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History of Online Poker Part I: The Primer

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Chasse Rehwinkel

I gamble, therefore I write...or I write, therefore I gamble...honestly, they're pretty similar professions…

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If you're a fan of poker, you're aware of online poker's impact on the game.

However--per some of your emails--, many you poker fanatics out there still don't know where this form of poker came from or how it developed.

Don't fret my friends, after much research I've put together a series of articles outlining online poker's interesting history.

I hope this answers most of your questions, enjoy!


Online Gambling B.P. (Before Poker)


Ah where to start...

Writing history is always a complicated endeavor to begin.

Where does the history of online poker inaugurate? With Chris Moneymaker winning the 2003 World Series? With the founding of Planet Poker in 1998? With the advent of CERN and the first website in 1990? Or maybe poker's evolution from the French game poque, sometime in the early 19th century?

And if you're going back that far, why not start with birth of humanity, the death of the dinosaurs at the hand of Chicxulub or the freaking Planck Epoch?!

Planck Epoch.jpg

Because neither you nor I have the time and patience, that's why

I decided--I think appropriately--to not bore all my readers away with some sort of Annales version of the history of online poker and instead picked 1994 as our zero point.  

Why 1994--because you just had to ask that question?

In 1994, the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda passed the Free Trade and Processing Zone Act (FTPZA), allowing, among other things, companies wishing to start an online casino to apply and possible be granted a gaming license.

This piece of legislation effectively allowed for the founding of Microgaming, the father of the world's first online casino.

Microgaming, itself, is not actually an online casino, but an internet gaming platform, nor is the company actually based in Antigua and Barbuda--Microgaming is actually centered in the Isle of Man due to the territory's long standing gaming regulatory commission, founded in 1962.

However, I start the story with Microgaming and the FTPZA because this new legislation passed by Antigua and Barbuda created a fertile business climate for the online casino industry to possibly originate and it was Microgaming that first took advantage of this new environment by creating GamingClub.com

The exact date of GamingClub.com's founding is somewhat debated. Some claim the site was launched in early 1995, but the site itself claims to have gotten its start in late '94.

Whatever the case may be, GamingClub.com's arrival on the scene marks the genesis point for all online gaming and, therefore, a starting point for online poker.

I think it is important to note the date that the internet was first introduced to gambling, 1994, less than four years after the first web page was created by the European Organization for Nuclear Research and at around the same time that "online diaries," a precursor to modern blogs, started to emerge.

It seems important to me to stress that in the very early days of this virtual frontier some of the first users and explorers came from the gaming industry, and that their experiences, therefore, helped shape how we see the internet today.

Online forums, multi-seated and platform gaming and online logarithm programs were all touched by online gambling and, who knows, might look considerably different if gambling was never able to make such an early foothold on the World Wide Web.   

First Came Casinos, Then Came Poker


It should come as no surprise to amateur gaming historians that online poker was not among the first games offered by internet casinos.

Quickly glossing over Vegas history, poker was slow to come to Sin City casinos mostly because casino owners were unable to see how to make money off the game, since the house has no direct stake in the outcome of a poker game.

Such was seemingly the fate for poker in the online arena.

While GamingClub.com and another early casino InterCasino.com were offering pit style gaming, poker was nowhere to be found.

Even sports betting found its way online before poker, in the form of Intertops.com, a long lasting sports book that started out life as a live phone betting service in 1983 and planted itself online in 1996.

I don't mean to imply, however, that poker wasn't available in some form to early internet grinders.

In 1988, Finnish internet developer Jarrko Oikarien developed the first internet chat network, called Internet Relay Chat.

This rudimentary form of live chat carved out an interesting legacy for itself by aiding in the journalistic reporting of the 1991 August Coup and Operation Desert Storm--think the use of Twitter in Iran during the blacked out 2009 Election Protests.

Developments in the system eventually allowed users to write and run scripts within the program and it was not long before someone created a poker program for the IRC.

That someone, or in this case someones were developers Todd Mummert and Greg Reynolds--who completed the program while working at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science.

When played, Mummert and Reynolds' online poker forerunner looked something like this:

IRC.JPG

So...where's the "pot bet" button?

Not exactly the flashy display you see today when you log on to PokerStars or Full Tilt, but the program did attract a respectable following and some important poker theories were developed in the mid-1990s from some of the program's more well known users, specifically Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and Perry Friedman.

