The History of Modern High Stakes Poker

Prior to the 21st Century

If you’d asked someone twenty years ago what they thought of when they hear the words, “high stakes poker”, the likely answer would be something along the lines of a bunch of middle-aged crooks playing cards across a small table in the smoky back-room of some after-hours bar. Possibly with an ace or two hidden up their sleeve and a knife in their sock. Yet today high stakes poker is considered a very legitimate pastime or career; an activity which spans the globe and is hugely popular not just with those involved in the games, but with legions of fans the world over.

High stakes poker in the 21st century has given us so much already; we’ve had great TV shows, amazing characters, eye-watering pots, great rivalries, rags-to-riches tales, and millions and millions of dollars changing hands. To any aspiring poker player, reaching the nosebleeds is the dream, the ultimate goal. To play with the best and to achieve the trappings and lifestyle of a poker high roller is the thing all of us poker nuts have, at one time or another, spent hours daydreaming about.

Watching high stakes poker on TV or railing it online was the catalyst for many of today’s best players, their inspiration to reach the top. But how did high stakes poker go from being something considered an ‘illegitimate’ pastime best left to crooks and conmen, to something a high school kid could reasonably aspire to, embraced by millions around the world, and dominated by some of the sharpest young minds on the planet? Let’s take a look…

Before we start, however, let’s just add a little colour with a very brief synopsis of high stakes poker prior to the 21st century.

The Wild West

After making a name for itself among gamblers in the Mississippi river region in the late 18th century, the game of poker (or at least a version of stud poker) spread throughout the country during the gold rush era via Mississippi riverboats on which gambling was a common pastime. By mid-century more stud variants as well as draw poker had been introduced, with lowball and split-pot poker finding their way into proceedings by the turn of the 20th century. Last to the party were today’s most popular poker variants, the community card games such as Texas Hold’em and Omaha which didn’t start making appearances at the tables until the 1920’s.

During this phase of poker’s development it is no exaggeration to say that some of the games played carried the highest stakes of all, with plenty of players paying with their lives. When big money was on the line in the ‘Wild West’ poker games everyone at the table would be carrying a loaded weapon, and if the game was hi-jacked or a player was found to be cheating then swift retribution was often found at the end of a six-shooter. Perhaps the most famous instance would be the 1876 shooting of the legendary lawman, gunfighter, gambler, and actor ‘Wild’ Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota. Hickok had been playing the previous day at Nuttal & Mann's Saloon when a drunken man by the name of Jack McCall sat down and proceeded to lose heavily. The story goes that Hickok encouraged McCall to quit the game and even offered him the money to buy himself breakfast – an offer which McCall accepted, but apparently also took as an insult. The next day McCall returned to the saloon where the game was still running, walked up behind Hickok, and shot him in the back of the head. The hand Hickok was supposedly holding (two pairs, Aces and 8’s) has forever since been known as “dead man’s hand”.

Despite law enforcement becoming considerably more effective over the next few decades, the life of a poker ‘rounder’ was still a dangerous career to pursue, with the now 82 year old veteran, Doyle Brunson recalling many an incident of robbery, gunfight, broken bones, and even murder, during his life on the road well into the second half of the 20th century.

Above: Playing cards for cash in the wild west could be hazardous to your health to say the least.

Putting the less savoury aspects of the poker life aside, it was during this time that the likes of Brunson, Sailor Roberts, and Amarillo Slim began to add a degree of sophistication to the game. These pioneering players spent hour upon hour in their hotel rooms running through hands, making adjustments, and getting to grips with pot-odds, giving them an edge in almost any game they played, helping them to build million dollar bankrolls in the days when a million dollars REALLY meant something.

It was to be Brunson himself, along with compadres Amarillo Slim, Sailor Roberts, and Crandall Addington who would bring the game of Texas Hold’em to Las Vegas in 1967. By 1971 the big bet Hold’em variant was so popular that it was chosen as the game to represent poker in the Main Event of the fledgling WSOP, and the foundations were laid for what was to become the game of choice for high stakes players across the world during the early 21st century poker boom.

1998-2003: Rounders, The Hole Card Camera, and the Moneymaker effect

Above: Teddy KGB (John Malkovic) and Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) play ‘HU4rollz’ in ‘Rounders’

The tale of modern day high stakes poker really began on 1st January 1998, when the first hand of $3/$6 Limit Hold’em was dealt on Planet Poker, the first online poker site to offer real money games. It almost goes without saying that without online poker there is no way that high stakes poker would have emerged into the mainstream, although several other factors played a significant role in helping it along, the first of which also took place in 1998; the theatrical release of the landmark poker movie, Rounders, starring Matt Damon and Ed Norton.

Rounders was the first realistic look at the underground poker scene in New York in the 1990’s. Most significantly, it went against the perceived stereotyped image of poker players as crooked criminals and degenerate gamblers (although there were a fair share of both in the film) and showed poker as the mental, strategic game that it is. It showed poker as a game which is more about playing on your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and using their fears against them than the value of the hand you are dealt. Combine this with the classic “David vs Goliath” storyline of struggling student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) pitting his high stakes poker wits against Russian Mobster and illegal poker room boss, Teddy KGB (John Malkovic), and the movie’s strong and compelling narrative and you have a feature film which did wonders for the promotion of poker as a pastime. Dozens of today’s high stakes pros often credit Rounders with first piquing their interest in the game.

A year later, perhaps the most significant innovation in terms of bringing poker to a wider audience saw its television debut, as the hole card camera (known as the “hole-cam”) was used for the first time in the popular British TV series, “Late Night Poker” in 1999.

The legendary Poker Hall of Famer Dave “Devilfish” Ulliot first came to prominence after his appearances on the first series of Late Night Poker in the UK in 1999.

