Top-10 moments in online poker history

13 August 2012
Two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a long-awaited announcement that it had come to a $547 million settlement with PokerStars in its Black Friday case that would also result in the world's largest online poker room acquiring the assets of Full Tilt Poker. Players rejoiced as they learned that their Full Tilt account balances would be paid in full (though we're still waiting on word on what Americans will need to do to claim their money).
It was certainly a big day in the history of online poker. But was it the biggest? The top-10 moments in online poker history are laid out below.
10. First WRGPT e-mail poker tournament held (1991-92)
The Worldwide Rec.Gambling Poker Tournament (WRGPT), which started in 1991, was one of the first, if not the first, online poker tournaments. While there was no money on the line, the first WRGPT pitted 30 people against each other in a tournament where cards and action were distributed via e-mail. The first tournament was dealt by hand, with hole cards e-mailed out to participants. Later, a random number generator was used and e-mails were automatically sent out to players. The first tournament was won by Steve Jacobs, and it grew dramatically, pulling in 195 players in its third year.
Some of the world's best players started to take note. Chris Ferguson was a regular player in the tournament, and in fact his participation may have been part of the impetus behind his decision to work on the software for Full Tilt Poker.
The tournament is still held annually. This year's event drew 821 people and took 247 days to complete.
9. Rush Poker launched (January 2010)
Full Tilt Poker's Rush Poker revolutionized the way people play online poker. Players could increase their hands per hour four- or five-fold, allowing grinders to rake in more money in less time. The game also emptied a lot of bankrolls, as losing players went through their cash at a much higher rate. Regardless of whether players are winning or losing, one thing's for certain: Rush Poker is here to stay. The format was first copied when PokerStars launched its Zoom Poker product earlier this year, and it has since been copied by other poker networks as well.
8. PokerStars holds first Sunday Million (March 5, 2006)
It's hard to believe that it has been six years since PokerStars launched its weekly Sunday Million event. The first event drew 5,893 players, creating a prize pool of nearly $1.2 million. The world's largest online poker room has been holding the tournament ever since, with the largest Sunday Million in history celebrating the fifth anniversary of the event (March 6, 2011) drawing 59,128 players for an $11.2 million prize pool. The event proved that there were plenty of people willing to take a shot at a huge score on a weekly basis, and the demand has never waned.
7. Planet Poker opens for business (January 1, 1998)
Planet Poker became the world's first real-money online poker room when it opened for business 14 years ago. There weren't many customers at first, and the only game available was $3/$6 limit Hold'em. But as weeks went by and word began to spread, games began to run 24 hours a day, and new limits were spread so players had more options. About a year later, while Planet Poker was plagued by software glitches, Paradise Poker opened and began to draw some of Planet Poker's players, as well as new ones. Planet Poker survived until the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in 2006, though it never really recovered from its loss of customers to Paradise Poker and failed to become one of the giants in the industry.
Planet Poker still exists as a subscription-based play-money online poker room.
6. PokerStars settlement with DOJ (July 2012)
While the recent settlement is certainly big news, it only makes number six on our list, at least for right now. While players getting their money back is definitely nice (and long overdue), the more interesting development from a historical perspective is PokerStars' acquisition of Full Tilt Poker. How will other poker rooms compete with the behemoth that PokerStars/Full Tilt is likely to be? Will PokerStars pursue legal action against Rush Poker clones, now that they have full control over Full Tilt's assets, including the patent for Rush Poker? And while the settlement does not bar PokerStars from returning to the U.S. market should the industry become regulated in the U.S., it remains to be seen whether legislation will allow rooms that accepted bets from U.S. players to apply for licenses, let alone whether one would be granted even if there were no stipulation against licensure of previous "bad actors." These questions are yet to be answered, and depending on the outcome, this may end up rising higher in the list down the line.
5. Neteller indictments (January 2007)
Just a few months after the passage of the UIGEA, Neteller founder John LeFebvre was arrested and charged with money laundering. And U.S. customers were unable to retrieve funds they had stored on the e-wallet, as U.S. banks refused to do business with the company, which had $55 million seized by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. Eventually, all players were paid the money they were owed, but it was the beginning of difficult times for payment processors, and proof that the UIGEA could put a dent in what had been a thriving industry.
4. UIGEA passes (October 2006)
The immediate impact of the passage of the UIGEA was the exit of Party Poker, then the industry leader, from the U.S. market. The decision was a strategic one for Party, which has been eyeing a return to the U.S. market ever since. But where there is a void in the market, someone will come in to fill it. And PokerStars and Full Tilt were there to take on the American customers who were still happy to put their trust in online poker rooms, despite all the talk from politicians that the games were illegal.
For years, it seemed as if the UIGEA was a just a political talking point for anti-gambling politicians, since Americans were still flocking to the online game with no apparent consequences.
3. Black Friday (April 15, 2011)
Four and a half years after the UIGEA passed, an online poker room was finally charged with a crime. Three, in fact: PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker. Only it wasn't for offering Americans an illegal way to place bets. Instead it was money laundering and bank fraud. After Neteller stopped taking American deposits and withdrawals, online poker rooms started to have a harder and harder time moving money to and from American accounts. And after several payment processors were pinched and millions of dollars were seized, it became even harder. Speculation is that it was Daniel Tzvetkoff who finally gave the DOJ all the information they needed, and the rest is history.
2. Full Tilt Poker's license revoked by Alderney (June 2011)
Full Tilt Poker relied on Americans more than PokerStars did. And it turned out that reliance on American money was their death knell. With deposits from Americans harder and harder to process, the online poker room started allowing some players to make deposits without being able to withdraw the money from their bank accounts. And they didn't keep player funds separate from operating expenses, paying owners millions of dollars to keep them from worrying that something might be amiss. The only problem was that, after Black Friday, international players weren't receiving withdrawals. And Americans were still waiting for their money months after PokerStars had already paid players in full. The Alderney Gambling Control Commission finally had enough in late June, about two and a half months after Black Friday, revoking the site's license and ending games at Full Tilt Poker.
1. Chris Moneymaker wins the WSOP Main Event (May 2003)
While Moneymaker's win didn't come online, its impact on the online game was nothing short of seismic. Moneymaker's story of turning a $39 PokerStars satellite entry into $2.5 million is too good to be fiction. That story was chronicled by ESPN, which showed the tournament over several weeks instead of just putting together a one-hour final table broadcast for the first time. It ran on repeats for years, and continues to inspire people to give the game a try. "If Moneymaker can do it, why can't I?" Online satellites ran like crazy. Step tournaments were created. And a generation of poker players looked online to get into the world's biggest poker tournament.

Aaron Todd

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Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.