Chapter 22-Playing a New Hand


Playing a New Hand  

WHILE THE WIZARDS bosses had turned their gaming savvy into a remarkable pay-day, a generation of young professional Magic players would soon be inspired to do the same. The Pro Tour had given them a thirst for competition, new reserves of self-belief, experience of high-pressure situations and, in many cases, wads of greenbacks burning a hole in their back pockets. When the lights went down at the latest Pro Tour venue on a Sunday night, the celebrations would kick into full swing, with plenty of players’ splurging winnings on lavish dinners, wild nights out in exotic destinations and, of course, late-night games of Magic, this time with a twist: where once players had anted up cards, the pros would ante up cash won at the main event instead. Little by little, Magic’s high-rollers introduced an after-hours gambling culture to the heady Pro Tour scene.  

But fleecing friends for their winnings only has so much appeal, and soon a number of Magic players began to look elsewhere for a way to monetise their unique skill set. Their inspiration would come from an unlikely source, but it was such a revelation when it did, that there would be no turning back. Jon Finkel in particular recalls its impact well. “I remember thinking, ‘I could do that,” he says, having watched a film that would set the cat among the Magic-playing pigeons. That film was the 1998 Matt Damon. vehicle Rounders.  

While the film itself may not have been an unqualified success (today, it scores a 65 per cent ‘fresh’ rating on review site, what it did brilliantly is expose an impressionable audience to the thrill of high-stakes poker. Damon’s character, desperately in need of money to settle debts with a Russian mobster, charges from poker table to poker table ratcheting up the drama with every hand. As he does, he grows in stature and decisiveness, eventually dropping out of college to try his hand in poker’s big leagues at the game’s spiritual home of Las Vegas. To say the film struck a chord with Magic’s young pros would be an understatement and soon, a breakaway crowd would follow Damon on the path to poker glory and Las Vegas’ neon delights.  

For Finkel, the film landed at a pivotal time in his Magic career. By winning his first Pro Tour in April 1998 and following that up with the Player of the Year award as that season’s highest ranking pro, the New Jersey nerd-done-good could not help but feel his appetite for Magic wane. Having set out with so much to prove, such a frustrating school-life to leave behind, Finkel had blossomed but left himself few challenges to conquer. “Even without saying as much,” he says, “I think I just felt that I didn’t have a huge amount left to prove.” Poker, though, one of the classic games that Magic hoped to emulate in its longevity and reach, suddenly appeared before Finkel like a vast unknown, ripe with promise and potential winnings. For a while, it usurped Magic in his affections and set him upon a newly exciting journey. “I got obsessed with having something new to learn, to play, to excel at,” he says. “And you know, the money of course was a part of it. But it wasn’t just that.”  

AFTER YEARS OF playing Magic at the game’s top tables, the Finkel generation brought an impressive card-gaming resumé to poker, one which would have been impossible for them to accumulate playing the classic card game alone. How were, in many cases, teenage kids supposed to learn the game’s finer strategic points, let alone the infinitesimal variations in bluffing or reading an opponent in high-pressure situations it entails, without attending casinos or poker clubs? Magic became their training ground and, like the youth leagues of any other sport, hardened them for the big leagues when the time came. Instead of learning only physical stamina, though, they could hone mental skills, too, many of which crossed over into poker. Like Magic, it was a game combining a delicate balance of both luck and skill.  

Also like Magic, poker’s degree of variance – of randomness ~ is such that it evens out over time, meaning that just like Magic, while anyone can get lucky now and then, optimal play will bring long-term rewards. Finkel asserts that there is only one correct play at any given time in Magic – something that highlights how rational one must be in the game. That is a lesson that new poker players can struggle to get to grips with, often becoming flustered (‘going on tilt’) when hands don’t pan out and money wagered at the table disappears down the drain. Separating outcomes from process is the mental discipline required for success at both games – identifying and making the correct play each and every time, no matter whether bad luck scotches your plan and affects your results.  

In that sense, Finkel’s forte of making quick decisions based on incomplete information was perfect for poker, too. He and the young pros slinging spells at Magic tournaments every weekend were essentially developing their ability to stack up probabilities on the fly, judge risk and correctly assess when to commit to a play — or when to hold back. That kind of knowledge is just as invaluable at the Pro Tour as it is at the Texas Hold ’Em tables of Vegas or Atlantic City and, for previous generations of poker players, could be an excruciatingly expensive lesson to learn. But gradually, as Magic players reached the legal age for gambling in most US casinos of 21, they began to apply themselves. Spurred on by the Rounders buzz and eager to test themselves at a new and more high-profile game, they would shake up the staid poker world in spectacular fashion. Indeed, says Finkel, what they would discover is that, “Magic is more complex than poker.” It was a fact of life that poker’s old guard would learn the hard way.  

IN THE LATE 1990s, poker was a sleeping giant, resolutely a game rather than a sport, slumbering as the world around it was undergoing an internet-driven revolution. The game was hugely popular the world over — from teens trying to catch the opposite sex with their pants down (literally) to the hardened gamblers of the Vegas Strip — but it remained a pursuit only casually pursued by the mainstream. Rounders suddenly made it look thrilling to a whole new generation of potential players. On top of that, new media created huge opportunities for the game. The fragmentation of monolithic analogue television into digital channels with airtime to fill, the proliferation of the internet — another non-traditional training ground — and the arrival on the scene of brilliant young card-playing minds, conspired to shake up the game beyond all recognition.  