The hole-cam was patented by toy maker turned poker player and entrepreneur, Henry Orenstein in 1995, and it allowed viewers to see the cards the players had been dealt when they either placed their hole-cards face down on the table or lifted the cards edges up to reveal their holdings to small ‘hole-cams’ secreted in the rail of the poker table. For the first time viewers could properly follow the action and the commentators could describe each hand in detail as it unfolded, detailing some of the strategy and thinking behind the plays being made.

Essentially the hole-cam made poker a spectator sport, which had huge knock-on effects for every future televised poker show or tournament that was to follow. Late Night Poker in 1999 was the first glimpse many of us got of such characters as Phil “The Poker Brat” Hellmuth, Dave “Devilfish” Ulliot, and “The Hendon Mob” (London based players Joe Beevers, Ram Vaswani, Barney Boatman, and Ross Boatman).

All of the above combined over one week in Las Vegas in 2003 which was to truly ignite the 21st century poker boom, and consequently the future of high stakes poker – namely the unlikely victory of 27 year old ‘everyman’ Chris Moneymaker in 2003’s $10,000 buy-in WSOP Main Event.

Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee, had taken up online poker as a past time, having been given his introduction to the game through the aforementioned movie, Rounders. Playing at home on a then little known site called PokerStars, Moneymaker managed to satellite his way into the 2003 Main Event for just $39 – an investment he eventually turned into $2.5m after besting an 839 strong field, and beating veteran pro Sammy Farha heads-up for the title. The final hand, in which Moneymaker flops bottom two pairs on a J54 flop holding 54 and ends up winning the title after Farha commits his chips with top pair holding J10 has been viewed millions of times, and is one of the most iconic hands ever caught by the hole-cam.

The “Moneymaker Effect” as it is known, caused a huge surge in the popularity of poker across the world. The $10,000 buy-in WSOP Main Event had always previously been won by a professional poker player, so when millions of people saw a 27 year old accountant become a multi-millionaire overnight, and learnt that he’d done so at a cost of just $39, the number of players signing up for sites like PokerStars went through the roof. The next year some 2,576 players entered the main event, with 5,619 doing so the following year, and in 2006 Main Event entries peaked at a phenomenal 8,773.

With online poker experiencing unprecedented numbers of players on real-money sites, the scene was set for the rise of the internet phenoms, and the march towards modern-day high stakes poker really started to pick up a pace.

World Series Of Poker 2003 WSOP Final Chris Moneymaker Vs Sam Farha

Sam Farha looks on as 27 year old amateur Chris Moneymaker wins the 2003 WSOP Main Event, making history and changing the world of poker forever.

The first place where real high stakes cash games were played online was at Ultimate Bet, years before the infamous “superuser” scandal, and you could regularly see the likes of Mike Matusow, Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth, and Doyle Brunson playing at the $50/$100 NL tables (back then the highest stakes anywhere online.

Often to be found sitting alongside these established poker ‘legends’ you would often find a not so well known player who went by the name of ‘mahatma’.

Much to the consternation of the ‘legends’, this ‘mahatma’ - a laid back Californian in his mid-20’s whose real name was Prahlad Friedman - was regularly outplaying them and bossing the games.

These games became the first online match-ups which became ‘must-see’ events for online poker fans.

Hellmuth and Matusow would frequently have chat-box blow-ups, with the chat transcripts eagerly posted to the pocketfives forums.

Here’s a snippet taken from a pocketfives thread from 17th August 2005 of a needling chat between mahatma and Phil Hellmuth

chat

Friedman had actually learned and initially plied his trade in live cash games and tournaments in casinos around LA and Las Vegas, and already had a WSOP bracelet under his belt, winning a $1500 PLH title in 2003 (his first ever WSOP event). Struggling to find games back in LA Friedman tried his hand online and soon rose to the top of the heap, crushing all-comers at both six-max, and especially heads-up NL. Soon ‘mahatma’ was talked about in revered tones on the poker forums.

Before long, however, it was time to pass on the mantle, and soon enough mahatma found himself being surpassed by a man whose influence on online poker is hard to overestimate, Taylor “GreenPlastic” Caby.

Between 2005-2006 Friedman and Caby played a ton of heads-up hands at UB’s $50/$100 NL tables, and it became clear that ‘mahatma’ was no longer king of the hill. In one devastating week, GreenPlastic took mahatma for some $600,000 – an unheard of amount to lose heads-up online at this time. Prahlad Friedman acknowledged GreenPlastic’s dominance and started to refuse him action – and this was something that up to this point which Friedman NEVER did.

Taylor Caby had started playing online in his Freshman year at the University of Illinois. By the time he graduated in 2006, not only had he made himself a millionaire through online poker, but he had also established (along with his college roommate Andrew Wiggins) Cardrunners.com, an online poker training site which was to dominate the market for the next decade. Many of the game’s top players have acknowledged a debt of gratitude to Cardrunners.com, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the site revolutionised the online game, helping players learn in weeks or months more than many live players had managed in decades.

As Cardunners.com took off, Caby spent less and less time at the poker table and more and more time in the office, so rather than GreenPlastic losing his crown on the battlefield, he essentially ‘abdicated’, leaving the spoils to a whole new wave of high stakes poker talent.

