seat in Rozvadov, having traded the snowy landscapes of Canada for the same in the industrial Czech Republic.
Spanish poker’s leading light is Adrian Mateos, who moved to London as an 18-year-old with a group of countrymen (Spanish legislation does not allow its players to gamble online against the rest of the world). After convincing his parents to give him one year grace from university to pursue his dreams of being a poker player, Mateos won €1m at the WSOP-Europe when it was held in Paris as a 19-year-old, and became Spain’s first EPT champion in Monte Carlo two years later. He has since signed a sponsorship deal with the French online operator Winamax and wears the logo across the globe.
Few high roller events get under way these days without Mikita Badziakouski, a diminutive Belarusian who has managed to secure himself a regular seat in some of the enormous cash games played behind closed doors by the Asian whales, but who is a much-feared tournament player too with $21m winnings to his name. Meanwhile Britain’s most respected representative in the super high roller world is Stephen Chidwick, from Deal, in Kent, who has spent his entire adult life playing poker at the highest levels. Now 29, Chidwick is a former superstar from the boom days of online poker and is notorious for having won more than 100 $10,000 entries to the WSOP main event by playing online at 18, three years before he could legally visit a Las Vegas casino. (He was able to convert his tournament tickets into $1m online cash.)
When I first encountered him around 2004, the fresh-faced Chidwick was a vivid personification of the new breed of player: supremely confident, mathematically dextrous and indefatigable. His career has been one of extraordinary dedication, commitment and a gradual elevation to the very top table. He is now a fearless, tier one tournament pro and spent much of 2017 as the No 1 ranked player in the world.
“You’ve got to have very good discipline, very good mental focus,” Chidwick told me. “Different people are going to be strong in different areas, but I think what you see in the top, top guys is just that they never stop trying to improve.”
It is impossible to miss that the elite pros are almost invariably white men between 25 and 40, most either with college degrees or who dropped out of their studies for the instant profit of the poker tables. The demographic runs parallel with the hotshots on trading floors of major financial institutions, with whom poker players share a broadly overlapping skill set. Most poker players, however, deny that money was the main motivating factor in their careers, instead describing childhoods obsessed with puzzles, problem solving and either video or card games. Bonomo was a world champion Magic: The Gathering player; Haxton moved to poker when his youth chess career stalled. Elite pros these days talk frequently about their diet, meditation and self-improvement, seeking tiny edges to keep them ahead of the crowd.
“Every single situation, it’s a new puzzle and I just love solving puzzles,” Holz said. “I don’t mind losing as long as I feel it’s progressing. So I always enjoyed losing and playing against someone better than winning and playing against someone worse.”
The financing of high stakes tournament poker is also its own complicated puzzle. Players spread their risk, agreeing to swap portions of potential winnings with friends, while also making use of online marketplaces or existing arrangements with investors to sell “pieces” of their tournament action. At their most basic, an investor buying 1% of a player in a tournament costing $100,000 to play would pay $1,000 — and hope to receive 1% of all winnings, for example $10,000 if their “horse” won $1m. The very best players can also charge what’s known as “mark-up”, where they slightly inflate the price of their pieces. A 1% slice might cost an investor $1,050, meaning the player can lock up a certain profit from the tournament whether or not they make any money in return.
“The nice thing about selling action is that you can make the buy-in whatever size you want,” Chidwick said. “Throughout my whole career, ever since I was playing low-stakes online, I’ve practiced bankroll management to limit my downswings and basically always have money and never go broke.” In common with most of the players I talked to, Chidwick said he will invest a maximum of only around 1% of his total bankroll in any given tournament, dismissing a period earlier in his career where he sometimes speculated up to 2% as “much too aggressive”.