The early warning signs were there: Chris Pikula, winner of the 2000 Magic invitational and with a string of Grand Prix and Pro Tour Top 8s under his belt, heralded the change. In 2002, he made the final table in one of the events at the blue-riband World Series of Poker, prompting gasps from the game’s assembled press pack. In 2003, meanwhile, the game hit the airwaves for the first time as a televised spectator sport, even borrowing techniques gleaned from ESPN2’s coverage of the Magic Pro Tour, according to Skaff Elias. Then, that same year, an internet player and poker neophyte named Chris Moneymaker made waves with a sensational accomplishment. Having won a free-seat in the $10,000 No Limit Hold ’Em main event of the World Series of Poker in an online competition, he swept aside his rivals to claim the $2.5-million top prize and a coveted World Series championship bracelet. It was his first live tournament ever.  

In 2004 then, when the annual World Series of Poker rolled around again, the spotlight was shining on the event brighter than ever before. A total of 2,576 players descended on the main event, many inspired by Moneymaker’s fairytale win the previous year. Only 839 players had featured then. Numerous young Magic players were among the crowd, totally unfazed by the tournament environment and readying themselves for an assault on the top tables. It was a coming out party for a new poker generation – and Jon Finkel and dozens of his Magic friends were included.  

While Finkel might have been knocked out after four hours of elite-level poker, the other Magic kids stormed onwards. By the end, two of the nine players at the main event’s final table were Magic players: David Williams, a close friend of Finkel’s from the Pro Tour, and the 2001 Swedish national champion Mattias Andersson. Williams had been practising hard for the event alongside another Magic player named Eric Froehlich, whose poker speciality was the No Limit game – and it showed. As hand after hand was dealt, and player after player was eliminated, Williams dug in. Although he was eventually beaten to first place, Williams came second to bag total winnings of $3.5 million. It was a remarkable achievement that signalled a breakthrough for the new generation of talent who had cut their teeth on Magic and polished their skills in online poker rooms. Says David Kushner, whose book Jonny Magic and the Card Shark Kids explores the phenomenon in detail, “It was huge […] That was the time when the poker establishment woke up — abruptly! – to the power and presence of these young players who were weaned on Magic and the Net.”  

And, while the 2004 young guns stunned the poker establishment, the Magic clique took it in its stride. Even Richard Garfield had tuned in on television to watch what felt like a logical extension of his players’ triumphs. Used to the Pro Tour’s demands, they had already been there and done that. They were veteran card slingers despite their tender years. That included Williams’ friend and practice partner, Froehlich. He only became eligible to play in the WSOP the following year – and duly became the youngest player ever at the time to win one of the competition’s championship bracelets. He says, “Magic was the greatest stepping stone possible for people getting into poker.” By putting a bunch of teenage kids under the lights and cameras and having them play an intellectual game for thousands of dollars, the Pro Tour had inadvertently created the perfect set up for success. By the time the Williams, Anderssons and Froehlichs of the world hit the final tables of the WSOP, they had nothing left to fear. “I ended up feeling no pressure,” says Froehlich. “To some extent, I felt like I had been there before.”  

Froehlich had mastered the game online (before he legally should have), watching over his friend Brock Parker’s shoulder as he cleaned up in internet poker rooms. Parker himself was another Magic player with an impressive pedigree who became a Pro Tour champion in 2003. A year later, while Williams was battling in the main event of the 2004 WSOP, Parker made the final table of the $1,500 Limit Hold ’Em Shoot Out competition. He has gone on to win over $3 million on the pro poker circuit, cashing 41 times at the World Series and winning three of its treasured championship bracelets. Many credit him with turning Magic’s pros on to poker, while Parker himself says it was — once again — Rounders that sparked his poker habit. Soon after seeing the film, he jumped into the online game and after a year or two, half a dozen or so of his Magic friends had joined him, excelling at a game that felt made for them. “If your brain is wired the right way you should be able to be successful at both or either game,” says Parker.  

The undoubted skill of a new poker generation was not met with universal approval from the poker establishment, however. For every enlightened player, fascinated by the rise of a new generation and a completely alien card-gaming concept, there were also, says Parker, plenty of “condescending jerks” for the Magic graduates to deal with. Perhaps that was to be expected. The young players usurping the poker hierarchy were hogging the limelight and further cementing their place in a new social pecking order where gaming was an acceptable trade to ply. As Parker puts it, he wanted to be free of the working week’s nine-to-five drudgery and would tread on a few toes to achieve that. For others, poker’s new televised, mainstream accessibility and its classic status free of fantasy-genre hang-ups was a motivation to succeed. “A large part is that people know more about what poker is, at a high level,” says Finkel. “They know it’s a difficult game testing something meaningful. A lot of people just have no idea what Magic is or that it’s really that big a deal to be really good at it.” Winning titles and piles of chips in front of the cameras at Vegas is a step up in legitimacy – even from the Pro Tour’s edifying heights. It was natural then, that having tasted success and garnered self- esteem playing Magic, the game’s very best players would seek to spread their wings and test just what they might be capable of in the wider world. Poker, as it turned out, was the perfect port of call for some of those players and a neat adjunct to the Magic lifestyle. The effect has been a powerful and productive crossover that ultimately boosts both games’ standing. Says Froehlich: “The existence of Magic has brought together a lot of the brightest people on this planet to help them conquer both games simultaneously.” That can be no bad thing.  

Still, for Froehlich, there is no forgetting where he came from, no escaping his first love. While poker has been the lucrative end point of a formative and empowering journey, the journey — as always — is what counts. “I enjoy playing Magic more and the community is composed of all my closest friends in life,” he says. “In the end that’s because Magic is my hobby and poker is my job.” His is a career built in cards, the thinking man’s sport. It is also one which may never have been possible without Richard Garfield’s creation, the Pro Tour or the nurturing environment it helped create. Says Froehlich, “I owe Magic everything.”