State of the High Stakes Poker Nation

Phil Ivey
'I don’t care what’s next. I just hope to keep playing.'

High-stakes online poker has come a long way in its relatively short existence.

From names like bad_ip, Fast_Freddie and just a handful of others trading pots worth hundreds of thousands at $200/$400 on what was then the Prima Poker Network, to the game’s biggest superstars wagering seven figures nightly heads-up at Full Tilt’s $500/$1,000 tables.

Stakes and pot sizes appear to be constantly on the rise, but the game has changed as well.

While No-Limit Hold’em continues to be the most popular poker variant with the masses, it’s a different story when it comes to the upper echelon.

Within the last year, Pot-Limit Omaha has clearly taken over as the game of choice for players at the highest stakes, and with the exception of the odd opportunity to take advantage of some fresh fish at their chosen game; No-Limit Hold’em has been all but ignored.

With a little more gamble, more complexity and the fact the edge in No-Limit Hold’em is getting smaller by the day considering the amount of books and education resources available to players, there are numerous reasons for the rise of PLO.

“People find PLO much more interesting and entertaining because you can play more hands and there are many more multi-way pots,” explained Finnish high stakes regular and Team Full Tilt Pro Patrik Antonius. “There is just much more happening. Hold’em is pretty much a boring game without antes, as a cash game, because you fold so many hands pre-flop.”

With million dollar pots and multi-million dollar swings becoming a regular occurrence online, it appears the high-stakes regulars simply love the thrill PLO gives them.

“Most everyone likes to gamble and you get that gamble so much more in PLO,” said Ashton “Ashman103” Griffin, who dominated the nosebleed PLO games this summer. “Sometimes you don’t even have to think.”

Online vs. Live

Perhaps it’s only natural that the games at the highest levels online have undergone a change. It’s a trend that has been going on for years in live poker.

Bobby’s Room regular and experienced live high-stakes cash game player Barry Greenstein said he’s seen a variety of games come and go while playing at the highest stakes.

“There have been a lot of changes in the nature of games I have played over the years,” Greenstein said. “We still like to pull out old variants when things get boring. It always seems to benefit the older more experienced players when we bring back an old game like Single Draw Ace-to-Five Lowball.”

When it comes to live poker, it’s a well known fact that at the highest stakes in Bellagio’s Bobby’s Room are played using a mix of limit games. However, Greenstein admitted the game goes wherever the fish want to take it and he believes online poker is no different.

Barry Greenstein
'The games go where the catalysts play.'

“PLO has more possibilities than No-Limit Hold’em, but the games go where the catalysts play,” said Greenstein. “On Full Tilt, David (Benyamine) and Gus (Hansen) are the catalysts for the big action and they play a lot of PLO. They would probably rather play mixed games, but the young high stakes players can’t compete in all the variants yet.”

Hansen agrees.

“There has been a trend in the online high stakes,” he said. “People have been following this guy who is called Gus Hansen. So I think, very soon, there is going to be some action in the 7-game mix. Going by the results, it looks like I have definitely not had an edge in the PLO and I know I have been doing alright in the 7-game, so that’s my plan for now and we’ll see how it goes.”

The Future

It appears Gus Hansen’s prediction is true.

Before an unknown Swede calling himself Isildur1 jumped into the high-stakes fray this fall, Hansen went to the mixed games on Full Tilt and the rest of the nosebleed-stakes community was quick to follow.

It appears to be a trend that's happening all over the online world.

“On PokerStars, the 8-game gets most of the action,” added Greenstein. “We have a bigger player pool and the big games are slightly more affordable, even at the highest stakes.”

Brian “sbrugby” Townsend wrote in a blog post earlier this year that he was getting bored with PLO and Hold’em and was one of the first to get in on the mixed game action on Full Tilt.

But once Isildur1 did come, the action went straight back to Omaha.

There are players who would argue that PLO is the ultimate online game because of the gamble involved, but No-Limit Hold’em could always make a comeback at the highest stakes.

Earlier this year, another unknown Swede calling himself martonas shook the poker world by playing No-Limit Hold’em at $500/$1,000 on Full Tilt. It was a game that had been dead for months before martonas hit the scene, but it was suddenly packed with players like Phil Ivey and Antonius looking for a piece of the action.

While Isildur1 appears to also be playing PLO with the high-stakes regulars, he was also able to draw the crowd back to No-Limit Hold’em when he first appeared, as did Luke “__FullFlush1__” Schwartz.

“It’s always like that,” explained Antonius. “When there comes a new guy who wants to play with the regular high-stakes cash players, he can pick any game and people will be willing to play that game. But it will not go back to Hold’em once they are gone.”

It seems unlikely there will ever be a time where 2-7 lowball, or stud games become more popular than No-Limit Hold’em and Pot-Limit Omaha at the highest stakes, simply based on the action the games seem to create.

“Players will go where the action is,” said Greenstein. “However the Stud games aren’t conducive to multi-tabling online.”

Tom Dwan
'It's just so much easier to create high-stakes action in (PLO).'

Tom “durrrr” Dwan, who broke into the high stakes games as one of the most successful Hold’em players in online history, says while the odd trend back towards No-Limit Hold’em or into mixed games may be spotted, PLO is truly the future.

“The high-stakes action may have been moving back to Hold'em or into 7-game recently,” he said “But in the future I think it will move more and more back to Omaha rather than mixed games. It's just so much easier to create high-stakes action in that game."

A New Game?

Earlier this year a thread popped up on popular poker forum Two Plus Two asking if a new, more skillful, variant of poker should be invented.

Within days the thread had tens of thousands of hits with suggestions like one card Hold’em with seven streets, Tahoe Hold’em and even somewhat obscure poker variants like Crazy Pineapple.

While it all seems very unlikely, there are those who wouldn’t mind something new.

“There are a million more possibilities,” said Hansen. “So why not? I know there are people sitting in their basement right now trying to think of what the new poker game will be. They are bound to come up with something.”

With the top high-stakes players penchant for playing Chinese Poker for as much as $5,000 and $10,000 a point whenever they get together in person, that game may be the future online as well.

“Chinese poker is too addictive,” said Antonius. “If I want to feed my gambling addiction, that’s what I do.”

But in the end, the game, and the stakes, might not matter at all.

Regardless of what the future holds for online high stakes, one of the most successful players in poker's brief online history seems to know what he wants.

“I don’t care what’s next,” said Ivey. “I just hope to keep playing. Just to be able to play poker everyday is great for me, and to play it at a high level. To me that’s important.”

- With Files From Martin Derbyshire

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