The Rise and Fall of High Stakes Online Poker

Poker Cards on a Laptop Keyboard and Online Poker Screen

Land-based casinos and private home games dominate the world of high stakes poker. Some of these games are absolutely massive, with blinds reaching up to $5,000/$10,000.

High stakes online poker once featured similar limits. However, the internet nosebleeds have dropped off considerably in recent years.

What happened to the high stakes online scene? Keep reading as I discuss the rise of the online nosebleeds along with why they’ve diminished considerably.

The Early Days of High Stakes Internet Poker

The first online poker rooms launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At this point, many players were scared to even deposit on these sites.

After all, many gamblers were leery of sending their money to offshore poker rooms located thousands of miles away. Eventually, though, players overcame this fear and online poker quickly grew.

The internet high stakes segment grew along with it. Ultimate Bet Poker emerged as the early favorite for elite grinders, such as Prahlad Friedman, Mike Matusow, Patrik Antonius, and Brad Booth.

These tables drew many railbirds who wanted to see the world’s best compete against each other in the biggest online stakes available.

Unfortunately, UB took a serious hit after a massive cheating scandal surfaced. 1994 WSOP champ and UB insider Russ Hamilton was cheating high-stakes players through a “superuser” account.

Russ Hamilton at Poker Table

Hamilton could see his opponents’ hole cards with this program and used it to his advantage. Estimates vary on exactly how much money Hamilton bilked players out of.

But a Kahnawake Gaming Commission (KGC) report suggested that he won $22.1 million. UB was fined $1.5 million and required to repay a portion of players’ losses. Unfortunately, Hamilton never suffered any financial or legal consequences.

In any case, this scandal rocked UB and ruined their reputation. High rollers subsequently gravitated toward Full Tilt Poker by the mid-2000s.

Peak of the Online Poker Nosebleeds

The UB high stakes tables featured some pretty big games taking place on $100/$200 tables. However, their biggest limits looked like low stakes compared to what would follow at Full Tilt.

This online poker giant’s slogan was “Learn, Chat and Play with the Pros.” Full Tilt definitely embodied the latter aspect, because they attracted some of poker’s biggest names.

Antonius, Matusow, Phil Ivey, and Gus Hansen were just some of the famous pros who competed at Full Tilt. In later years, more stars like Viktor “Isildur1” Blom, Dan “Jungleman” Cates, Tom Dwan, Phil Galfond, and Ilari Sahamies would emerge.

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$500/$1,000 tables ran regularly at this site. At the absolute peak, $2,000/$4,000 and $3,000/$6,000 games were also available.

Even the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 did little to slow down this site’s nosebleeds. The best and richest players continued competing at dizzying limits.

As mentioned before, UB’s high-stakes action drew plenty of railbirds. However, some of Full Tilt’s biggest games were almost like professional sports matches in terms of spectators.

Many came to see poker’s top players out of curiosity, for strategy purposes, and for entertainment. They were rarely disappointed either by the stakes or table banter.

Sahamies, who rarely plays these days, was especially notable for his trash talking. He routinely taunted opponents after big wins.

The size of the pots were also something to marvel. Blom was involved in several hands that featured pots worth over $1 million.

Speaking of which, nobody better epitomized the hysteria surrounding Full Tilt’s high stakes scene than Blom. The Swede experienced a rapid rise to fame, where his hyper-aggressive play befuddled some of the world’s top players.

What Happened to the Nosebleeds?

Full Tilt’s time at the top of the high-stakes scene would come to an end on April 15th, 2011. Dubbed “Black Friday,” this event saw the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York serve indictments to top brass at the world’s biggest poker sites.

Full Tilt was right in the thick of this event. Board members Ray Bitar, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Rafe Furst, and Howard Lederer were all indicted by former US Attorney Preet Bharara.

Ray Bitar and Full Tilt Poker Logo

Players panicked upon realizing they couldn’t withdraw their funds. Eventually, Full Tilt was revealed to be insolvent and unable to cover an estimated $360 million worth of customers’ funds.

The site tried to continue running until 2012, when they lost their license from the Alderney Gambling Control Commission. Even with their efforts to proceed, Full Tilt failed to influence any high-stakes players to keep grinding on their tables.

They eventually went the same way as UB, where they lost their player base after being involved in a scandal.

The good news is that PokerStars would work out a deal with the US Department of Justice. They purchased Full Tilt and avoided having to admit wrongdoing for $731 million. This money helped repay players who were affected by the Black Friday scandal.

PokerStars, meanwhile, was running their own budding high-stakes scene. While their nosebleeds never reached the same stakes as Full Tilt, they did offer some large games in the $200/$400 range.

These tables managed to keep online high stakes going. Stars also reopened Full Tilt and relaunched their nosebleeds as well.

Unfortunately, online poker would never be the same after Black Friday. The concept of sponsoring and featuring high stakes internet poker players was no longer appealing to recreational customers.

Aside from this fact, Amaya Gaming (now Stars Group) purchased PokerStars for $4.9 billion in 2014. The Canadian company took the poker site in a new direction and began focusing more on the recreational crowd.

The Stars Group eventually came to feel that high stakes tables didn’t do much for their brand. They did away with some of the highest limits at both PokerStars and Full Tilt, which effectively killed the big games.

Where Is High Stakes Online Poker Now?

Chances are that the internet poker world will never see cash stakes over $1,000/$2,000 again. However, the top sites still have some pretty big games at $50/$100 and $100/$200 stakes.

The best players are able to make six figures, and even seven figures in some cases, annually. That said, those who want to compete against the world top online grinders for serious money still have an outlet to do so.

The problem, though, is that there’s not enough liquidity to get bigger games going. The largest online poker rooms now have to obtain licensing from various jurisdictions (e.g. UK, France, Spain). In turn, some of these jurisdictions ring-fence their gamblers from other countries’ player pools.

As highlighted before, another problem is that online poker sites are mostly focused on appealing to amateurs. They care little about reviving the high stakes scene that was so big in the mid- and late 2000s.

Most of those who competed on Full Tilt’s nosebleeds are playing at the Aria (Vegas) or Macau. Some also enter high-roller live tournaments, which can feature buy-ins ranging from $100,000 to $1 million.

Conclusion

High stakes online poker was really something to marvel at over a decade ago. Some of the world’s top players competed against each other for pots worth up to $1 million.

The biggest winners each year regularly hauled in profits worth several million dollars. For example, Ivey once earned $8.5 million in online poker profits in 2008.

However, those days are long gone. Black Friday destroyed the nosebleeds and temporarily brought internet poker to its knees.

The odds of online poker’s golden days ever returning are next to zero. The scene is much different today.

Industry leaders like PokerStars, 888, partypoker, and Americas Cardroom care much more about recreational players. They’ve subsequently done away with their biggest stakes and only feature tables ranging up to $50/$100.

These limits still allow high rollers to throw some serious chips around. However, they’re a far cry from the games that were heavily rail-birded in the mid-2000s.

Again, we’ll almost assuredly never see online poker games reach this level again. The game has moved in a different direction, one where the richest players exclusively compete in land-based cash games and tournaments.

Nevertheless, the golden age of high stakes online poker will always be an interesting chapter in the game’s history.