2006-2011
Full Tilt & The Glory Years of High Stakes Poker

team full tilt 2008 Members of "Team Full Tilt" c.2008

By 2006 internet poker was a legitimately huge business. Sites such as PartyPoker, PokerStars, Ultimate Bet, Absolute Poker and Paradise Poker all had multi-million or even billion dollar businesses in the USA. A relative newcomer had also made some impressive headway in the marketplace, Full Tilt Poker. Founded just a couple of years earlier in 2004 by high profile poker players Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson, alongside Ray Bitar, Full Tilt Poker promoted itself as the site to “Learn, Chat, and Play with the Pros”. Custom avatars depicting in cartoon form the real life images of high profile pros such as Phil Ivey, Mike Matusow, Erick Lindgren, Erik Seidel, John Juanda, and later Gus Hansen, and Patrik Antonius meant that railbirds could watch their TV poker heroes play in real time, a lot of the time. By paying the members of so called “Team Full Tilt” handsomely to play on the site and ramping up the limits of games available, Full Tilt soon became the ‘home’ of online high stakes poker worldwide.

Then, just as things were going so well for online poker, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) hit the US online poker industry hard in September 2006.

The UIGEA had been hastily tacked onto the ridiculously unrelated SAFE Port Act at the last minute and its passing into law meant was a mortal wound to many players in the US online poker market as it "prohibits gambling businesses from knowingly accepting payments in connection with the participation of another person in a bet or wager that involves the use of the Internet and that is unlawful under any federal or state law."

Many operators, including the (at the time) world’s no.1 Party Poker immediately withdrew from the US market. However, as devastating as UIGEA was at the time, those operators who chose to stay and tough it out stood to benefit enormously from the fallout, shoring up millions of players who suddenly found many of their favourite sites unavailable to them. The main beneficiaries would turn out to be PokerStars and Full Tilt (and to a lesser extent UB), who circumnavigated UIGEA by the use of third party payment processors. With Full Tilt in the ascendency the money rolled in and the high stakes games started to flourish.

With Full Tilt starting to dominate the highest stakes games another new ‘end-boss’ emerged in Brian “sbrugby” Townsend. Townsend had already made a name for himself in the poker community playing as “aba20” at PokerStars where he had destroyed the high stakes NL cash games, but he really came to prominence after coming out on top of a series of heads-up matches against the great Phil Ivey in late 2006 at Full Tilt’s $200/$400 and $300/$600 NLHE tables.

One particularly memorable hand they played in November 2006 ended badly for Ivey. The hand played out at the $200/$400 NL tables. On the button Townsend misclicked, and rather than betting his standard 3x open he opened for $30,800. Ivey, realising that Townsend had bet way too much by mistake tried to take advantage of the situation by jamming for $135,000. After releasing some expletives in the chat box and tanking for a while Townsend called off the remainder of his stack ($51k). Fortunately for him, his holding of A8 was much better than his average hand, and he was ahead of Ivey’s K9.

Brian “sbrugby” Townsend famously ‘angles’ Phil Ivey with a deliberate ‘misclick’ raise preflop in April 2007 (click image to replay the hand in full)

Two 8’s on the flop sealed the deal and Townsend bagged a $163,951.50 pot. Ivey promptly left the table while Townsend opined in the chat, “best misclick ever”. A few months later in April 2007, Townsend angled Ivey by deliberately ‘misclicking’ and opening to $13,800 with KK. He was able to induce action once again and ended up nailing another six-figure pot against Ivey!

Negreanu, Elezra, and Dwan all break the bank to appear on High Stakes Poker

While the online action was hotting up, high stakes poker was given even more exposure as 2006 heralded a new age of cash game poker on network TV. The first programme to hit the screens was the legendary "High Stakes Poker" (HSP) which premiered on January 16, 2006, originally on GSN. Once again benefiting from the hole-cam, viewers could follow the action and the antics of some of the world’s best known players playing for vast amounts of their own money.

The minimum buy-in was $100,000, with some episodes demanding a $500,000 minimum buy-in. These huge buy-ins meant that there would occasionally be over $5,000,000 on the tables – much of it in actual bricks of cash alongside high denomination poker chips.

The show made (even bigger) stars out of the likes of Daniel Negreanu, Doyle Brunson, Sammy Farha, Barry Greenstein, Mike Matusow, Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth, and Gus Hansen, as well as introducing the wider viewing public to the likes of Brian Townsend, Brad Booth, Phil Galfond and significantly to Guy Laliberte, and Tom Dwan – two individuals who were to have quite the impact on high stakes poker over the next few years. But we’ll get to that later.

HSP was unique in that it was the first time poker on TV hadn’t been in a tournament setting, it was the first time high stakes cash games had ever been played out on TV, and it was for real money as every chip represented the corresponding amount of actual cash. The players were paid a handsome hourly fee of $1,250 to attend, but considering they were putting up hundreds of thousands of their own dollars in the game, the hourly rate paled somewhat into insignificance.

A classic line up from Poker After Dark featuring the likes of Tom “durrrr” Dwan, Phil Ivey, and Patrik Antonius.

Hot on the heels of HSP came NBC’s “Poker After Dark” which began life as a week of mini-tournaments between six big name pros, each putting up $20,000 in a ‘winner takes all’ format.

However, in later series the formats changed week to week, with a decent share of high stakes cash games similar to those over on HSP taking place.

Many of the same pro players appeared on both series, although towards the end of their lifespans HSP became a PokerStars sponsored show, thus robbing the tables of Full Tilt pros such as Ivey, Dwan, Matusow, Hansen, and Patrik Antonius. Likewise Poker After Dark featured Full Tilt branding, meaning that Full Tilt pros took centre stage.

High stakes poker on TV really helped to legitimise poker and the associations with PokerStars and Full Tilt helped both sites reach a whole new audience.

While it was great to see the old school pros mixing it up at the tables, it was unquestionably the young internet phenom Tom “durrrr” Dwan who was the breakout star of these shows.

