For reasons that had little to do with taxes, April 15, 2011, was not a
good day to be an online poker player in the United States of
America—a group that, at the time, numbered somewhere between 2.5
million and 15 million people. Those who tried to log on to any of the
biggest virtual cardrooms that Friday morning were greeted by official
government seals and an ominous message: “This domain name has been
seized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
While smoke had been in the air for a while, the shutdown had come
without warning. Americans were suddenly unable to access the money in
their online accounts, which in some cases meant several million
dollars. More than 12,000 players rushed to Two Plus Two, a Web site
that’s home to the world’s largest and most respected poker forum,
looking for answers. The unexpected spike in traffic crashed the
site’s servers, further rattling the poker community.
Slowly information began to emerge. The Department of Justice had shut
down the dot-com Internet addresses of the four largest sites in the
world—PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker, and Ultimate
Bet—alleging violations of the Illegal Gambling Business Act of 1955
and the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006. At
least $500 million was frozen in seventy-five bank accounts across
fourteen countries. Eleven people, poker site executives and the payment
processors who brokered the transactions between the sites and players,
were arrested and charged with bank fraud, money laundering, and illegal
With the exception of a few small rogue sites, “Black Friday” meant
the end of online poker in the United States.
For the previous eight years—ever since an amateur named Chris
Moneymaker upset the pros and won the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in
2003—America had been gripped by a poker craze. Televised tournaments
filled the airwaves. The World Series had grown by a multiple of ten,
one year awarding its winner $12 million—the largest payout ever given
to an individual winner of a sporting event.
On Black Friday it became apparent just how much this craze owed to the
multibillion-dollar online poker industry. The two biggest virtual
cardrooms—PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker—had been spending $200
million each year in the United States on marketing and were the primary
advertisers on poker-centric television shows like Poker After Dark, The
Big Game, and Million Dollar Challenge. All three shows were quickly
canceled. Sports giant ESPN immediately removed all of PokerStars’
advertising from its Web site, ending a relationship that had been
generating $22 million a year. ESPN also scratched plans to broadcast
the 2011 North American Poker Tour, a series of big money tournaments
that PokerStars had created the year before. Even the future of the
World Series, the game’s oldest and most prestigious tournament, grew
murky: Moneymaker’s victory may have lit the fire, but the explosion
was fueled by the tens of thousands of entrants who qualified through
online satellite tournaments and a singularly successful TV relationship
with ESPN, which was strongly considering getting out of the poker
The end of online poker also allowed for some perspective. The
phenomenon that had kept millions of players enthralled for more than a
decade could now be viewed as a historical event.
In many ways, online poker resembled a gold rush or investment bubble:
Fortunes were made, sometimes literally overnight, and lost just as
quickly. In other ways, it was a new twist on an old game, like day
trading—a technological breakthrough that changed the preexisting
paradigm, allowing its early adopters to pursue some form of the
American dream while sitting in front of a computer in their bathrobes.
But what made the online poker craze truly unique was the extent to
which it was powered by kids. You have to be twenty-one to gamble
legally in the United States, but the online cardrooms—most of which
were based overseas—allowed eighteen-year-olds to try their luck. At
the peak of the boom, one out of every five college students was playing
poker on the Internet. A significant number of even younger teens were
able to bluff their way in as well.
The results were occasionally disastrous. An estimated one-quarter of
the college players exhibited the kind of clinical symptoms that define
problem gamblers. Many of them dropped out of school to play
professionally, only to descend into financial ruin. Some even resorted
to stealing money—typically from other players but in one notable case
from a bank—to help fund their poker habits.
But poker is a zero-sum game—if there are losers, there are going to
be winners—and college-age kids were in many ways the ones best
positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. This was, after all,
the first generation to have grown up with computer mice in their hands,
making them ideally suited to the rapid-fire pace of online play. They
were comfortable with the idea of spending hours playing a game on a
screen and had copious free time to develop skills and strategies. Not
surprisingly, some of them were wildly successful, creating a new
economic caste of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds suddenly bestowed
with immediate riches.
Like many winners of the Mega Millions, these kids were ill-equipped to
handle their success. They were earning too much to relate to their
age-peers, and taking on too much risk to win the approval of their
parents and teachers. Many of them were social misfits to begin with,
the kind of teenagers you’d expect to latch on to the idea of spending
most of their waking hours playing a computer game. In other eras they
might have lived strange lives in relative isolation. But thanks to the
Internet’s evolution into the most powerful social networking tool in
history, these kids were able to find one other. Through text messages
and e-mails, discussion forums, and online chat, they formed powerful
relationships that ultimately flourished into a full-on subculture with
its own language, fashion, and customs.
In many cases their immersion into instant wealth coincided with living
on their own for the first time, leaving a serious void in the whole
authority figure department. These kids had the money and freedom to
pursue a fantasy cobbled together from rap videos and late-night
Cinemax. They developed expensive tastes and partied like rock stars
around the world, dropping massive sums on bottle service, strip clubs,
party drugs, fast cars, and the replacement cost of whatever property
got destroyed along the way. The discovery of like-minds with similarly
disposable income helped to reinforce and amplify the bad behavior.
