On December 12, 2001, PokerStars dealt its first hand of real-money poker. It wasn’t the first online poker room on the planet (that would be, fittingly, Planet Poker), but it’s tough to argue that it hasn’t been the most influential of the past 22 years. These days we’re used to poker being an online game – even if we’re not all able to play it – but the world was a very different place in 2001.
For many older readers, any mention of that year brings back painful memories of the terrorist attacks of September 11 that changed the world irrevocably. As fate would have it, that was the very day that PokerStars launched its first play-money games. Understandably, the launch was something that dropped to the bottom of the news agenda.
But work on the PokerStars platform continued, and by December the company with the red spade was ready to open up its real-money games to all-comers.
A ferocious battle for players
Those early days were notable for the ferocity with which various operators in the online poker world were vying for top spot. It’s a battle that continues to this day, but in those heady days when all online card rooms were unregulated by default, there were fewer rules of engagement.
PokerStars was built on a software platform designed by its co-founder, Isai Scheinberg. Together with his son, Mark, Scheinberg had attempted to license the poker software his company had developed but, finding no takers, they decided to take the plunge and launch it themselves.
While Isai headed up the software side in Canada, Mark handled the gaming operations in Costa Rica. In 2007 the company would up sticks to the Isle of Man, establishing a new HQ from which it would aggressively court the world’s growing population of poker players.
That population started growing even faster once Chris Moneymaker (above) made history at the 2003 World Series of Poker, winning the big one after qualifying in a cheap online satellite at PokerStars – an event the company was quick to capitalize upon.
Tournaments had been an area where PokerStars had invested significantly, and it was a gamble that paid off, both in terms of growing a stellar reputation for big online tourneys and in being able to send armies of qualifiers to live events, patched up with red spades.
What followed – the poker boom, live poker tours, the Sunday Million, WCOOP, partnerships with the likes of Rafa Nadal, Usain Bolt and Cristiano Ronaldo – can be traced back to Moneymaker’s win and the Scheinbergs’ ambitions, but also to the company’s commitment to growing the game.
Challenges and challengers
Of course, it’s not all been smooth sailing. Black Friday saw doors closed in the USA, many of which remain shut, and kept Isai Scheinberg out of America for a decade. Local regulatory changes saw PokerStars forced to split its liquidity, not only by US state but also in areas such as Southern Europe. Changes to its rakeback structure drew ire from professional players, and the introduction of casino games and a sportsbook split opinion among the community.
Eventually the Scheinbergs sold up; the game moved on; new combatants entered the battle for players, with the likes of GGPoker finally providing real competition to the PokerStars juggernaut.
But through all the trials of the past 20+ years – some metaphorical, some legal – PokerStars has remained a significant and relevant presence in the online poker world. Well over 200 billion hands have been dealt since that first momentous one on December 12, 2001.
I wonder who won it?
Images courtesy of PokerStars and the WPT