In 2006, when Chris Ferguson was still Jesus, he set out to make a fortune without using any of his own money.
Ok, that came out wrong.
The goal of Ferguson's famous online poker challenge was to make $10,000 by starting with $0 and playing according to strict bankroll management.
Here's an in-depth look at how Ferguson's Challenge played out along with four more iconic online poker challenges from Annette "Annette_15" Obrestad, Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier, Thomas “boku87” Boekhoff and Joe "ChicagoJoey" Ingram.
Online Challenge #1: Jesus Runs It Up
- The Mission: Turn $0 into $10,000
- Record Holder: Chris "Jesus" Ferguson
- Dates: March 2006-September 2007
Before he fell from grace on Black Friday Chris “Jesus” Ferguson was famous for winning the WSOP Main Event in 2000 and co-founding Full Tilt Poker in 2004.
The game theorist wanted to prove to himself and everybody else that it was possible to follow strict bankroll management rules and still build up $10,000 from nothing.
It was a challenge that inspired a whole generation of players. It wasn’t easy, particularly in the beginning, because Ferguson could only play freerolls -- and there weren’t many to pick from.
“If you didn’t sign up within the first 90 seconds of registration opening the tournament would fill up and you’d have to wait until the next one, so I’d set an alarm clock to remind me," Ferguson explained.
"One of the funny things about the challenge is that people would see me playing a freeroll and think I was fooling around. Are you kidding me?
"I was taking those freerolls dead seriously, because getting money out of them was an essential part of the challenge. I was sweating on the other side praying, ‘Please fold, please fold!’”
It took him several weeks to make his first $2. And then he was wondering for three days how to invest it.
Started Out Making 14c per Hour
Eventually he picked a 5c/10c No-Limit Hold'em cash game where he had just 20 big blinds. He lost a coin flip and went back to zero. After a while, however, Ferguson adapted to the freerolls.
“I basically broke even on them and made about $22 from freerolls. I cashed in about one in 10, at about an hour and a half for each, which works out at $0.14 an hour or something stupid, but that wasn’t the point.”
The key moment in this challenge was when Ferguson made second place in a $1 tournament and won $104.
That money was the basis for a successful ending to the challenge, although Ferguson later said that tournaments alone were terrible for strict bankroll management.
Progress Slower Than Expected
Originally Ferguson had planned to make it from zero to $100 within six months and then from $100 to $10,000 in another six months.
But despite playing very ambitiously and putting about 10 hours a week into it, Ferguson didn’t even come close to his goals. Both steps took him nine months instead of six.
After making it to the $10,000 mark Ferguson even ran his bankroll up to $28,000, which gave him the chance to play $25/$50. Then the big downswing hit.
“At $28,000 I was able to play $25/$50 No-Limit," Ferguson said, "and I lost down to $20,000, $15,000, then $10,000. And I actually went below $10,000.
"At that level, according to my rules, I could only play the $5/$10 games and then when my bankroll dipped below $8,000 I could only play the $2/$4 game.”
Yet, Chris Ferguson proved that it was possible to make $10,000 out of thin air, if you're tenacious enough.
Bankroll Challenge Rules and Goals
Ferguson invented a set of rules particularly with regards to strict bankroll management. He only allowed himself to play freerolls, for starters, as he had to start with nothing. Later he was not allowed to use more than 5% of his bankroll for cash games or SnGs.
MTTs could not cost more than 2% of his bankroll. Satellites were only allowed if the target tournament buy-in would be affordable according to the 2% rule. If your winnings ever exceed 10% of your bankroll, leave the table before the blinds reach you and step up a level.
Chris Ferguson Bankroll Challenge By the Numbers
- Money investment: $0
- Time investment: 10 h/week
- Time to reach $100: nine months
- Time to reach $10,000: 18 months
Online Challenge #2: ElkY Sets SnG World Record
In 2009, France's Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier went after a world sit-and-go record during the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo. The goal: To play as many SnGs as possible within 60 minutes while remaining profitable.