As tournament buy-ins have grown, staking arrangements have become more common. Some investors, mostly former poker players themselves, are known to operate huge “stables” of horses, watching from afar as their money goes to work on their behalf. Negreanu, who grew up in an era where the potential for serious financial jeopardy was woven into poker’s fabric, expressed his regret that so much attention is now directed towards the high buy-in tournaments, depriving the average Joes, playing at a more accessible levels, of a chance to shine. “It’s all kind of an illusion, it’s all kind of bullshit,” Negreanu said. “They’re actually not playing higher stakes. It seems that way, but they’re not, not really.”
In Rozvadov, Holz surrendered his first €100,000 entry after playing for almost all of day one (about 10 hours) and losing the last of his chips to Nitsche. He then re-entered the tournament the following day, for another €100,000, and was knocked out for a second and final time after less than 30 minutes. The tournament reporters drily related the specifics of Holz’s departure, lamenting the absence of the “Prince of the High Rollers”. But there was otherwise barely more than a shrug of the shoulders, a handshake, another shuffle and another deal. Holz’s seat was empty even before the remaining 30-odd players learned that there was a little more than €2.6 million on offer to the winner. That announcement too did not raise so much as a murmur. It was just another day.
Another German player bought into the tournament four times, putting his investment on paper into this tournament alone at $400,000. But he expressed no regrets: having determined his “expected value” against a field including many players of inferior ability, it had been a sound investment for him and his backers, even if it did not quite pay off this time. “If he had the bankroll to play one bullet, he had the bankroll probably to play 100 bullets,” Mateos told me of his fellow high roller. “The thing is you have to plan, and you know before that could happen.”
Another player talked of having had the third best year of his career, with published winnings to that point of $4.8m. But his own records, which took full account of entry fees, travel expenses, swaps and investors’ cuts, showed he was $1.8m down.
Among poker’s countless idioms and adages is the description of a game that takes a minute to learn but a lifetime to master. It broadly holds across all of the game’s numerous variants — the dominant two-card Texas hold’em, the four-card Omaha, seven-card stud; limit, no-limit; tournaments and cash games. All require adjustments in strategy, and players often end up specialising, but the basics remain consistent. Solid poker skills are desirable in each.
The notion of “mastery”, however, has been given a new spin in recent years by the introduction to poker learning of sophisticated computer tools, known as “solvers”. When I asked Negreanu what prompted his self-effacing tweet last September, in which he relegated himself out of the game’s very highest echelons, he was unequivocal. “Obviously skill levels have gotten better with time, which is to be expected, but the exponential rate in which, at the highest levels, the learning curve just jumped was 100 percent based on computer solvers,” Negreanu said.
“Solvers” are programs designed to determine optimal moves in strategy games — ie., plays that can neither be bettered nor exploited. In simple, fully-solved games such as tic-tac-toe, optimal strategy can never be defeated; the best an opponent could hope for is a tie. Even in more complicated games such as chess and go, the highly-publicised man vs. machine showdowns of recent years have ended in headline-grabbing triumph for the A.I. The computers are able both to analyse databases of previous games and to plot many moves ahead, running simulations of possible future scenarios to determine which current move results in the best outcome.
Poker resisted the encroachment of technology for longer than the games of “complete information” — so called because of the finite number of pieces and rules governing the ways in which they can be deployed. Poker’s central mystery — what cards does my opponent have? — immediately introduces uncertainty, but there are countless additional variables, particularly in tournament poker, that fluctuate from one deal of the cards to the next. (To name a few: players are facing numerous opponents each with differing tendencies; players’ chip-stacks rise and fall; the order in which players are required to act changes on every deal; the closeness to the tournament’s final stages, where the prize money distribution begins, is highly relevant.) Even if a player receives an identical hand twice in the same tournament, the decision-making process is vastly different.
These factors have historically contributed to poker’s standing as the ultimate “feel” game. The greats of yesteryear relied on their innate card sense and psychological conditioning to read situations and opponents, profiting from their superior instincts. If they could marry these talents with a grasp of probability, so much the better. But the brightest talents of poker today also acknowledge that the game has many mechanical aspects, and tools have been developed that examine scenarios in a poker game and attempt to determine the optimal plays.