But the connections weren’t always negative. Some formed loose tribes
that shared advice, support, and money. In the absence of adult
supervision, they helped one another navigate the oftentimes treacherous
waters of postadolescence and, eventually, mature into actual adults
The Ship It Holla Ballas were one of these communities, a loosely
affiliated group of seventeen- to twenty-two-year-olds who chose their
name to incite a reaction. You were either in on the joke or you
weren’t. The Ballas were young, rich, brash, arrogant, and, thanks to
the pervasive media culture that raised them, remarkably self-aware.
They knew the Internet wasn’t just a tool for making money, but a
place to create a reputation for themselves, defining and celebrating a
new lifestyle that just a few years earlier never could have existed.
They used it as a platform to wage war against the social idiosyncrasies
that had previously defined them, the parents and teachers who doubted
them, and a poker establishment that refused to take them seriously.
This is their story.
During this rigorous time in my life, several thoughts went through my
mind: That chick is so hot. This bud is so sticky. This class is so
lame. I want a beer. We should go surfing.
FORT IRWIN, CALIFORNIA (September 2001)
Irieguy has seen plenty of gambles in his life. It’s never taken much
to convince him to bet all the money in his wallet on a football game or
on the number of push-ups he can do in a day.
But this is the first wager that could conceivably be described as life
or death, and he’d certainly prefer something better than fifty-fifty
Maybe “life or death” is exaggerating the case. Then again, maybe
not. Heads, he spends the next year and a half administering pap smears
among the yuccas and Joshua trees of the California high desert. Tails,
he’s going to war. And Irieguy isn’t exactly what you’d call
In fact, he’s very nearly the embodiment of peace and love, a textbook
California kid from Orange County who’s about as laid-back as they
come. Much of his don’t-worry-be-happy personality can be traced to
his father, SkipperBob, who earned his nickname during the seventies,
when he bought the Newport Harbor Yacht Club and ran the place like a
For college, Irieguy trades one hot spot of mellow for another, leaving
the O.C. for Malibu. He spends four years at Pepperdine trying to
perfect his Jeff Spicoli imitation. Waking and baking nearly every
single day. Surfing, ideally when the tides coincide with the
university’s mandatory religion class. Drinking beer. Chasing girls.
Drinking more beer.
Somehow Irieguy still manages to get into medical school at Nova
Southeastern University in Florida, trading palm trees, an idyllic view
of the Pacific Ocean, and reasonable proximity to L.A.’s glamour for
palm trees, an idyllic view of the Atlantic Ocean, and reasonable
proximity to Miami’s glitz.
The original plan is to become a plastic surgeon, until a rotation in
Obstetrics and Gynecology unexpectedly rocks his world. During the most
exciting twenty-four hours of his life, he assists in two live births,
an emergency C-section that saves a baby’s life, and a successful
cancer surgery. There’s no combination of drugs and alcohol that can
top the buzz he gets from introducing new lives into the world. He is
literally delivering happiness. Forget face-lifts and tummy tucks.
Irieguy has found his true calling.
There aren’t any idyllic ocean views or palm trees in Detroit, where
he does his residency. During the long, cold winters, he vows to set up
his practice someplace warm and fun and full of beautiful women—he
hopes to return to California or Florida, or maybe give Arizona or Las
Vegas a try. There’s just one hitch: the three-year commitment he owes
Between medical school and his residency, Irieguy has to attend Officer
Training School with the rest of the freshly minted doctors, lawyers,
and chaplains who have volunteered for the military in exchange for
tuition money. A two-star general strides briskly to the podium to
deliver the orientation briefing.
It’s called “Break Things, Kill People.”
“I think I made a big mistake,” Irieguy whispers to the doctor
sitting next to him.
After finishing his residency, he gets assigned to Fort Irwin, a sleepy
military base in the Mojave Desert about a half hour outside of Barstow,
California. SkipperBob drives him to his post. “The good news,” he
tells his son, “is that we’re probably living in the most peaceful
and prosperous time in human history.”
It’s an era of peace and prosperity that will last for exactly two
Irieguy is on a treadmill in the base’s gym, gazing blankly at the TV
across the room. More night owl than morning person, he’s having
trouble processing the image on the screen—a torrent of black smoke
pouring into the sky from what appears to be a gaping hole in one of the
World Trade Center towers. Several minutes later, he watches a Boeing
767 jetliner crash into the other tower.
Irieguy’s first thought is, Holy shit.
Then he looks down at his clothes. Yup, that’s an Air Force star on
his T-shirt. His eyes drift across the room full of soldiers, faces
hardening to a grim sense of purpose, and he gets struck by a second
This is one hell of a time to be starting a career in the military.
There are two OB-GYNs stationed at Fort Irwin, Irieguy and Dr. Miguel
Brizuela. They become fast friends, commiserating daily during the
buildup to war; both got into this racket to save lives, not to Break
Things and Kill People. Then the inevitable orders roll in: one of them
is going to be deployed to Iraq.
“Hey, Miguel,” says Irieguy. “This might sound a little crazy, but
… want to flip a coin for it?”
Which is how Miguel Brizuela winds up in Mosul with the 21st Combat
Support Hospital North, stitching up soldiers, while Irieguy spends the
next year and a half in the Mojave Desert, killing time.
Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback
Excerpted from "Ship It Holla Ballas!: How a Bunch of 19-Year-Old College Dropouts Used the Internet to Become Poker's Loudest, Craziest, and Richest Crew" by Jonathan Grotenstein. Copyright © 0 by Jonathan Grotenstein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.