Monday, May 16, 2011

The Urge to Merge; or, Zero to Hero

The Urge to Merge; or, Zero to HeroYesterday marked the one-month anniversary of “Black Friday,” the day the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed its indictment and civil complaint against the two biggest online poker sites in the world (PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker) and the third-biggest one then serving the U.S. (Absolute Poker/UltimateBet).

While some Americans have (incredibly) continued to play on AP/UB despite being no longer able to withdraw (see Friday’s post), both Stars and Full Tilt quickly ceased allowing us Yanks to sit at the real money games. Stars has already facilitated the withdrawal of funds by U.S. players, and by now most have done so. I mentioned on Friday how I’d requested a paper check from Stars and received it last week (about two weeks after I’d requested it).

Meanwhile, Full Tilt continues to drag its feet, issuing yet another announcement yesterday in the form of a thread-starting post on Two Plus Two misleadingly titled “FTP Answers 5/15.” (The “answers” also appear over on the FTP FAQ page for U.S. players.)

There “FTPDoug” passes along the site’s statement that they continue to work “tirelessly” to ensure both the return of funds to U.S. players and the continued operation of the site for non-U.S. folks. However, the announcement gave no indication of when exactly Americans would be allowed to withdraw, stating only that FTP “underestimated the time it would take to work through” the unspecified “issues” that are hindering their efforts and that Full Tilt “will update our US players when [they] have more specific information to provide.”

Not good. Especially for the many pros, full-timers, and shot-takers who had planned to enter WSOP events with money they currently have tied up on Full Tilt.

FTPDoug goes on to say that U.S. players will soon be able to use their FTP points to purchase items in the Full Tilt Store again -- currently we cannot -- but will only be able to buy merchandise, not cash bonuses or (obviously) tourney tickets. Interestingly, PokerStars also allowed U.S. players to use their FPP points, though restricted us to exchanging them for cash, not allowing the purchase of any of the other products.

This, too, is a bad sign, I think, perhaps further indicating Full Tilt Poker doesn’t have the funds available to allow Americans to cash out. On the other hand, FTP may well have an abundance of teddy bears and key chains.

Meanwhile, U.S. players like me who only had funds on Stars or Full Tilt have been mostly waiting on the sidelines over the last month, perhaps jumping in the odd play money game here and there and/or starting to explore the other remaining options available to us.

Poker ScoutAt the moment the Merge network of sites has become the most popular for U.S. players. According to Poker Scout, Merge, though still miniscule when compared to Stars and FTP, saw its traffic increase by 77% from April 15 to May 9. That makes Merge more than twice as popular as Bodog or the Cake Poker Network, both of which also still take U.S. players.

I have a Bodog account, though it is presently empty and I haven’t played a hand over there in many months. I did open accounts on the Merge network since April 15 -- one on Carbon and another on Hero Poker. Just for kicks I opened one over at Sportsbook.com (another Merge site), too, before they shut their doors to new U.S. players on May 1.

Since these are “skins” sharing the same network (and thus the same player pool), it isn’t possible for me to play on more than one of these accounts at a time. The sites look and feel very similar, although there are small differences here and there, including the various promotions each offer.

I did spend a little bit of time looking into depositing (at Carbon and also Bodog), but didn’t pursue it very far. It certainly looked like I could get it done, but like many recreational players I wasn’t too interested in taking the extra steps. Not just yet, anyway.

So I piddled around playing some of the daily freerolls on Merge. I was playing on Carbon, although you can play these from any skin. About 2,500 enter these, and you have to make the top 24 to cash, so the odds aren’t great. Actually I think you have to make the top four to earn any actual cash, as the other spots only reward tourney tickets.

I’ve mentioned already how I managed to min-cash in one of these, a H.O.R.S.E. tourney, earning a $2.20 ticket that could only be used in a six-max SNG. There I finished second, for which I earned one real dollar. With still very limited options, I managed to lose most of that at a $0.02/$0.04 LHE table, then won a little back in a $0.06 tourney. All of which is to say my “roll” on Carbon is now a cool 45 cents.

Meanwhile I unexpectedly had a couple of opportunities over the weekend to play in some pretty lucrative freerolls on Merge sites -- one on Carbon and the other on Hero Poker.