- The Mission: Play Maximum Number of SnGs, Make a Profit
- Date: April 28th, 2009
Rules of the Challenge
Elky had 60 minutes to open as many SnG tournaments as possible. All the tournaments were turbo SnGs with a $6.50 buy-in.
After 60 minutes ElkY was allowed to finish the tournaments that had already started. There would only be a valid record if ElkY was able to finish with a profit.
There were no requirements about the amount of profit. $0.01 would have been enough.
The Challenge in Numbers:
- SnGs played: 62
- Money invested: $403
- Return on investment (ROI): 5.9%
- Profit after 32 SnGs: $25
- Profit after 40 SnGs: $37
- Profit after 57 SnGs: $12
- Profit after 62 SnGs: $23.90
It was the PokerStars pros themselves who urged their sponsor to carry out this promotion during the 2009 EPT Grand Final, and they hand-picked Bertrand Grospellier to do it.
ElkY himself seemed a little intimidated by the challenge. The former Starcraft professional was used to making up to 200 decisions per minute but even he wasn’t willing to bet on himself. Fellow team pro George Danzer offered to bet $10,000 on ElkY losing the challenge but ElkY refused to take it.
Grospellier had four 24“ monitors at his disposal -- enough to play 36 tables simultaneously. Still he couldn't keep pace and started timing out on several tables during the most intense phase of the challenge.
It turned out the real challenge for the French pro was to figure out how many tables he could play while still winning at least a minimum of money. Former WSOP Main Event final tablist Hevad "RainKhan" Khan – a multi-tabling expert himself – was railing the event and commented:
"When Elky had all these tables open, you could feel he was taking decisions a little rash. Towards the end, when he had less tables to play, he was taking significantly more profitable decisions.
"Although he managed to end the challenge with a profit, he could have done it much easier by playing less tables.“
Kahn’s own record for SnGs within an hour was 43. He had been playing that kind of frequency every day for three years straight.
"With more tables, the risk would have been too big to lose money," said Khan. "But this challenge wasn’t really about money.“
At the end of the challenge, ElkY had played 62 $6.50 SnGs and invested $403. His final profit was $23.90.
Real-Life Takeaway: It's Profit That Matters
If ElkY hadn’t won the very last SnG for $27 he would have actually lost the challenge and his world record would not have been valid.
Thanks to his rakeback contract as a team pro – he received 100%, equal to 50 cents per tournament – he actually made more money on rakeback than through the challenge - $31.
As a recreational player, don't try this overkill experiment at home. You need to find your own comfort zone of the number of tables you can still play profitably.
It's not the number of tables that's the most important thing - it's maximum profit. Here's' ElkY and Hevad Khan as they talk about the challenge in its aftermath:
Online Challenge #3: Annette_15 Wins in the Dark
In September 2007 an 18-year-old girl from Norway named Annette Obrestad hit the live poker stage with a bang.
One day before her 19th birthday she won the inaugural WSOP Europe Main Event and £1m in prize money. That made her the youngest bracelet winner in the history of the WSOP.
However, she had already caught the attention of the poker community two months earlier when she won a 180-player sit-and-go without looking at her hole cards.
- Challenge: Win a 180-player SnG without checking your cards
- Record Holder: Annette Obrestad (NOR)
- Date: July 2007
Why Play Blind?
Obrestad's decision to play the tournament blind was based on her growing understanding No-Limit Hold'em is more about position and reading your opponent than the actual cards you hold.
At low-limit poker she also expected to deal with a lot of “loose-passive limpers” who would fold every hand post-flop if they don’t hit.
Obrestad said later about the challenge: “I had done that on a regular basis before playing $30, $40 and $50 sit-and-gos. But the tournament that was recorded was actually the first and only time I did it for the public.”
Annette_15, which was her online nickname, stuck a post-it sticker to the monitor where her hole cards were so she couldn't see them.
She actually did check her cards one single time when someone put her all-in and she contemplated whether to call or fold.
After the tournament, she posted the complete hand history on the coaching site PokerXFactor.com.
