11.10.09

Poker's Young New Superstar

Joe "The Kid" Cada became the youngest World Series of Poker winner last night, but Anthony Holden asks: is he ready for the newest variation of the game, which requires no luck?

Joe Cada—those seven letters, as of today, sum up how radically poker has changed in the first decade of this century, during the seismic boom generated by the internet and television. In the wee small hours of this Vegas morning, when Cada beat a 46-year-old Maryland logger to win the main event of the 2009 World Series of Poker, this 21-year-old college dropout from Michigan earned himself $8.55 million and the role of the game’s unofficial global ambassador for the coming year. Plus the instant nickname of ‘The Kid.’ At the minimum legal age to enter a US casino, Cada becomes the youngest player to win the title in the event’s 40-year history.

At midnight PST, online pro Cada and an amateur more than twice his age, Darvin Moon, were the last two standing of the 6,495 players who began the $10,000 buy-in main event back in July. For the sake of almighty ESPN, the final table of nine players was “frozen” back in the summer, and the build-up replayed on TV in tension-building detail for four months, until they returned at the weekend to play down from nine to two. Among those who bit the dust in the process, winning prizes mounting through several millions of dollars, were the only two non-Americans (a Frenchman and a Brit) and one of the world’s most respected professionals, 33-year-old Phil Ivey, the telegenic African-American known as “the Tiger Woods of poker.”

The International Federation of Poker is developing a poker version of duplicate bridge, in which the same hand is dealt at every table in a tournament, reducing the element of luck (or “chance,” as I prefer to call it) to the barest minimum.

Chip leader as the weekend began, Moon bugged the poker world by threatening to vanish if he won the $8 million, to scoop up the money and disappear back to Maryland, shunning the sponsorship deals, public appearances and interminable hoop-la attendant upon the unofficial title of world champion. His stumblebum status of “lucky’” amateur, a less than great player on a freak run of cards, reminded many of the online qualifier who won the 2003 title, Tennessee good ol’ boy Chris Moneymaker, whose surname alone combined with his amateur status to coin the poker-fever mantra: “If he can win it, anyone can - maybe even me!”

Moneymaker’s victory—and the realization that the $10,000 entry fee could be won online for as little as $20—saw the number of entries soar from 839 in 2003 to 2,576 the following year, doubling to 5,619 in 2005 and peaking at 8,773 in 2006, when another aptly-named amateur, Hollywood agent Jamie Gold, pocketed $12 million in the same month that golf’s Tiger Woods won $1 million at the British Open, as did Roger Federer at Wimbledon.

James McManus: 5 Great Books for Poker FiendsThen came the outrageous UIGEA, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, signed into law by the now gone-to-ground president whose home state gave its very name to the poker variant played in the main event, Texas Hold’em. With online poker absurdly lumped in among gambling websites, and a ban on transferring money to them from credit cards, banks or other financial institutions, entries have since hung around in the mid-6,000s as the poker boom sagged, reducing the first prize to a mere $8 or $9 million. Current efforts in Congress to get the skilled “mind-sport’” that poker is detached from gambling legislation are fighting a distinctly uphill struggle, despite the arrival in the White House of the first poker-playing president since Nixon.

A veteran pro in his early 30s, Phil Ivey would have been a much more effective poster-boy for the anti-UIGEA campaigners, demonstrating that skill far outweighs luck at poker’s top level. Joe “the Kid” Cada is rather less of a role model for under-21s (or, for sure, their parents). Since dropping out of Michigan’s Macomb Community College in his first few weeks there, Cada has earned a decent living as an online professional, often playing as many as a dozen tournaments simultaneously. His heads-up opponent, by contrast, has never played one hand of poker online; Moon does not even own a computer or have an email address. Despite their very different approaches, the lead changed several times in 88 hands of head-to-head play, until the 364th of the final table. Risking his all on pocket nines (9-9), Cada found himself called by Moon’s suited Q-J, a classic coin flip to poker connoisseurs. With a board of 7-7-K-8-2, the better starting hand rightly stood up, consigning Moon to second place and $5.2 million.

Most of the 1,500 spectators in the Rio hotel-casino’s Penn & Teller Theater would agree that poker justice had been done, that the more skilful of the two players had triumphed over the long haul. To drive this point home, the International Federation of Poker (IFP) is developing a poker version of duplicate bridge, in which the same hand is dealt at every table in a tournament, reducing the element of luck (or “chance,” as I prefer to call it) to the barest minimum. This will be the version of poker played in all IFP-organized tournaments, both team and individual.

As IFP’s founder-president, I will still of course be arguing that “regular” poker—as played in the World Series and all other major tournaments—is as skilled a mind-sport as chess or bridge, worthy of separate legislative treatment from mere gambling. But we are working hard to ensure that the development of duplicate (or “parallel” or “skill”) poker will soon see poker join chess, bridge and other such cerebral pursuits among the members of the International Mind Sports Association, recognized by the International Olympic Committee. This would, in turn, see poker join other such participants in the International Mind-Sports Games held alongside the 2012 Olympics in the UK.

Top poker pro Phil Hellmuth, whose 20-year record as the WSOP main event’s youngest winner (in 1989, at the age of 24) was eclipsed last year by Denmark’s Peter Eastgate, and now by Michigan’s Joe Cada, is celebrated for saying after one bad beat too many: “I guess if luck weren’t involved, I’d win every hand.” Soon it will be time for Hellmuth to put his money where his mouth is, and ante up for this new version of poker where there is no luck involved at all.

Anthony Holden is the author of the poker classics Big Deal and Bigger Deal , as well as a strategy manual, Holden on Hold’em . An award-winning journalist and author, Holden has also written biographies of figures from Shakespeare to Tchaikovsky, Laurence Olivier to Prince Charles, and romantic poet Leigh Hunt to Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.