Still--as you can probably tell from the screen shot above--Internet Relay Chat was not a mainstream program and the drab, often complicated poker game was never more than an ancillary part of the poker community.    

As writer Sean Lind wrote in a 2009 Poker Listings article, "Since IRC requires a greater understanding of computers than that of the average user, IRC was (and still is) almost exclusively populated by geeks and computer nerds."

The ground work, however, was being laid in the mid-1990s for what was to come.

Along with the innovations being made with IRC Poker, both the Kahnawake Gaming Commission and the Two+Two poker forum were founded in the mid-1990s.

While both have been controversial almost since their inception, Kahnawake and Two+Two have developed into integral parts of the online poker community, with the Kahnawake Gaming Commission providing the platform for many of today's most popular poker sites and the Two+Two forum becoming the unofficial mouthpiece for the online poker community.

Interestingly enough, these two mammoth parts of the internet poker identity would lock horns much later into the next decade, in one of the most important scandals in poker history.

But that's getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Just note that the innovations--specifically IRC Poker, the Two+Two poker forum and the Kahnawake Gaming Commission--forged online in the mid-1990s were important harbingers of what was soon to come...full fledged, real money online poker.       

It's a Poker Planet and Everyone Else is Just Along for the Ride


If I were to boil down poker history into just a few major moments I would end the list at five:

  • Nick "The Greek" Dandolos and Johnny Moss's epic, five month heads-up match set up by casino legend Benny Binion in the summer of 1949. It was maybe the most famous match of all-time and often is credited as being the genesis for the World Series of Poker.
  • The publication of Doyle Brunson's poker education magnum opus, Super/System, in 1979. A book that turned a million suckers into legitimate rounders and is to poker what Paul Magriel's landmark text Backgammon is to Backgammon.
  • Legendary rounder Eric Drache's creation of satellite tournaments for the WSOP Main Event. An innovation for which the wild success of the World Series in the mid-2000s owes a great deal of credit to.
  • Planet Poker launching on January 1, 1998.
  • And, of course, amateur Chris Moneymaker winning the 2003 World Series of Poker and arguably launching the poker boom.
Sure there have been many other big moments in poker history, but these five, to me, stand out as the most important.

I'm willing to bet, then, that the question at the forefront of most readers' minds now is, "So what the hell is Planet Poker?"

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It better not be another one of those "fake planets," like Pluto


As much as it seems like PokerStars and Ultimate Bet have been around since the birth of online poker, this isn't the case. Not even Paradise Poker or Party Poker, two of the most successful online brands in internet poker's early days, can lay claim to being the first real money poker site.

No, that title belongs to the obscure trailblazer, Planet Poker.

Halfway through 1997, poker aficionado Randy Blumer began developing a website that could offer real money poker games and on January 1, 1998 he launched PlanetPoker.com, the world's first real money poker site.

Of course online poker didn't begin with the nosebleed ring games and mix game tournaments we see on many sites today. No, simple 3-6 limit poker was the first game offered online anywhere, but from these modest beginnings Planet Poker slowly built up a decent stable of games.

"Eventually we had 10-20 going, then shorthanded poker," states Roy Cooke, Planet Poker's first poker room manager. "The shorthanded game has actually developed into an important part of the industry today."

Along with the first online poker game and shorthanded play, Planet Poker signed the first sponsored pros--Mike Caro and Cooke--, developed the first collusion monitoring software and the first poker security platform.

Planet Poker's early days weren't always easy--the site's initial software was unwieldy to expand and needed to be scrapped and an early hacking scandal forced Planet Poker to revamp its security and payout a number of cheated patrons--but eventually the site developed into what Roy Cooke terms, "A site that had a fair number of games for the market at the time."

After its initial success, however, Planet Poker was never able to really grab a large percentage of the online poker market and in 2007, as a result of the UIGEA's passage in Congress, the granddaddy of real money online poker was forced to close down its real money games.

Planet Poker's legacy, however, lives on in the sites it inspired. Party Poker, PokerStars and Ultimate Bet all got their start soon after Planet Poker was founded and were almost certainly touched by some of the key innovations the site made in its infancy.

Planet Poker may have faded, but its importance to the online poker industry should not be regulated to that of a footnote, and neither should the other major innovations in online poker made during the 1990s.

The developments of the 1990s by Planet Poker, IRC Poker and Microgaming created a landscape ripe with possibilities. Possibilities that would be utilized and explored early in the next decade.

Check back tomorrow for Part II of this multi-part series on the history of online poker!

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