As it turns out she had laid a couple of really lucky suck-outs on some of her opponents but she had also folded pocket kings and aces pre-flop.
In the coming years Annette showed that she knew how to play with and without checking her hole cards.
The woman from Sandnes in Southern Norway is now leading her national money ranking list with $3.9 million in live tournament winnings.
Rules of the Challenge
Play one single $4 SnG with 180 players. Do not check your hole cards. Annette broke that rule once to decide whether she should call an all-in or not.
At the World Series of Poker Obrestad spoke with PokerListings about how she sees that challenge today:
Online Poker Challenge #4: Boku87 Reimagines SnGs
In 2009 there was no one in Europe who played as many poker tables simultaneously as Germany's Thomas “boku87” Boekhoff. He played up to 50 tables and devised an entirely new system for playing online poker.
To prove that his system worked – and to promote a book he had planned – Boekhoff decided to play two bankroll challenges in low-stakes Sit-and-Gos (SNGs).
- Challenge 1: Turn $100 into $10k within 15 days playing SNGs w/ $16 max buy-in
- Challenge 2: Turn $5 into $100,000 within 12 months
- Record Holder: Thomas Boekhoff (GER)
- Dates: Challenge 1 March 3-17 2009; Challenge 2 July 15 2009 - May 19 2010
Boekhoff later recalled how he first thought off challenging himself:
“A friend of mine was visiting to watch me play 40 SNGs simultaneously. As it would have taken a long time to even start 40 SNGs at my usual limits, I was randomly registering for SNGs on different levels."
"Playing low-stakes SNGs was a little bit like stealing candy from children. It was very simple to exploit the other players on the bubble. That afternoon I won about $500 playing only low-level SNGs.”
After this session the then-21-year-old started checking his results on sharkscope.com. What he saw was that he had an ROI of 26% over 4,000 low limit SNGs. He decided to start a two-week challenge playing nothing but these.
He planned to start with a $100 bankroll and take 15 days to turn it into $10,000.
“Most people thought it would probably take me at least five days to get from $100 to $1000, but I was a lot more optimistic than that.”
It turned out not to be that easy.
“When I was playing break even over a stretch of 1,500 tournaments it was really getting to me as I calculated I'd reach my goal playing 5,000 SNGs at the most.
"During that phase, I really started to doubt myself. After 10 days I was ready to give up. My profits had fallen from $6,500 to $5,500.
"But then Day 11 brought the turnaround. I made $1,900 within one session.”
Eventually Boekhoff played an incredible 7,432 SNGs within 360 hours with a maximum buy-in of $16. He had won a little over $10,000.
Having successfully finished the challenge Boekhoff’s popularity grew quickly. He started a second challenge, and this time with a lot of railbirds following.
This time he tried to turn $5 into $100,000 within 12 months. Again, he played only SNGs.
After two weeks boku87 had already amassed almost $10,000 profit. After three months he was at $24,000. Then he started having technical issues and health problems.
He went into a downswing and dropped below $20,000. Then Boekhoff stopped to recover. For almost two months he laid the challenge to rest.
Then Boekhoff came back in full-swing mode. In February 2010 he had collected $37,000 in winnings and by early March he was already at $64,000.
He took another quick break in April. To speed up the challenge he transformed his VPP points into money. Soon after his bankroll had reached $80,000.
In May he raced to the finish line. He raised his “normal” number of 50 simultaneous SNGs up to a maximum of 71!
On May 19, just after 11 PM, Boekhoff stopped playing, cashed in another bonus for $4,000 and declared his challenge a success.
Rules and Goals of the Challenges
Boekhoff had 15 days to turn $100 starting money into $10,000. He would play only SNGs with a maximum buy-in of $16.
If Boekhoff had lost the bankroll completely the challenge was lost. Rakeback and bonuses did not count towards the profit.
A webcam was installed to follow his progress.
Boekhoff had 12 months to turn $5 into $100,000 playing only SNGs. In this challenge Boekhoff was allowed to use cash bonuses and add the rakeback to his winnings.