Dwan had come up just behind Townsend in the online high stakes world, but soon easily eclipsed him in terms of popularity due to his highly unpredictable, unorthodox, and hyper-aggressive style. “durrrr” thought nothing of playing six tables at once, at the highest stakes, and against anybody. He was also a player who truly “played the player” rather than the hand he was dealt – so much so that every now and again his play would look absolutely atrocious, leading to some armchair commentators labelling him a “fish on a heater”. His peers, however, knew better, and while durrrr’s style of play wouldn’t get him very far against today’s top players, back in 2007 the 21 year old from New Jersey was among the most respected NLHE and PLO players on the planet.

What’s more, Dwan was able to replicate the excitement he brought online to the live tables of High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark. While the likes of Townsend and Galfond faded into the background against the more TV savvy old school pros, Tom Dwan’s fearless play and willingness to put everything on the line shone through, and some of his huge bluffs are among the most popular High Stakes Poker clips of all time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tom Dwan also holds the record for winning the biggest ever pot on High Stakes Poker from Season 5 in 2009 when he got it all in on a 42Q flop holding KQ against Barry Greenstein’s AA With both players playing deep stacks the pot Dwan took down was an astonishing $919,600.

Between 2007 and the airing of that famous HSP mega-pot in the summer of 2009, “durrrr” won a staggering $8m at Full Tilt alone. Throughout this period Tom “durrrr” Dwan took part in some of the biggest games ever to have taken place online. Daily profits of between $500,000 and $1,000,000 were not in the least bit uncommon for the likes of Dwan, Gus Hansen, Ilari “Ziigmund” Sahamies, Antonius, Phil Ivey and others as the stakes were raised. From the biggest stakes available being $50/$100 for big bet games in 2004, by 2007 they had increased tenfold, and now both NLHE and PLO could be played as high with blinds as high as $500/$1000 online.

Tom “durrrr” Dwan – Possibly the most popular play to successfully crossover between the online and live poker worlds, seen here playing at the Aussie Millions in Melbourne
The picture above was taken at the 2014 Aussie Millions Main Event which was won by Canadian high stakes pro Ami “UhhMee” Barer. Tom Dwan did, however, achieve his biggest ever live cash at these championships after final tabling the $250,000 Super High Roller. He finished 6th for $500,000. The event was won by Phil Ivey, who also won the same event in both 2012 and 2015, earning more than $8,000,000 AUD from the three events.
Dwan also featured in day 5 of the televised Aussie Millions High Stakes Cash Game that year where he replaced Malaysian businessman Paul Phua midway through the game. Dwan played against Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, Ike Haxton, Doug Polk, Christoph Vogelsang, and Paul Newey. Dwan broke even in the min $250k buy-in game, with Phil Ivey and Patrik Antonius both winning over half a million dollars each.
The sharks circle around Guy “elmariachimacho” Laliberte, but on this occasion he scoops a monster pot at Full Tilt’s $500/$100 NLHE tables (December 2008)

As well as the money pouring in from new depositors making its way slowly but surely up to the highest stakes, and the millions of dollars some of the players were receiving in endorsements, there was also one other very big contributor to the well-being of the high stakes poker economy – the patronage of Cirque Du Soleil billionaire (and recreational poker player), Guy Laliberte.

Between the start of 2007 and not long after Black Friday in 2011, accounts known to have been played on by Laliberte lost some $26,500,000 playing at Full Tilt’s highest stakes tables. The accounts “noataima”, “lady marmelade”, “patatino”, “elmariachimacho”, and “Esvedra” all lost millions of dollars. While Full Tilt’s terms of service strictly forbade using multiple-accounts, the powers that be clearly wouldn’t have been advised to turn down tens of millions of dollars being generously released into the online poker economy - so they turned a very big blind eye.

While durrrr certainly took a decent clip of Laliberte’s donations, other players including Phil “OMGClayAiken” Galfond, Hac “trex313” Dang, Zi “Urindander” Dang, John Juanda, Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, and Ilari “Ziigmund” Sahamies also fattened their bankrolls considerably at the Canadian entrepreneur’s expense.

By late 2009 the online games were as good and as big as anybody thought they could get, and Tom “durrrr” Dwan was the King of the Hill. He had also just earned himself a very lucrative package as the latest (and final) member of “Team Full Tilt”. And then along came Isildur1...

An Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object

durrrr and Isildur1 battle it out at six simultaneous tables of $500/$1000 NLHE back in November 2009

Taken at face value, the appearance of an unknown player at the high stakes NLHE tables was a dream come true for durrrr, he had seen off players riding a heater to the high stakes plenty of times before. This particular unknown player was from Sweden, went by the name “Isildur” and had been on a crazy tear through the stakes at Full Tilt before finding himself at the summit, the $500/$1000 HUNL tables, and he wanted to play LOTS of tables.

Dwan wasn’t worried, by all accounts this Isildur character. He had surely heard the comments on the forums from numerous high stakes regulars who dismissed Isildur1 as “hyper aggro” and a “barrel monkey” who was too willing to ship his stack in. Despite the fact that Isildur1 had handily beaten world class players such as Daniel “jungleman12” Cates and Haseeb “INTERNETPOKERS” Qureshi, as well as holding his own against the likes of online legends Brian Townsend and Cole South, HUNL was durrrr’s kingdom, and he wasn’t about to back down. There were some people out there, however, who had a very good idea who the mysterious Isildur was, and they knew what was coming. Outspoken English pro Luke “__Fullflush1__” Schwartz had recently made waves at Full Tilt with his trash-talking and his NL game.