I contacted a Polish computer scientist named Piotr Lopusiewicz, who transitioned to poker after playing competitive chess and contract bridge, and whose PIOSolver software, built with his colleague Kuba Straszewski, is among those revolutionising the game. Lopusiewicz told me that his tool was directly influenced by the chess engines, which play and analyse chess positions at a super-human level. “In chess players of all levels use computer programs to analyse their games, indicate mistakes and suggest better moves,” he said. “I wanted something like that for poker, something I can plug a hand I just played into which would tell me how I did, if I could improve and how I should play the same scenario if I was dealt a different hand.”
The overwhelming majority of elite pros who talked to me for this article admitted study with solvers had taken their game into a new direction. Bonomo described jotting the specifics of a situation down on his phone when he was at the table, and then running the details through the solver when he returned to his hotel room at the end of the day. Nitsche told me that his crew discuss various scenarios in Skype or WhatsApp chats, then run the simulations through the solvers and attempt to figure out how and why the computer found the plays it suggested. “Almost 90 to 95 percent of the actual work takes place away from the table,” he said. “The people that just sit down and play at the table and don’t do anything else, those are the ones you see struggle.”
I spent a recent afternoon talking online with a British poker coach named Gareth James, who teaches mainly mid-stakes players how to improve their game. Often in conjunction with other pros, James also sometimes plugs the specifics of televised poker hands into solvers and compares the program’s output with what the real-life player did, determining if the computer agreed that the play was “correct”. This kind of analysis has long been a part of online poker coaching and it is not uncommon for elite poker players to analyse the subtleties of a single hand for up to an hour in videos on YouTube.
A crash course in solvers is daunting for the beginner. Trying to decipher even the user interface is tricky as it requests users to input the specifics of a scenario, most notably a range of hands the user suspects his opponent might have. Once the solver is set running, the results emerge in what resembles a colour-coded spreadsheet, suggesting the “expected value” of a particular course of action — whether a player should call or raise, for example, or to what extent a big bet is preferable to a small one. The turn of the next card — reliably still random in poker — shifts everything once again. It has the effect of turning a single poker hand into a furiously complicated equation — and the nature of the game means another hand will follow immediately, and then another. (There are automated safeguards in place to prohibit players running solvers while simultaneously seated at online poker tables, but the time it takes for meaningful data to be input and a simulation to run renders them ineffectual in real time in any case.)
“A lot of the students are put off from the software because it just looks like numbers and you’re trying to work out what on earth’s going on,” James said, adding that like all technology, the solvers have their potential downsides. If users mistake the skill levels of their opponents, or fail to notice adjustments being made around the table, the “optimal” strategy being suggested by the program will be less effective. “This is one of the common mistakes. These solvers are basically only as good as the information you feed into it.”
By the same token, the technology in the hands of poker’s best becomes incredibly powerful. The likes of Bonomo, Nitsche, Haxton, Chidwick and Sontheimer, who have played millions of hands in thousands of different games, are continually able to set the solver working on particular areas of interest. Their base knowledge is already far higher than 99 percent of other players, and their additional willingness then to study the solvers’ output allows them to make micro adjustments to areas of relative weakness, or establish new lines of attack. Conversations with elite poker pros sometimes brings to mind discussions about fine tuning Formula One cars, or the obsession with marginal gains in cycling. “Optimal strategies do exist, and if optimal strategies do exist then it’s only natural that computers are better at those games than humans can ever be,” Nitsche said.
Bonomo added: “If you compare the level that humans are playing on to perfect play, they are still making lots and lots of mistakes. I would say that five years from now, the players at the top will be much, much, much better than players today. We’re not even close to seeing how far this can go.”