There were no rules concerning the maximum or minimum buy-in for the tournaments.
- Length: 15 days
- SNGs played: 7,432
- Hands played: 381,804
- Profit after 1,000 SNGs: $1,171
- Profit after 5,000 SNGs: $5,613
- Length: 10 months
- SNGs played: 44,103
- Profit after 25,000 SNGs: $52,733
- Overall profit: +$100,000
Check out the video to see what it looks like to play 51 tables simultaneously:
Online Challenge #5: ChicagoJoey Goes SuperNova
Joe Ingram, aka ChicagoJoey, had already set a record in May 2009 for most hands played online within a month while making a profit. A total of 604,000 hands meant he had played a little over 20,000 hands every day. Even the toughest grinders online might take a week to play this amount of hands.
But Ingram had his eyes on even more and aspired to be a record holder in three different disciplines: most hands played in a day, most hands played in a month and becoming Supernova Elite within 80 days.
- Record I: Most hands played in one month (604,000)
- Date: May 2009
- Record II: Most hands played in a day (50,000)
- Record III: Reach Supernova Elite within 80 days
- Date: Oct 11, 2010 till December 31, 2010
24 Hours, 50k Hands
Elated by his previous success, Ingram announced in late November that he would try to break another record. On November 25, Mikhail innerspy Shalamov from Russia had played 40,000 within 24 hours and turned a profit.
Ingram wanted to beat that -- and his roommate Dashornman would film him doing it. What caught most people’s attention, however, was that Ingram had side bets with 26 players worth $30,000 to him if he won and a $12,000 loss if he failed.
Later, Ingram explained in an interview: “I managed to get all this action because I played a 25,000 hand session, I was down and people saw that on PokerTableRatings … I was just trying to get in hands to see if I could accomplish the goal of 50,000 while just playing a c-level game.”
It turned out that Ingram went down in the first 3,000 hands. But then he started winning and he won more and more the longer the challenge went on.
After 50,000 hands, he had turned a profit of $840. Ingram played 10c/25c NLHE cash games and he needed exactly 20 hours and 2 minutes to reach 50,000 hands. After 24 hours, the counter stopped at 51,312 hands.
Lose More Than $90k, Quit Poker
One year later the itch got the better of Ingram again. Mid-October he bet his roommate BallCup that he could reach Supernova Elite status by the end of the year.
At that time he had 347,000 VPPs in his account so he needed another 653,000 points to reach the required million. ChicagoJoey described the challenge:
“Just ended my life for the rest of the year … To win this bet I will need to play 12-16 hours a day for the rest of the year and end up playing more hands of PLO than anyone, 400k-600k per month.”
Ingram was in it with $15,000 of his own money. His roommate gave him 3-1 odds, so Ingram would make $45,000 if he succeeded. He would also pick up $90,000 in bonuses. But Ingram took a huge risk, as he wrote in his blog.
“If I lose more than $90,000 playing at the tables I have to quit poker and move back home and get a real job.”
On December 30 Ingram posted a video in which he said he still needed 35,000 VPPs and that he had 28 hours left. He eventually managed to get there, but there was no profit. Ingram lost $40,000 during the challenge but the money he won from his $15,000 bet and the bonuses more than made up for the loss.
Challenge: Rules and Goals
Challenge I: Play as many hands as possible online and turn a profit. No specific further rules.
Challenge II: Play more than 50,000 hands online at 10c/25c within 24 hours and turn a profit.
Challenge III: Earn 650,000 VPPs on PokerStars within 80 days playing PLO $2/$4 to $5/$10 to reach Supernova Elite.
Here's Ingram celebrating making it to Supernova Elite:
Bonus Round: The Play-Money Challenge
Just recently Ingram went on another 24-hour grinding rampage. His goal this time: turn 3,000 play-money chips into 20,000,000. He got pretty close but when time ran out he decided to take bigger risks and lost several big pots.
He still calls the 450k PLO hands and Supernova Elite title his biggest achievement in poker. If we had to guess, ChicagoJoey probably isn't done with online challenges just yet.