He had enjoyed some good success during his brief foray into Full Tilt’s high stakes games, having built his bankroll at European sites such as Betfair, and on the Microgaming and iPoker networks. Having enjoyed considerable success against durrrr himself he had also predicted in an interview that a young Swedish player who went by the name of “Blom90” on iPoker would soon hit Full Tilt and clean out the likes of durrrr et al. According to Schwartz this “Blom90” had been winning millions of dollars across a whole host of European sites with a NL game nobody could seem to fathom. Schwartz was also the first person to come out and say that he was certain that Isildur1 and Blom90 were one and the same player.

What happened next went down in the annals of online poker folklore. It was a bloodbath of epic proportions. As Qureshi himself observed shortly after the events, it was a match where "an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, the former being Isildur and the latter being Durrrr.”

The biggest ever pot in online poker – with Isildur1 on the wrong end of it!

In just five days Isildur1 and durrrr had played an astonishing 30,000 hands at the highest stakes possible and durrrr had lost $3,400,000 to Isildur1. It seemed that whatever new tricks Dwan tried, his Swedish opponent was able to quickly and effectively counter his strategy.

Another week later and durrrr was down an incredible $5,000,000 to Isildur1. Tom “durrrrr” Dwan was no longer online poker’s golden boy; there was a new hero in town.

The two months of nosebleed action at Full Tilt between November and December 2009 was, without question, the most awe-inspiring, insane, talked about, analysed, and downright entertaining period in the history of high stakes poker – bar none.

Isildur1 took his multi-million dollar bankroll and made it his job to take on any single player at any single stake, heads-up over as many tables as they wanted at both NLHE and PLO, often against different players at the same time. It was sheer lunacy, and the railbirds loved him all the more for it. In the three week period between 16th November and 8th December the biggest twelve pots in the history of online poker took place – and every single one of them featured Isildur1.

If you’re wondering why the huge pots stopped coming on 8th December, it’s because that is the day that Isildur1 finally busted his account on Full Tilt Poker.

It had been a wild ride, but ultimately Isildur1 flew a little too close to the sun. While he might have had a chance playing them one at a time, nobody else would have dreamt of simultaneously playing 9 tables of $500/$1000 heads-up split between Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, and Tom Dwan – they certainly wouldn’t have played some of them at PLO and the others at NLHE. Isildur1 lost over $2.5m that day, but this was by no means his worst day.

After some searing ups and downs over the previous month, Isildur1 took his bankroll of a little over $4m to the tables on the evening of December 8th and sat at 6 tables of $500/$1000 PLO against high stakes PLO regular, Brian Hastings. At this time Hastings was considered one of the very best PLO players on earth, while Isildur1 had been playing PLO at high stakes for just a couple of months – this wasn’t a +EV spot.

Over the next few hours thousands of online railbirds witnessed the another bloodbath as Brian Hastings made the biggest ever score in the history of online poker as he beat Isildur1 out of a staggering $4,200,000. It was horrible in every way possible for Isildur1, not only had he busted his account, but he’d also run a full $3m below EV. Hastings not only had been seriously outmatched in the skill department, he also had lady luck firmly in his grasp.

Some controversy came of this particular match after Hastings revealed that he had studied some of Isildur1’s previous hand histories with fellow Cardrunners and Full Tilt pros Cole South and Brian Townsend. Despite the temporary furore, however, in reality it was only really a minor infringement on their part and the fact is that playing as high as he was against the calibre of opponent he was and playing a game at which he was a relative novice, something like this was almost certain to happen sooner or later.

For a while the high stakes world went back to a semblance of normality, although the impact of Isildur1 certainly opened a few eyes, and if nothing else his dramatic appearance had shown that the top pros of 2009 were certainly nowhere near as good at NLHE as they thought they were.

Throughout 2010 there was still action aplenty with new stars such as Daniel “jungleman12” Cates and Ben “Sauce1234” Sulsky starting to emerge. There was also an amazing comeback from Tom “durrrr” Dwan who won close to $10m between December 2009 and April 2010 playing in some huge PLO games against Patrik Antonius, Gus Hansen, and Ilari “Ziigmund” Sahamies. Dwan also saw success in his first “durrrr challenge”.

In late 2008 Dwan had put out a challenge to anyone willing to take him on over 50,000 hands of either NLHE or PLO to be played at the $200/$400 stakes. Dwan stated that if his opponent was up just $1 after 50k hands then he would pay them an additional $1,500,000. If he won, he would only seek $500,000 from his opponent.

The Legend of Isildur1 - BET RAISE FOLD

Learn the original story of the legendary Isildur1 (aka Viktor Blom) in this exciting Internet fairy tale.

Antonius was the first to take up his offer. Although the match took place over a considerably longer time period than anticipated and eventually ground to a halt after 36k hands, it is widely believed that Antonius bought out of the challenge as he was already down a whopping $2,000,000 to Dwan.

It wasn’t a great end to the year for durrrr, however, as not only did he lose a few million dollars online, he also began his second “durrrr challenge” at NLHE against Dan “jungleman12” Cates, a match which was ultimately going to deliver a nasty blow to his reputation, a match, in fact, which has yet to be completed some seven years later.

Black Friday

It became obvious pretty quickly that Dwan was seriously outmatched in his clash with jungleman. He had issued his challenge back in 2008, but by 2010 NLHE had evolved quite considerably, and the players who had been working hard on their HUNL game while durrrr had been feasting on Guy Laliberte’s millions and playing insane games of PLO were now on another level completely. Time and again durrrr declined Cates invitations to put some hands in.

In his defence, it was around this time that Dwan started to frequent the mega-high stakes cash games in Macau where, due to his personable nature, influential contacts, and willingness to give action, he seemed to always get a seat at the juiciest games. Compared to playing jungleman12 at $200/$400, you can understand why he’d want to play for a ton more money against significantly weaker opposition. That said, his constant stalling in the online challenge was the first time that durrrr’s character had really come into question. Not long after, the challenge was put on indefinite hiatus as Black Friday effectively ended online poker in the United States. By this point durrrr was down $1.2m to jungleman12.

