We met Randy Blumer, the pioneer of online poker: ‘You could see this was going to be the crack cocaine of gambling”

With online poker celebrating its 15th birthday, Julian Rogers meets the man who ignored the doubters and launched the game on the world wide web

When former Royal Canadian Navy systems engineer Randy Blumer hatched the seemingly harebrained scheme back in the 90s to launch a poker room in cyberspace, most of the poker fraternity questioned whether he was playing with a full deck. How can you play poker when you can’t even see the other players at the table, they scoffed. Bluffing will be rendered virtually extinct and it will be a cheater’s paradise with rampant collusion, others warned. ‘Forget it’ was the subliminal message coming from the bemused doom-mongers.
 
Ever since wily gunslingers squared up over a poker table in the spit-and-sawdust saloons of the Wild West, the ability to visually interrogate opponents for ‘tells’ has been part and parcel of the game.
 
‘Everyone we spoke to when pitching this idea said it would never work,’ Blumer recalls while speaking from his home in British Columbia, Canada. ‘There were a lot of naysayers in the industry and a lot of naysayers who were logically thinking through all the challenges to make this thing work,’ he adds.
 
Ballsy or foolhardy, he wasn’t to be deterred in his Herculean task and soon managed to raise a modest $30,000 from investors. Clearly it wasn’t just Blumer who believed this idea could work. He found a company called ASF Software and an agreement was struck for them to run the site’s all-important software. ‘We went to meet the software developer in Atlanta, shook hands, boxed up servers and on the same trip dropped them off in San Jose, Costa Rica, where we met our ISP service provider for the first time.’

The early days

Planet Poker booted into life in late 1997 as a free-play site, but January 1, 1998, was the watershed moment when real-money games went live. Suddenly you didn’t have to go to the often intimidating environment of a casino. Simply fire up the PC, connect via a dial-up modem to this new-fangled thing called the internet, download some software and, hey presto: online poker with real players and real cash.
 
‘Straight out of the gate, you could see this was going to be the crack cocaine of gambling,’ says Blumer. ‘Some players were playing 10 to 12 hours straight even before we converted to real money.’ Despite the lack of visual tells, there was clearly an appetite for poker on the internet.
 
Aesthetically, Planet Poker was a forerunner for the overhead poker table view surrounded by static avatars. A pixelated doorman with peculiar facial features welcomed players to the tables. Non-flashy, simplistic graphics helped reduce the lag as players’ PCs sluggishly communicated with the Costa Rican servers. ‘We recognised very early on that people wanted to play quickly, and quickly was good from an operator perspective for generating more revenue,’ says Blumer. ‘Although you wanted to give them familiarity, you didn’t need to go full scale with moving avatars and fatter downloads because that just slowed the growth and opportunity to develop the site.’
 
Despite the poker software tipping the scales at a puny 3.9MB, it still took around 16 minutes to download on a 28k dial-up connection. And with this being the nascent period for the world wide web, as well as the software not being the most stable, Planet Poker was soon plagued by problems, including screen freezes and software crashes in the middle of pots. Sometimes the site would be offline for days at a time. This downtime was more of a potential full-blown disaster than minor teething troubles for a fledgling online operator. Fortunately for Blumer, he didn’t have any competitors in 1998 and poker players, on the whole, begrudgingly tolerated Planet Poker’s frailties.
 
Behind the scenes, he was constantly working with software boffins to improve site stability and bolt on new features – from simple things like a quick-fold button, to all-in protection when a player’s connection was lost, and a bad beat jackpot. They even added sound effects to audibly repeat chatbox inputs. Initially, all that was served up to players was $3-$6 limit hold’em (limit was de rigueur back then) with a $30 minimum buy-in, but this was soon extended to $5-$10 and $10-$20 as players flocked to the site. Rake was 5% of the pot, to a maximum of $3.

Ringing in the cash

A couple of months into 1998 and, much to Blumer’s delight, the ring game tables were occupied 24 hours a day, with the only exception being 9am to 11am Eastern Time every Tuesday when the poker room was closed for database maintenance and software upgrades. ‘I remember monitoring the games late at night and there were these three guys with several hundred dollars in play and when I went to bed and got up eight hours later, these same three cowboys were there beating on each other,’ Blumer laughs. ‘This was a key moment.’
 
For the first few months, Planet Poker was so ‘strapped for cash’, Blumer explains, that deposits were limited to cheques sent in the post. It would be a few months before credit cards were added. One of the site’s early players, Gautam Rao, admits it was a ‘leap of faith’ trusting Planet Poker with his $600 deposit. ‘The main issue was whether this was a square game and whether I was going to get paid,’ he remembers.
 
Rao quickly crushed the games and withdrew $7,000 of his $10,000 winnings one week later. However, the cheque took a fortnight to arrive and another three weeks for his bank to cash it. ‘I finally got my money and it was only then that I knew this was real.’ Users could withdraw funds within three days by a wire transfer, although this option came attached with an eye-watering $35 charge for US players and a $45 fee for those based elsewhere. Ouch.
 
