The heyday of the poker-boom years is over, they say.
Everyone's solid; gaudy displays of high-rolling decadence are done.
There’s nothing more to see here.
Not in Georgia, apparently.
Even when you think poker has reached its apex and is on the way down, it only takes a couple of phone calls and a new player in the industry to bring you back to 2005.
There are still poker adventures to jump into. Just not where you’d expect them. Like, say, deep in the Caucasus.
Daniel “Jungleman12” Cates and media guru Warren Lush can attest to that firsthand.
The Biggest Poker Room in the World
It began with Lush’s phone ringing, he tells us at the Corinthia Hotel in Prague, where he's been on scene with TonyBet for the 2015 Prague Poker Festival OFC Championships.
“It was a woman from Adjarabet," Lush says. "She said they want to become the biggest poker room in the world and they wanted me to tell them what to do.”
Lush is one of the most prominent players in the poker industry. His background is sports journalism and politics but since he's worked for PartyPoker for 10 years, he’s been a personal counselor for Tony G, and been involved in a hundred other projects you’d be surprised to hear.
“The real reason why she called me, of all people, was because she and I used to work together at PartyPoker," says Lush.
The answer to Adjarabet’s question was simple: You need a big event or a big-name player – or both, in an ideal world. So, Lush went to work.
Like a Time Machine to 2005
“Warren called me up and connected me to them," remembers Cates. “They invited me to an event sponsored by Adjarabet.
"Apparently Georgia’s poker scene is growing quite fast. I thought it would be fun to go to such a different place. I was invited over, so I went.”
At the same time, knowing Ty Stewart, Lush got the WSOP involved and paved the way for another WSOPC event in Europe – in Tbilisi, to be exact.
The result was, without exaggeration, spectacular.
To become the “best in the world” in something sounds quite ambitious for a company from a country with less than four million people (whose main export products are cars, btw – how many Georgian car manufacturers do you know? – and crude petroleum).
According to Lush, it brought back memories of a different era in the poker world.
“That trip felt like being back in 2005 again, and that was the beginning of a Golden Age for online poker rooms.”
Still, neither Lush nor Cates was probably expecting what was waiting when they arrived in Georgia’s capital.
Poker's Justin Bieber
There were 12m-high posters on buildings. There were cameramen from public TV channels filming Cates leaving the airport terminal.
There was even an invitation to a talk show where both Lush and Cates took part and bits of that made it to the eight o’clock news on national television.
The sole idea of a high roller like Dan “Jungleman” Cates coming to Georgia got both media and the public as excited as if Justin Bieber had arrived – or, say, Justin Bieber’s more reserved cousin.
Talk about poker going mainstream.
Dan Cates is now a pop star in Georgia.
“Well, something like that, I guess," Cates says, smiling.
There's Still Potential
For a real, high-stakes online poker superstar like him you might think Georgia is a completely alien place. But Cates isn’t a big-city guy.
He hails from a small town in the DC area where he grew up. At 21 he couldn’t resist the itch to see something else.
“I left and I’ve traveled the world ever since," he says.
When he started out in poker it took Cates about two years to get from the micros to high stakes.
“Although, it depends what you call high stakes.”
Let’s say $50/$100.
“That’s pretty damn high. I mean, people are still making similar mistakes even on that level as years ago, but it would definitely take me longer today to get to that stage than it did then.
"There’s still potential but the margins are getting thinner and thinner.”
Is Georgia the Future of Poker?
That doesn’t seem to apply to Georgia. Or at least the potential there is comparatively high. Because when Jungleman shows up there are people who want to challenge him. And when they do, it’s not a friendly mid-stakes game.
“I was playing one of the owners of Adjarabet, heads-up in a cash game for a $100,000 online, and I won. There is certainly some potential there.”
Cates says he won; others would say he “crushed him." Since then Cates has been back to Georgia several times, playing in special events and slowly growing high-stakes games in Tbilisi and in Batumi, on the Black Sea.
“I’ve had a pretty good time there and I’m happy to go back. It’s a very interesting place. We went to Kazbegi [national park], went to see the Russian border, visited a couple of monasteries. It was cool.”
If Las Vegas is the high-stakes past, and Manila is the present, who knows? Maybe Georgia is the future. If it can attract Cates to come play it should able to entice other big players in the long run. And it won’t be long before Cates returns because the WSOP Circuit event is happening March 3-9, 2016.
“I’ll be there if nothing dramatic happens. I’d be happy to promote the event," says Cates.
He ponders for a few seconds. Then he smiles. “Yes, why not.”