After Black Friday, the day the US Department of Justice closed down Full Tilt, PokerStars, and Ultimate Bet/Absolute Poker, the games continued for another month on Full Tilt for those players outside of the USA but ultimately closed for business in May 2011.

Shortly afterwards, high stakes was dealt another blow as both GSN’s High Stakes Poker and NBC’s Poker After Dark, both heavily sponsored by the main two sites, were axed.

For the next 18 months or so the high stakes games moved over to PokerStars who were able to keep on operating outside of the US. It turned out that Full Tilt had scandalously failed to separate player funds from operating funds, and as such had been using players’ deposits to pay for a lot of their operating costs including their huge marketing budgets, players’ incentives, and for the owners to line their own pockets. In a world in which Black Friday had never happened they could have theoretically continued along this path without too much trouble, but with disenfranchised players demanding their money back off the site they were rumbled. At this time it seemed as though some $300,000,000 in players’ funds may never be recovered.

Without the mega high stakes tables of Full Tilt, the games inevitably calmed down a little, although there was still no shortage of action. What certainly helped is that shortly before Black Friday, PokerStars had signed Isildur1 as a sponsored pro (by this time it was widely known in the poker community that Isildur1 was 20 year old Swedish pro Viktor Blom). Blom’s presence (and regular paychecks) ensured that there was always some great high stakes action to be had.

Another recent development in high stakes online poker had been the growing popularity of games other than NLHE and PLO. Limit games had always been available (to a degree) at Full Tilt and PokerStars, but the number of participants meant that very rarely were these games thrust into the spotlight. When Viktor “Isildur1” Blom decided he’d like to chance his arm at them, however, the railbirds suddenly became interested.

Games such as 2-7 Triple Draw and Limit Omaha Hi/Lo suddenly became popular as Isildur1 attempted to learn them whilst playing limit specialists at the highest stakes online at the time, $1k/$2k. As with his PLO experience, these lessons would cost Isildur1 dearly, but just as with PLO, it wasn’t long until he was considered one of the best in the world.

During this period the online high stakes world saw nothing of Tom Dwan, although he was still very much in action. The aforementioned high stakes games in Macau had continued unabated, and Dwan was heavily involved.

Rumours of enormous pots began to filter through and by this time it’s fair to say that Asia had overtaken Las Vegas as the home of the biggest poker games in the world with the likes of Dwan and Phil Ivey setting up shop in Macau on a semi-permanent basis to take advantage of the glut of wealthy Chinese businessmen eager to pit their wits against some of the world’s best, especially if they were as willing to give action as Dwan and Ivey. Other notable online pros who found themselves welcome at the biggest games in Asia included Brian “tsarrast” Rast, Timofey “Trueteller” Kuznetsov, Alec “traheho” Torelli, and Sam “tricky7” Trickett.

While Dwan and the like took their business to Asia, many other US pros had to either relocate to ply their trade (with many moving to Canada, Mexico, or Europe), or to stay in the US and seek live action at the casinos. Players such as Andrew “good2cu” Robl, Brian Hastings, and the aforementioned Brian Rast chose the live route but a substantial number of poker pros upped sticks and moved on to continue their online careers.

Thankfully PokerStars had signed Viktor “Isildur1” Blom as a pro shortly before Black Friday, giving a shot in the arm to high stakes online poker after the disappearance of Full Tilt Viktor joined Team PokerStars on December 7th 2011 when he was still officially “unknown” until he was unveiled on January 8th 2011 at the PCA in the Bahamas. It was at the PCA the following year where Viktor had has biggest live tournament score, winning the $100,000 Super High Roller for over $1.25m.

Blom’s chief commitment to PokerStars during his sponsored period were both his appearances at the high stakes online tables (no problem there, he was hardly ever off them), and to participate in his widely promoted “Superstars Showdowns” in which he took on a list of high profile players heads-up over four tables of heads-up NLHE or PLO for 2,500 hands with a $150,000 stop loss. Blom was remarkably successful as he beat the likes of Daniel “jungleman” Cates, Scott “Urnotindanger2” Palmer, Rui “pepperoni” Cao, Daniel Negreanu and others during his time at Stars. His only defeats (and there were two of them) both came at the hands of Ike Haxton. However, while Haxton earned a combined $46k from Blom during his two victories, it was Blom who eventually came out very much on top after the pair agreed to a $1m winner-takes-all four table NLHE match at the $200/$400 tables, with both players putting up $1/2m of their own money. Blom easily won the match, busting his opponent after just 5,030 hands.

Blom eventually left PokerStars in August 2012 after being courted by the soon-to-be-returning Full Tilt Poker – but more of that later…

During the 18 months or so the high stakes online games played out at PokerStars, much of the attention of the poker media and railbirds focussed on PLO and, subsequently, the limit games. For the first time since high stakes online poker emerged NLHE was given relatively sparse coverage. This is not to say that NL was dead – in fact it remained the most played game by some considerable margin, but the biggest games were taking place elsewhere. As such it was left widely unreported that the skill level at NLHE was increasing at a rate of knots. The likes of Alex “Kanu7” Millar, Ike “philivey2694” Haxton, and Doug “WCGRider” Polk were battling it out for the top spot on the NLHE tree.

The most well publicized NLHE match during this period took place between Isildur1 and Ike Haxton. Since become a sponsored PokerStars pro, Isildur1 had played a bunch of “Superstar Showdown” heads-up matches against a selected group of players and he had beaten every opponent except one, Ike Haxton.

