There has yet to be a book written about the Poker Boom that the United States experienced from 2003, when amateur Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker Main Event, until the Justice Department closed the major US-facing online poker rooms in 2011. With the boom came high stakes poker games on television, a surge of interest in tournament poker, enormous prize pools, slouchy hoodied young people in casinos, and legends of “balla” lifestyles enjoyed by the online poker prodigies who propelled poker strategy forward as much in one decade as poker had experienced in the previous century. “Ship It Holla Ballas!” covers the lifestyle. Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback have good access to some of the biggest and youngest names of the poker boom, young men who dropped out of college to pursue fortunes on the felt and largely succeeded. This is how they lived during the poker heyday.
They spent long hours sitting in front of monitors clicking across multiple poker tables, then more hours analyzing the hands they played. Then they drank as much alcohol, downed the best drugs, had the most sex, and spent as much money they could at the most expensive hotels and nightclubs that they could find. There is no denying that these guys worked hard. But they partied harder. The authors describe them as “college dropouts who have struck it rich playing online poker and enjoy spending their newfound wealth conspicuously.” The story begins as Irieguy (Dave Elliott), a medical school graduate, becomes interested in online poker in 2001. Mason Malmuth and David Sklansky found TwoPlusTwo, poker’s biggest online forum. Then Raptor (David Benefield), still in high school, suffers an injury that ends his fledgling baseball career and turns his attention to online poker. Good2cu (Andrew Robl) watches Moneymaker win the Main Event in 2003 with his father.
The bulk of the book takes place 2006-2009, after those two men have dropped out of college to become online poker pros –Robl dropping out twice for good measure. Poker players are always referred to by the online handles under which they became famous, never by their legal names. The most featured players are Good2cu and Raptor. Irieguy and Apathy (Peter Jetten) are also featured generously. Some other names that feature frequently in the narrative are TheUsher (Alan Sass), Inyaface (Max Greenwood), durrrr (Tom Dwan), Jman (Phil Galfond), Traheho (Alec Torelli), Bonafone (Kevin Boudreau), TravestyFund (Travis Rice), and FieryJustice (Jonathan Little). The “Ship It Holla Ballas” were a self-branded group of seven or eight these players who shared a house in Las Vegas during the World Series of Poker each summer and posted their adventures in poker and in life on a dedicated web site run by Robl.
The book lays bare the experiences of these men during those times. It is written at what I would describe as a junior-high-school level and uses a lot of youthful slang. It glorifies the hedonistic lifestyle these young men enjoyed in their off hours, which seems a little odd -not because it is hedonistic, but because it is no longer a possibility for the young people who are this book’s market. Online poker with international player pools is gone from the United States. And the games are much tougher for those outside the US. Poker pro is not a viable option for someone starting out these days. But the authors give the reader a taste of a certain extravagant subculture. In fairness, it’s not all partying. The authors follow these individuals as they mature, move on to other things, change their images, or shift focus to other forms of poker.
What the authors don’t do is explain the politics that ended online poker in the United States. They briefly explain UIGEA, the 2006 federal legislation that made it a crime for banks to transfer money to or from an online gaming sites and chased many recreational players away. Black Friday, which actually closed the poker sites in 2011, is mentioned without explanation, even though it shook the poker economy and ended the boom. I didn’t expect blow-by-blow accounts of games, but it is sometimes not even clear what game the men are playing, and ignoring the evolution of strategy doesn’t do these men justice. The poker boom will be remembered for its rapid evolution of strategy across many games, driven primarily by the influx of bright, ambitious, young players. They made a real and constructive contribution, and I would have liked the authors to occasionally place their subjects in that context. “Ship It Holla Ballas!” gives us a nice window on the lifestyle, but I found it lacking in some areas, and the dumbed-down prose style got on my nerves.