As Rao alludes to, players had to trust a site with their money and reputations had to be earned in an era when cyberspace was often viewed with suspicion. These suspicions were exacerbated by the gambling outfits ensconced in shady, far-flung tax havens. And another major concern for would-be online poker players was collusion. Could unscrupulous players be communicating with each other by telephone or instant messenger (IM) to fleece unsuspecting victims at a table? And could it be proven, and would a site clamp down on perpetrators?

The eye in the sky

At Planet Poker, Blumer brought poker veteran Roy Cooke onboard as the cardroom manager and he would spend hours poring over hand histories if foul play was suspected. ‘A lot of the mistrust in the environment was that you couldn’t see the other players and wouldn’t know if they were cheating,’ Blumer now acknowledges. As well as bringing Cooke on board he recruited author Mike Caro, nicknamed the ‘Mad Genius of Poker’, to became Planet Poker’s spokesman and programming consultant in 1999. Often popping up in marketing materials, the hirsute poker icon bolstered the credibility of the operation.
 
But the site’s credibility suffered a stomach-churning kick to the cojones in 1999 after ASF’s shuffling algorithm was posted online to openly demonstrate how the deal was random. Some eagle-eyed tech engineers at an IT security company in Virginia, who liked to play poker during lunch, quickly realised something was amiss. So they crunched the numbers and discovered that instead of the four billion possible shuffle combinations, Planet Poker’s random number generator only produced 200,000.
 
So random wasn’t, in fact, all that random. Once the flop was dealt, they knew which shuffling combination it was, what was coming next and opponents’ hole cards, explains Gary McGraw, one of the techies to discover the software own goal. ‘Once you know all the cards you can always win because you know what’s coming next and you know what cards the other guys are holding – you know the full shebang,’ he grins.
 
They published their findings online and tipped off the media and the story garnered considerable attention. Meanwhile, another unconnected, but equally eagle-eyed, individual figured out the flaw and took his opponents for $50,000 in the space of four days.
 
For Planet Poker, it was a head-in-hands moment but, Blumer and Cooke patched up the site’s battered image and refunded the affected players after closely examining the player’s sudden incredible win-rate. ASF fixed the shuffling flaw and Planet Poker’s traffic rose more than 20% in the following days, which Blumer attributes to the site’s honesty and quick actions to nip it in the bud.

The end of days

Planet Poker just about survived the crisis and by November 1999, celebrated reaching the milestone of two million hands dealt. Six months later, it was three million. At its peak, Planet Poker had 1,000 concurrent players on the tables, but as the curtain came down on the ‘90s, others had cottoned on that online poker was a potential moneyspinner. The green shoots of a poker boom were spouting and it wasn’t long before Blumer’s site was left choking on the exhaust smoke of the likes of Paradise Poker, PartyPoker and PokerStars.
 
Although Rao reminisces how Planet Poker was a ‘pioneering and honourable company’, he recalls being frustrated with the ‘crummy’ software. And it became tough for him to get a game after becoming the site’s biggest winner (he won $280,000 in his first 12 months on the site) so he sought action elsewhere. Also, Planet Poker’s bread and butter was the ring games while the big-time rivals offered head-turning tournament prize pools and enormous fields.
 
‘It took us a long time to get to the tournament party,’ Blumer concedes. After a few more years of rocketing competition, his online poker room was way down the pecking order in a market boasting around 600 poker sites. Nowadays, it’s gone full circle and become merely a free-play site, although Blumer isn’t ruling out a return to real-money games in the future. 
 
Whether or not this happens, Blumer and Planet Poker deserve their place in poker’s rich history. The former navy man stuck two fingers up to the naysayers who pooh-poohed his vision and proved that poker.

Why Planet Poker failed  

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A site with glitch-prone software is always going to test the patience of its players. Planet Poker just about got away with it, but once the big boys entered the fray, customers cashed in their chips for more reliable platforms.

Variety is the spice of life

In hindsight Blumer spent too much attention on cash games but life-changing guaranteed tournament prizes offered at rival PartyPoker left Blumer’s site struggling.

Shout from the rooftops

Planet Poker did run adverts but Paradise Poker was spending millions on glossy advertising and brand recognition. Planet Poker had a loyal following, but penetrating the consciousness of the colossal casual player market was achieved with aplomb by some big rivals and their bulging budgets.

Online Poker’s Journey

1997 
Poker-loving geeks, including Chris Ferguson, take part in Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a rudimentary precursor to online poker.

1998 
Planet Poker becomes the world’s first site to serve up real-money games online.

1999 
One-time market leader Paradise Poker launches.

2001 
PokerStars launches with a $50k guaranteed tournament

2004
Full Tilt Poker launches with a stable of sponsored pros and quirky graphics.

2006  
Sites such as PartyPoker are forced to beat a hasty retreat from the US following the passing of the UIGEA.

2006  
Poker suddenly turns 3D with groundbreaking graphics and fully customisable avatars as PKR hits the web.

2011
Black Friday sends the online poker world into meltdown as the plug is pulled on online games in the US. Full Tilt implodes soon afterwards.

2012  
PokerStars purchases Full Tilt in a deal worth $731m

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