In fact Haxton was given a rematch, one that went down to the final hand (the Showdowns were played over a set number of hands), and once again the US native prevailed. This lead to the pair negotiating a $1,000,000 Challenge of their own. Each player put up $500,000 of their own money for a 4-table match at the $200/$400 NLHE stakes and they would continue playing, day after day, until one of them had the full million bucks.

The smart money was going on Haxton, who was regarded as one of the very best, if not the best NLHE player in the world at this time, and he was taking on a player who had rarely played NLHE (other than for the Superstar Showdowns) for well over a year. However, you can never write off Viktor Blom in a heads-up situation, and as it happened he won the match fairly comfortably over three days and a total of just 12 hours of play.

The Return of Full Tilt “The Home of High Stakes”

The all new Full Tilt rebranded themselves as “The Home of High Stakes” and hired Tom “durrrr” Dwan, Viktor “Isildur1” Blom, and Gus Hansen as “The Professionals”

A little over a year after Black Friday players who had ‘lost’ their Full Tilt bankrolls had reason to smile after it was announced in July 2012 that PokerStars had reached an agreement with the US Department of Justice to take over the beleaguered site and had promised to repay the entire outstanding amounts to all players.

Shortly after the news broke Viktor Blom announced that he was leaving PokerStars to become a non-sponsored player once again, citing his desire to “just play poker” rather than having to fulfil contractual obligations. Despite his apparent wish for independence, it came as no surprise to anyone that just days after leaving PokerStars, it was announced that Viktor “Isildur1” Blom was to become a Full Tilt sponsored pro.

Alongside him would be Gus Hansen, and none other than Tom “durrrr” Dwan. Dwan had earned himself some brownie points within the poker community as being the only member of the former “Team Full Tilt” to publicly speak out against the company and pledged to pay back everything he had been paid by the company if players were not reimbursed in full.

As if it wasn’t obvious enough by their choice of pros, Full Tilt rebranded themselves as “The Home of High Stakes”, and they certainly lived up to their promise. Within just a couple of months the railbirds were witnessing some of the biggest online matches ever played. At PokerStars the highest PLO and NLHE games were $200/$400, but now Full Tilt were offering $400/$800 with ante and $500/$1000 CAP tables. They also laid on limit games as high as $2k/$4k.

Isildur1 kicked off 2013 with a two-week, $5,000,000 upswing. He was to enjoy another $5m upswing in the first three weeks of October. He also had +$3m upswings in March, and again between the middle of June and the middle of July. The fact that he ended the year ‘just’ $542,796 in profit just goes to show how much high stakes action was on offer at Full Tilt in 2013. The year saw some incredible $400/$800 PLO battles between Isildur1 and Ben “Sauce1234” Sulsky, and Ben “Bttech86” Tollerene. In consecutive days Isildur1 won $1.7m and then lost $1.5m playing Bttech86 at the $500/$1000 CAP PLO tables.

In another memorable session Isildur1 was losing $1.2m to Sauce1234 yet managed to bring the match all the way back to even, only to end the match down $1.3m after an incredible surge from the US pro.

Meanwhile Gus Hansen was spreading his wealth around at the 2-7 Triple Draw and Limit Omaha Hi/Lo tables. Prior to Black Friday, Hansen was a decent winner in these games but it became apparent that the during the time he was away from the online scene the sudden popularity in the limit games had led to a huge increase in the average skill level.

As such Hansen found himself outmatched, but seemingly unable to take a step back. He was eventually to lose some $17.5m during his second tenure as a Full Tilt sponsored pro.

Nevertheless, he was still certainly providing value to his employers – something which could not be said for Tom “durrrr” Dwan, whose goodwill was rapidly evaporating.

Not only was Dwan rarely seen playing at Full Tilt (certainly when compared to his fellow sponsored pros), but he was also once again avoiding playing Dan “jungleman12” Cates in their now 2.5 year old challenge. The pair played the occasional session, but more often than not durrrr chose to avoid the match – even at times when he was clearly bankrolled to play and was happy to play other players at different games at the highest stakes on the site.

As well as this Dwan was coming across as unusually unprofessional; in one incident he delayed the start of a “Full Tilt Professionals” vs “Team PokerStars” challenge which was played live (yet online) at EPT London by a full hour, much to the chagrin of both his team mates and his opponents. As time went on the Dwan/Full Tilt relationship deteriorated to the point where he quit his position as a sponsored pro – since when “durrrr” has never been seen at an online table again!

Gus Hansen certainly helped the high stakes action at Full Tilt on his return, adding some $17.5m to the poker ecosystem with some wild and reckless play during 2013-2014
Gus Hansen’s profit/loss graph at Full Tilt after they reopened their tables in late 2012
The appearance of super-rich Malaysian businessman Paul “MalACEsia” Phua (pictured here with Tom Dwan) at Full Tilt’s high stakes NLHE tables sparked some huge games in 2013 and 2014.

Meanwhile the games at Full Tilt were getting better and better and in the summer of 2013 we saw the long awaited resurgence of NLHE as the game of choice for the big name online pros. For several months there were daily six-max games running at the $400/$800 with ante tables with pots of between $300-$500k a daily occurrence.

The reason for the sudden interest in the nosebleed NL action was down to the presence of super-rich Asian businessman (and poker lover) Paul Phua, known at Full Tilt as “MalACEsia”. Like Guy Laliberte before him, Phua wanted to test himself against the best players in the business. Inevitably the “MalACEsia games” as they became known proved an expensive lesson for Phua as he ended up losing some $4.5m at Full Tilt.

