Poker occupies a special place in the realm of online gambling. The game that has become an instrument of enrichment for recent high school grads has transformed the industry and survived several global catastrophes.
In total, we have millions of players and millions of dollars filling the pockets of the chosen ones. Online poker is commonly characterized as the easiest way to make money, but grinders know this money is quite difficult to come by.
2CardsCollege Pro Poker Training and PocketFives are launching a series of articles about the history of online poker from its introduction to the present day. We will tell you about the companies, personalities, and events that have made our favorite game the way it is. The rapid development from the primitive software to the mathematically solved Limit Hold’em and Twitch streams – 25 years of history.
In the first part, we will talk about the pioneers of online poker, romanticists who played for the love of the game. Watching a stellar broadcast with hole cards, commentary on the distribution, and tens of thousands of spectators, it is hard to believe that only 20 years ago we were in the IRC chat.
1990-1998: Internet Relay Chat Poker
In 1988, the Finnish programmer Jarkko Oikarinen invented the chat. The first chat was called the Internet Relay Chat, or IRC.
In 1991, after the “Desert Storm” operation, when the reports about the situation in the hot spot were collected into a single channel, the IRC became widespread. Not long after that, poker was already played through the IRC.
The game was for imaginary money called ether bucks, a concept, in fact, with no meaning that eventually evolved into play money. But these bucks were the start of the path for some well-known professionals. One of them was Chris Ferguson, who became a world champion at the World Series of Poker in 2000 and later one of the founders of Full Tilt. Greg Raymer also came from IRC poker.
At first, the game was not distinguished by its diversity: Five-Card Draw was played on the #poker channel. The first online poker room was called #poker.
In 1994, Todd Mummert wrote the script and server code for the first large-scale poker client and, along with the colleagues from the community rec.gambling.poker from the Usenet network, launched IRC Poker. A player could choose from Texas Hold’em, Limit and No-Limit, and Omaha High-Low. Later, there came tournaments, Stud, variants of Omaha, and the division of Hold’em into different stakes, 10/20, 20/40, 50/100, with the restrictions on the minimum buy-in.
One user name was allowed to take up to 1,000 units of the virtual currency a day. To buy into the no-limit game, the user was required to have 2,000. Those who had lost everything needed to climb up again from the initial 1,000 playing Limit Hold’em in the deep stacks. In the mid-2000s, Ferguson told the world about IRC poker and referred to the limit and no-limit stages of the game as “Hold’em Hell” and “No-Limit Heaven.”
Because of the software limitations, players had to buy in for the entire bankroll in Limit Hold’em; frequently the game was played with 10,000 blinds.
The size of the tournament field was limited to 23 participants based on a simple formula: 2 x 23 cards + 5 = 51 community cards. At the same time, everybody sat at the same imaginary table. Such a 23-max sit and go did not last longer than an hour.
The competitive element of the game was the best players list, the analogue of the modern TLB, where anyone could see the exact bankroll size of the strongest users and their earning rate. The key concept for the modern game – win rate – was also born in IRC Poker.
“The participants in these games were mostly computer geeks with a passion for poker. Many were serious students of the game armed with the analytical skills needed to understand the mathematics and all other aspects of advanced poker strategy “.
“As a result, the IRC games were probably the best free-money games ever played on the Internet (much better than the free-money games available on the major online servers today). Higher tiered IRC games, such as #holdem2 and #holdem3, required larger bankrolls to qualify, so only players who won consistently in lower games were eligible. Some of these people were regular $20-$40 casino players and used IRC to explore the boundaries of good strategy and further hone their abilities.”
These were quotes from the University of Alberta Computer Poker Research Group’s website, which keeps the database collected by Michael Maurer’s program “IRC Observer.”
The first ever hand history database recorded more than 10 million hands. The archive is still available and Maurer wrote the research work called “Variance in IRC Hold’em” and “Variance in Short-Handed Hold’Em” on its basis, where he concluded that the variance in shorthanded hold’em was more humane than usual.
IRC Poker players entered commands on the keyboard. When it was a player’s turn to act, the script reacted with a fold to the “p fold” command. IRC channels had been swarmed with computer geeks who quickly switched from manual texting to macros that anyone could find online.
Greg Reynolds helped reach the next stage in the development of online poker when he wrote the IRC Poker GUI called GPkr, which was controlled in point-and-click mode.
Some enthusiasts created witty conversation for bored players.
“[The program] Poki participated in the chat and on request it could tell jokes, quote Steven Wright, say amusing things in Latin, provide player statistics, and more. Poki was also a winning player on IRC, even at the advanced level (#holdem2),” remembered Darse Billings, IRC poker regular and the chief architect of the Computer Poker Research Group, which had written the bot-joker.
The same team put up the Polaris poker program against Phil Laak and Ali Eslami in 2007 and lost quite a bit. A year later, Polaris beat a team of online professionals led by Nick “stoxtrader” Grudzien and Matt “Hoss_TBF” Hawrilenko.
The bots in IRC Poker even had a separate channel (#botsonly) and people who did not want to play with the programs had another one (#h1-nobots). Here you can find the first “scandal” with poker bots. It was Alan Bosctick against Greg Wohlitz, r00lbot’s creator, and was well-known by any IRC-era poker player.
Continuing the topic of the rules and ethics violations, those players who did not expend excess energy on improving strategies and writing advanced programs had fun with multi-accounting. In order to get a shortcut through “Hold’Em Hell,” IRC users created a multitude of user names and repeatedly dumped the initial 1,000 ether bucks to themselves.
In the early 2000s, the IRC Poker servers were stopped and real money poker spread widely. The next time an online community heard of the ether bucks was in 2013, when there appeared a pretty unpopular MMORPG «Ether Saga Odyssey», where, as you might guess from the title, ether bucks were the game currency.
However, one can still play IRC Poker today. Just download one of the most popular IRC clients and install the script, such as this one.
For those who want to dive deeper in the atmosphere of old-school gambling, the 25th annual World Rec.Gambling Poker Tournament began on October 19, a free e-mail poker tournament.
One level of blinds lasts for two weeks. One hand is played over several days, accelerating to several hands a day during the final table. The first championship was held in the 1991-92 season. The record by duration is 285 days; by the number of participants, it’s 1,314 people. Last year, WRGPT was played for 222 days and attended by 726 participants. Dick «Rkal» Kalager won, bravo.