Negreanu’s admission that the game theory-obsessed players had developed an edge on the remainder of the pack earned him high praise from his peers. He went on to hire two coaches to teach him the basics and worked up to six hours a day for three months “learning a new baseline in terms of how I think about a poker hand”. He quickly had two million-dollar tournament successes, but balked at the idea of reorganising his established routines in order to keep up. “I haven’t really studied since then,” Negreanu said. “I’m kind of at a comfortable place in my life and I’ve realised that it’s not the life I want to lead. Honestly, it felt annoying that it was required, because it’s not as fun, it’s not nearly as fun.”
He also expressed a slight wistfulness for the old days, a period where enigmatic talents with intangible abilities could win the day. “I liked the romantic idea that someone had to have some skill and talent and really have a good knack for card sense. Now it’s essentially if you’re good school nerd and you know how to study the computer will give you all the answers. Before, you had to figure that stuff out on your own, through trial and error and gun-slinging and what not.”
Another poker Hall of Famer, 59-year-old Erik Seidel, told me he has also contemplated a gradual withdrawal from the very top level, potentially winding down a career in which he has been among the best in the world for 30 years. “At this point I’m really am at a crossroads of how much time do I want to put into this,” Seidel said. “I know I’m not going to outwork a kid who’s in his 20s, who’s spending 40–50 hours a week in front of a computer. I do love playing, but I also have to be realistic, and I also have to make sure I don’t end up playing out of ego that, as my edge is diminishing, that I take proper stock. You don’t want to be that boxer who’s still in the ring at the age of 50.”
As their skills continue to improve, many super high roller players acknowledge that the ecosystem on which their prosperity depends is becoming increasingly fragile. At its heart poker remains a zero-sum game where for $1m to be won, the same amount needs to be lost. (In this important way it differs from golf, whose top players do not need to pay entry fees, and where sponsors put up the prize money.) During the boom era, and in lower-stakes games, millions of players surrendered small amounts each, but as the contemporary high stakes scene has gradually separated itself from the more populous pastures, it has grown to depend on fewer people losing bigger sums. The quandary is how to keep inferior opponents interested in playing, while also continuing to prise them from their money. If the handful of eager businessmen still currently enamoured by poker found other pursuits, the walls could come tumbling down.
“It’s no secret that we as a group are all very worried that the high roller [tournaments] won’t go on for long,” Nitsche admitted, expressing the brutal reality that he and his peers have become all but impossible to beat over anything approaching the long term.
The accepted argument runs that the wealthy poker fanatics are content to pay for the schooling they receive from the elite pros, but Negreanu said: “That’s true, but for how long? You get in a ring with a boxer, you just want to test your mettle, you get in there are you get punched in the head a bunch of times. And you get kicked, you get beat to the ground, you’ve got blood coming out your nose, you’re convulsing and you’re shaking, you might not want to go there anymore.”
Although a number of American and European businessmen are still regulars in the super high roller events, and occasionally record decent wins, the new kingmakers are principally to be found in the Asian market. Poker in Asia did not take off until several years after the boom was raging in the west, with the high rollers brought by junket operators to Macau, for example, preferring the instant hit of baccarat and other casino games. Traditional tournament poker takes too long, depends less on luck than skill, and offers minimal returns to all but a handful of players. But in the past decade, enormous private cash games have become a thing of legend in poker circles, demonstrating a level of appetite for poker so long as the stakes are high enough. Billionaire businessmen from China, Malaysia and the Philippines are known to sit down to play cards with several million dollars in front of them. Poker pros will jump through extraordinary hoops in a bid to secure a seat at the most lucrative games, with invites notoriously scarce.