However, it was widely noted by his opposition at the time (which included the likes of Niklas “ragen70” Heinecker, Doug “WCGRider” Polk, Denoking, Rhje, Isildur1, and Sauce1234 among others) that Phua’s skill level increased considerably during his time at the tables and that (unlike Laliberte) he was actually a very good NL player.

NL received another shot in the arm when Doug “WGRider” Polk challenged Ben “Sauce1224” Sulsky to a 15,000 hand challenge at the $100/$200 stakes. For some time Polk had been bragging about his heads-up NL prowess, and he was willing to put his money where his mouth was.

While plenty on the outside had their money on Sulsky, those in the know had a little more faith in the relatively unknown Polk. In the end it wasn’t even close.

Between mid-September and mid-October 2013 Polk obliterated Sulsky, winning $740,000 in the 15,000 hands, plus the side-bet between the two of $100,000.

Over the next year or so Full Tilt witnessed some fantastic NL heads-up action between the likes of Denoking, Kanu7, WCGRider, Trueteller, Ike “luvtheWNBA” Haxton, SanIker, and Isildur1. By now Isildur1 was widely considered a ‘fish’ in these games with Trueteller, SanIker, and WCGRider all taking big chunks off him over the course of his time as a Full Tilt pro. One memorable encounter, however, took all of us ‘fanboys’ straight back to 2009.

Doug “WCGRider” Polk came to prominence during Full Tilt’s second coming, defeating Ben “Sauce1234” Sulsky convincingly in their much-hyped 15,000 NLHE heads-up challenge

On the evening of Saturday 26th October Isildur1 had already been playing for 18hrs straight at 2-7, Limit Omaha Hi/Lo and CAP NLHE when Doug “WCGRider” Polk rocked up at the $400/$800 NL tables, intent on relieving Isildur1 of yet more money (earlier in the day Polk had won close to $1/2m from Isildur1 at $400/$800). Over the next six hours, however, Polk discovered exactly what it feels like when a “whale” lands on you as Isildur1 crucified the US pro for over $1.2m. Of course, Isildur1 didn’t hold on to his new-found wealth for too long afterwards, but it was a sweet, sweet victory nonetheless!

2014
Amaya kills high stakes

As Amaya (now The Stars Group) sought to consolidate their dominant position in the online poker marketplace they not only effectively wound up Full Tilt but also dramatically reduced the ability for players to compete at the highest stakes online

As 2013 gave way to 2014 things were changing in the USA. Finally some states (Las Vegas, Delaware, and New Jersey) had managed to legally regulate online poker, albeit only on a much smaller scale, with all real-money online poker having to be played between players within the same state.

Unfortunately for PokerStars and Full Tilt, it was unlikely that either would be able to enter those markets anytime soon, and certainly not while the Scheinbergs (Canadian Israeli’s Isai Scheinberg and his son Mark Scheinberg were the owners and founders of PokerStars) still had control of the business.

Isai Scheinberg was still under indictment in the US following the charges brought about by Black Friday and as such granting either site a license to run an online poker site Stateside was never going to happen.

Things were about to change, however, as in June 2014 the then little known “Amaya Inc” bought out the Scheinbergs for a colossal $4.9bn, which eventually led to PokerStars re-entering the US market in New Jersey in March 2016. However, while the Amaya takeover has proved a positive one for the residents of New Jersey, for lovers of Full Tilt Poker and high stakes online poker it has been calamitous.

From the outset Amaya made it clear they were no longer interested in looking after their loyal or professional players as they started to introduce high variance formats at PokerStars such as spin and gos and knockout hyper-turbo tournaments to appeal to recreational players. The rake was also increased considerably. They even stiffed the most loyal players of all – supernova elites – out of millions of dollars in bonuses which they had been promised when they scrapped the existing loyalty scheme in late 2015.

It also became apparent that high stakes poker was no longer of great concern to Amaya. In October 2014 Isildur1 and Gus Hansen were both ‘relieved’ of their positions as sponsored pros, and in April 2015, without warning, virtually all the high stakes tables at Full Tilt disappeared overnight. The “Home of High Stakes Poker” was effectively closed for business.

In their bid to streamline the business and focus solely on recreational players Full Tilt and high stakes poker were abandoned, and in May 2016 Full Tilt Poker was full migrated and absorbed into PokerStars. It was the end of an era – for the second time in five years.

While high stakes poker still exists at PokerStars, the scene is certainly not what it once was. Amaya seem more concerned with chasing short-term profits than making a long-term commitment to market their offering through the exciting, aspirational world of high stakes online poker.

Where it was once a dream of new players to work hard and climb the stakes to financial freedom, PokerStars are now happy to peddle money-grabbing gimmicks which hold nothing but a temporary appeal to the most casual of players.

Luckily, there are still some heroes out there battling away at what is left of the high stakes tables. In June this year, for instance, Isildur1 hit a near $2m upswing at PokerStars $1k/$2k 8-Game and $200/$400 PLO tables. Another encouraging sign is the increase in televised poker content; just recently Mori Eskandani, the producer of both High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark, said during a podcast with Joe Ingram that a show very similar in nature to High Stakes Poker was just around the corner, and that he had never been more excited about the way things appear to be going with regards fresh poker content destined for television.

Furthermore we are seeing record attendances at live poker tournaments and festivals around the world, and online events such as WCOOP and SCOOP and partypoker’s Powerfest are witnessing more and more participation year after year.

I believe that for as long as the poker dream is still a possibility, then there will always be a place for high stakes online poker. As I write this the next “Isildur1” or “WCGRider” might just be making their first ever deposit online. It needs to be encouraged, the high stakes poker dream MUST be kept alive!

HighStakes would like to extend its thanks to Pete Nichols of HSDB for contributing this piece.

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