The new world of super high stakes online poker has gone crazy. We investigate the rise of £500k pots!

With the world of online high-stakes cash games reaching dizzying levels, how did the games get so big and where are they headed?

Five years ago the world’s richest cash game was spoken in almost mystical terms. The Big Game at the Bellagio was an exclusive game, designed to protect the identities of the rich fish and preserve the edge of the big name pros. Its multiple limit games, and hushed private club atmosphere made it the stuff of legend for the average poker player.

But walk into the Bellagio, anytime other than during the major festvials during 2009, and Bobby’s Room is likely to be empty. Instead, inside the gated communities around the outskirts of Las Vegas the high-stakes pros can be found playing online in games where pots of $500,000 are rapidly becoming commonplace.

The highest stakes games in the world are being played online, available for anyone to watch. The stakes are higher than ever in poker history and rapidly running out of control.

Rise Of Online

The history of high-stakes online poker is surprisingly brief. Back in the formative years of online poker the two biggest poker sites, PartyPoker and PokerStars, were reluctant to open high-stakes cash games, fearing the money would quickly drain out of the poker economy to a few players at the top. The first rooms to open up big no-limit games were PrimaPoker (now known as the Microgaming network) and UltimateBet.

At UltimateBet, it was players like CardRunners founder, Taylor Caby and the legendary Prahlad ‘Spirit Rock’ Friedman who were killing the high-stakes action at stakes up to $50/$100. But it was a European who arguably led the initial rise of online poker as a spectator sport. Norwegian, Johnny Lodden absolutely destroyed the big games on Prima during 2006, reportedly winning around $7 million.

His fame blazed across the internet after he became involved in the biggest pot of all time. The $465,000 pot sent online forums into meltdown as small-stakes grinders began to realise just how big the stakes were getting and a new type of poker icon began to be emerge.

Poker’s New Heroes

But while Lodden had his followers, and even the top pros talked enviously about his success, it wasn’t until 2007 that the great leap from live poker to online poker as the home of poker’s heroes solidified in the shape of Brian ‘sbrugby’ Townsend. He dominated the high-stakes no-limit tables during 2007, and thanks to an appearance on High Stakes Poker he became an idol to a generation of young poker players.

It was a significant change in the poker world as the young players began to hero worship players made in their own image. And even though Townsend’s appetite for no-limit waned and so did his fame, Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan seemlessly stepped into his place.

He quickly achieved cult status from a series of incredible hands posted online such as a famous one against Antonius where he called with third pair in a $400,000 pot. Suddenly the hands being talked about online were not those from the TV, but the huge bluffs and calls from the high-stakes online games.

And it wasn’t long before the live pros sat up and took notice. Back in 2006, Phil Ivey played online for marketing reasons, but by 2008 he was playing for real. This was where the money was now to be made. Alongside him came fellow Big Game alumni Gus Hansen and David Benyamine. It all but killed off the big live action, and live game specialists like Daniel Negreanu and Barry Greenstein suddenly were without a game.

A Step Too Far?

The games themselves went through something of a sea change in 2008. Firstly, the action moved from no-limit hold’em to pot-limit Omaha as the fish in the hold’em world started to vanish. The stakes also kept rising, first to $300/$600 and then up to the massive $500/$1,000 games that run today both.

In early May, Tom Dwan and Ilari Sahamies played a heads-up pot-limit Omaha game where the effective blinds were $3,000/$9,000. The two players agreed to raise and re-raise before the flop every hand. It led to some huge pots, and arguably the highest-stakes poker game ever seen.

But how long can it all last? As Phil Galfond recently said the games are currently running so high that most players simply avoid each other. Could it be the high-stakes online games eventually start to eat themselves?

Although Full Tilt must love the legions of railbirds that flock to the site to watch the games, perhaps the huge $500/$1,000 may prove to be a step too far for the poker economy. Nobody is really bankrolled for these games, and with the stakes getting ever higher will it eventually turn into a circus freak show and implode in on itself. Either way, in this new era of poker we can all watch it play out in front of our eyes.

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