Carbon PokerI signed up for Carbon through Poker Source Online, thinking I’d eventually take advantage of a bonus they were offering once I finally deposited. When I logged on Saturday, I discovered I had a ticket to play in a special freeroll that afternoon just for new PSO folks, one with $2,500 prize pool. I joined the tourney -- a turbo-style NLHE event -- and was surprised to find only 34 players had registered. The top five spots paid, with $200 going to fifth and a cool grand to the winner!

Like I say, it was a turbo tourney, and so after the first few levels it quickly became an all-in-or-fold affair. I managed to hit a couple of hands early, and in fact enjoyed the chip lead with 20 left. I was still leader when it had gotten down to 15 or so when a hand arose in which I was dealt A-K. A super short-stack had pushed for about 2,000, then there was another reraise all-in for about 5,000 when the action got to me. I had about 15K at the time, and went ahead and reraised over the top. As it happened, the fellow with 5K had pocket aces, and so I slipped to 10K.

Some more misfortune ensued at the final table, and with seven left I found myself one of the two short stacks, watching the other five happily folding their way to the money. Ended up pushing my five-BB stack with K-10-suited to get bounced in seventh. Was kicking myself afterwards, mentally second-guessing whether or not I would’ve made the money had I turtled up earlier.

Hero PokerBy Sunday I’d gotten over that missed opportunity, though it was still fresh in my mind when I joined another nifty freeroll in the afternoon, this one on Hero Poker. It was for U.S. players only, and featured a $30,000 prize pool. The top 300 finishers would each receive $100 plus a bonus to earn $100 more with player points. In the end, I think the six-handed NLHE event drew something close to 1,200 entrants, which meant more than a quarter of us would be making the money.

It also featured a nice, slow structure with 15-minute levels, which was good for me since it took me a good hour-and-a-half or more to get anything going in terms of collecting chips. Had built up some, then lost a meaningful chunk when somebody outdrew me with 5-3 versus my pocket nines. At one point I was down around 1,000 -- just a third of the starting stack -- when for the first time I checked the lobby to see the standings. I chuckled to see I was almost dead last, in 394th with exactly 400 players left.

Soon after that I luckily won an all-in with 6s5s versus QhJh. Then I had some more good fortune when I rivered a full house in a BB-special scenario, allowing me to double up again.

I won a couple more small ones, then came a big hand in which an opponent with a big stack -- one of the top 10 at the time, I think -- minimum-raised from UTG and I called from the blinds with K-Q. The flop came K-K-3, and I check-called a smallish c-bet. The turn was a queen, and I checked again. My opponent bet about half the pot, I pushed, and he called with pocket aces. The river blanked and I was up over 10,000, which put me in about 110th with 350 players left.

My stack was above average, and while I wasn’t 100% sure I had the chips to do so, having the experience from the day before in mind I decided it was time to shut it down and start folding.

Early on I folded A-K, wincing a little as I did. I’d fold A-Q shortly after that. Then I folded A-K one more time. I folded a load of laundry during that stretch, too. Hell, I would’ve folded whatever you put in front of me -- paper, napkins, an omelet, you name it.

Turned out to be the right call, as I still had about 5K when a player went out in 301st. The tourney still played out, and I joked a little in chat with my neighbor on my left who had been short-stacked throughout the bubble period and in real danger of missing the money. “I’ll admit it,” I typed. “I tightened up my range there just a tad at the end,” as if folding 50-odd hands in a row hadn’t communicated that clearly enough. He responded with smiley faces -- the Merge games offer an amusing variety of them -- and something about being glad I did.

Yesterday’s tournament also featured something I’d never seen before on a site -- tourney-wide announcements that appeared as a speech bubble emanating from the small Hero icon on my Mac’s menu bar. Early on there were some jokes and welcome messages, then towards the end some timely announcements about how many players were left. I liked it, and found myself thinking about how more could be done with such a feature.

So now I have a bankroll, of sorts -- a hundy on Hero, plus a few coins on Carbon. I have to say I do like the interface at Merge. I’ve also used the live chat support a few times, which is a pretty cool feature for a site to have, too.

We’ll see how it all goes over there moving forward. Am nowhere close to that comfortable spot I was in pre-Black Friday when it comes to playing online, as I imagine is the case for most U.S. players. But for now I’m glad to be back in the game, even if only in a small way.

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