Can you remember a time before online poker? It seems that Party Poker and its fellow poker sites are now a part of our mental landscape, and we cannot imagine a world without them. Yet 20 years ago if you wanted to play poker you needed a deck of cards, a table and some friends willing to part with their money – just ask Doyle Brunson or any of the old school players.
So how did poker go from back alley to your laptop? Let’s look at the first installment of our two-part series about online poker.
How many times did we wonder how life was going to be after the year 2000? Well, some of us spent quite some time wondering and dreaming about it; it even lead to the creation of cartoon entertainment shows like “The Jetsons,” sci-fi movies and shows that would show a completely different planet than the one we had back then: vehicles flying at light speed, people replacing food with tablets or strange-looking shakes, people being born from womb-like machine eggs, etc.
Who would have thought that sites such as Party Poker were going to be the future of traditional table poker? Nobody ever thought that calling, folding or raising money to a poker game was going to be a click away, that poker players from all around the world were going to be able to meet for a tournament from their own homes, wearing their pajamas, and that they were going to be represented in a screen by their own nickname in an ‘almost real’-looking poker room with chairs, tables, dealers, animation and everything! To think about how many books were written in the 20th century about visual strategy and reading your opponents when now people have eliminated that aspect from poker while playing at a virtual setting makes you wonder: is online poker going to replace poker completely in the future?
Online poker originated from IRC poker, a form of poker played over the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) in the 90’s. Internet Relay Chat, a form of internet chat or synchronized conferencing, was a program developed by Finnish software developer Jarkko Oikarinen, who, while working for the University of Oulu in 1988, created the first IRC server and client programs, in an effort to replace the MUT (MultiUser Talk) program used then by the Finnish BBS Oulubox. Inspired on a chat system called Bitnet Relay (chat service running on a special id on several suitable hosts in the Bitnet) which operated on the BITNET, a network that preceded the internet, created in 1981 as a cooperative university network in which e-mail messages and files would travel from one server to another.
According to NetHistory, BITNET originally stood for “Because It's There Network,” and with time, it adopted the name “Because It's Time Network,” becoming so popular among universities that it extended to almost 500 organizations and 3,000 nodes. All colleges and educational institutions could join BITNET by meeting the following requirements: “a. lease a data circuit (phone line) from [their] site to an existing BITNET node; b. buy modems for each end of the data circuit, sending one to the connecting point site; c. allow other institutions to connect to [their] site.”
Therefore, Oikarinen used the Bitnet Relay resources available at them moment to create the IRC, which gained its place in the telecommunication world when it was used by military institutions for communicating when media blackouts occurred. After this, IRC became a popular tool for remote and fast communication, and it wasn’t long until it started being used for games, including poker.
IRC poker used a program to deal and manage poker games, and one-line commands had to be typed directly with a standard IRC client, receiving one-line responses from the dealer program, which made games flow faster than face-to-face games. Soon, graphical IRC clients were developed, eliminating the typing feature. IRC poker used imaginary money, which was appealing to beginners who wanted to learn their skills without risking their bankroll. This primitive virtual poker helped personalities like Chris Ferguson build their poker edge until they felt strong enough to play for real.
In the late 1990’s, Mike Caro, already a poker writer, computer programmer and visionary, co-founded Planet Poker, a virtual casino which offered real money poker games for the first time in virtual gaming history. He had the vision that virtual poker games were going to prosper in the gaming community since the mid 80’s; according to Al Moe in his article Legends of Poker: Mike Caro. Moe reports: “His own artificially intelligent poker-playing computer, ORAC (Caro backwards), made it to national TV where it played Bob Stupak in a $500,000 challenge match. Bob put up his own money, and Caro's friend, casino owner Jackie Gaughn, backed the computer. ABC's ‘Ripley's Believe It or Not’ filmed the match, which Stupak eventually won.”
According to Planet Poker, the first years of online poker were not easy. Even though they knew that virtual poker had certain advantages over table poker, such as eliminating real table distractions and the stress of keeping a cool and mysterious poker face, there were immediate challenges to online poker: bluffing or calling bluffs would not exist in virtual poker, since that is an exclusive feature of face-to-face poker, and marketing virtual gaming, which had to do with the fact that the internet and computer use was still establishing as a new communication trend in the world, thus making it difficult for the virtual casino to have as big a clientele as brick and mortar casinos.
However, they started brainstorming on virtual poker publicity, and they focused on the advantages over face-to-face poker: “first, they ran some clever quarter page ads in Card Player and elsewhere, extolling the virtues of online poker. Play in your pajamas, play at 2 a.m., play even if you can't make the regular game, the ads said. The pitch was a good one, and the players began to arrive. ‘We were all skeptical at first. But the proof was all around us. Poker was actually being played remotely.’ Before long, hundreds of players at a time were playing online poker in Planet Poker's virtual cardroom, and the Internet poker revolution had begun in earnest.” The issue of trusting a virtual casino was quickly resolved by keeping an impeccable reputation with customers: “Poker hands were examined, cheats were barred from the online poker game, and players were reimbursed for legitimate grievances. Like any cardroom, virtual ones gained their players' trust through fair and honest dealing.”
After Poker Planet’s big virtual step, the rest is history. Creativity boosted competition between emerging virtual casinos, and an array of marketing promotions and incentives can now be found all over the internet, with established sites such as Party Poker maintaining as big a clientele as real casinos do.
Next week, we will talk about Chapter Two: The best poker school, which will offer some examples of why online poker has been the best school for poker players.