Super high roller tournaments — typically quicker and more expensive than most other events — proved easier to market to the connoisseurs of the cash games, and a new operator, Triton Poker, has rapidly grown in stature with a series of major festivals in the Far East. Aimed squarely at players seeking a quick poker fix while on brief furlough from the boardrooms of Kuala Lumpur, Beijing or Hong Kong, Triton has taken subtle measures to level the playing field between amateurs and pros. The organisers have tinkered with game structures to suit the tastes of their most valued customer base, while also ramping up the buy-ins to keep them interested. “It makes the skill level a lot closer,” said Winfred Yu, who has been at the forefront of the Asian poker scene for the past decade, arranging games across the continent. “It’s more exciting for everybody and keeping more interest for amateurs or Asian players to join. That stirred up the scene pretty good.”
Super high roller tournaments already take place in a much more relaxed atmosphere than at any other level in poker, partly the result of a familiarity of the players with one another, but also because money pressures do not exist. While the pros’ staking deals insure them against significant loss, the businessmen have the biggest bankrolls in the world from other pursuits. “In the VIP poker community, because everybody is a multi-billionaire, they’re not fighting about who’s richer,” Yu said. “It’s about who has the better skill, who has the better performance, who learns this thing faster…It’s about getting a title, or getting far in a tournament, the excitement of the final table, the limelight on the TV, it’s a big deal for them. They feel something they cannot buy.”
It has turned Europe and North America’s top poker players into jet-set versions of the old-school rounders, who would hit the road through America’s southern states in the early to mid 1900s, searching for the richest games and tolerating local quirks. Elite players also often have the ear of tournament organisers and are happy to encourage them to lay on additional unscheduled events if vacationing businessmen have not yet had their fill of the action. “If they want to play, so far as poker players provide a service, that’s kind of it,” Sam Greenwood told me. “If people want a game, we’ll make sure a game happens.”
Greenwood has also been outspoken against fellow players who refuse to sit down in tournaments that are too pro-heavy, instead circling the tables vulture-like until sufficient recreational players commit to join in. Practices like this are not against the rules, and in many ways make good financial sense, particularly to backers. But the perception of pros simply regarding their lesser-skilled adversaries as prey does not sit well with many in the game. Yu told me that Triton is considering putting a cap on the number of professional players allowed to enter the company’s biggest events, ensuring the recreational players don’t feel overawed. “They just don’t want to go to a tournament, draw a table, sit down and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got eight pros waiting for me’,” Yu said.
For all that, I heard nothing but enthusiasm among the pros for any measures that tilt the game slightly in the amateurs’ favour, and many of them pointed to poker skills among the supposedly weaker players that far outstripped those on display at most levels of the game. “These guys are super sharp and they learn, and they’re actually great poker players,” Koon said. Of course, the pros still backed themselves to win even with their edge slightly diminished, and relished any new challenges placed before them.
The very latest fashion is for a new variant of the game known as “short deck” poker, in which most of the lower-ranking cards are removed from the deck before the game begins. It means players tend to make higher value hands more frequently, increasing the impetus to gamble. No solvers currently exist that can grapple with short-deck, and the pros have not yet established a consensus as to accepted “correct” strategy. Yu told me that the Asian high rollers had quickly become obsessed with the game, particularly as they had noticed the western pros being thrown out of their comfort zone by its peculiarities. Soon after talking with Yu, I saw a tweet from Bonomo that read: “Anybody in Vegas want to play some short deck this weekend or next week? I’m building a list of people who have never played before (or played once) so we’d all be on equal footing at the start.”
The broader hope for poker is that the ongoing legal disputes over the online game in the US are finally resolved and that American players are brought back into the fold, restoring the poker pyramid to its former health. In an idealised vision of what’s possible — the issue is currently being discussed at a state-by-state level, with some legal online poker gradually returning — players across the world are able to find their level and ladder up and down accordingly.
Meanwhile, the same players have little option but to continue to make hay while the sun shines, and find a way to enter all the biggest events. Triton announced a tournament in London costing £1m to enter for March. All of the usual suspects are expected to attend.
— ends —
Selected source interviews (contain small edits for length). Thanks to everyone — these and others — for their generosity in talking with me.