A History of Online Poker pre-2006

Online poker is still a relatively new industry, with the first real-money online poker room coming online in 1998, and through it’s short history the world of online poker has created millionaires, seen its fair share of scandals, and gone through some unprecedented improvements and enhancements –many of which have changed the course of poker entirely. This two-part series is the story of online poker, from its developmental stages to where we are today in a post-Black Friday world.

Most people are unaware that Chris Ferguson was an instrumental figure in the development of online poker; not just Full Tilt Poker’s software in 2005, but the very first Internet poker software ever developed (Ferguson’s role to online poker is sort of like Al Gore’s claims of “inventing” the Internet)! In this article my goal is to walk you through those early formative years of the online poker industry to perhaps give you a better understanding of how far the online poker world has come, and where it is heading. And hopefully give you a few interesting tidbits to contemplate.

IRC Poker

The earliest form of online poker was called IRC Poker. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was developed in the late 1980’s by Jarko Oikarinen and by the early 1990’s a poker platform was developed by Todd Mummert and Greg Reynolds. This was a free-money, chat-based, Internet protocol that allowed players to initially type in commands (which took an extremely high level of computer acumen at the time) before point and click software was developed later on.

IRC Poker had two types of participants: The first were the professional players and theoreticians like Chris Ferguson, who used and tinkered with IRC Poker in order to better their poker game and the overall understanding of poker. The other group of players was mostly computer nerds who were simply using the IRC software for the “lulz”, and were simply trying to acquire as many play money chips as possible –which they would often go on the Rec.Gambling.Poker forum (the 2+2 of its day) bragging about their account balances and often arguing poker with the “experts”. Fortunately, the player pool was extremely small, due to IRC requiring an above average level of computer literacy, and the vast majority of the IRC players were of the former persuasion.

While IRC Poker wasn’t a real-money online poker site, it did lay the groundwork for what was to become a multi-billion industry. People like Ferguson and his longtime friend Perry Friedman, and the other IRC poker players and developers should be praised for their early work in the online poker industry. If it wasn’t for these players, willing to use a play-money online poker client to develop as players, online poker may never have existed.

Planet Poker

In 1998 the first hand of real-money poker was dealt at a site called Planet Poker. For you fountains of useless information, the first hand of online poker was played at a $3/$6 Limit Holdem table (the only table on the site, and a game that took over a month of off-and-on action before a rotating group of players could keep the game going for 24 hours).

With no competition for nearly a year Planet Poker found itself to be the only game on the Internet, which perhaps made the site slightly complacent, and after the numerous technical issues caused by a combination of a new industry and dial-up Internet the door was left open for others to compete with Planet Poker.


It wasn’t long before other companies decided to challenge Planet Poker’s supremacy. In 1999 Paradise Poker went online and by the early 2000’s a number of other online poker sites were battling for online poker players’ money. Amazingly, if it wasn’t for a terrible technical glitch that shut-down Planet Poker the week Paradise Poker launched, Planet Poker may have maintained its monopoly indefinitely.

The names of these competing sites varied from Paradise Poker to Party Poker, from Poker Room to Poker Spot, and from PokerStars to Ultimate Bet. With competition rampant, the online poker industry grew by leaps and bounds as the sites upgraded and added features to attract customers, as well as new promotions that created an incredibly player-friendly market.

Planet Poker’s popularity waned in the few years after its initial launch, but the site will always have a place in the hearts of early Internet poker players like me, who still remember Mike Caro hocking the site.

The Poker Boom of 2003

By 2003 a number of online poker rooms were sending people to the WSOP via online satellite tournaments, and when one of these players, a young accountant from Tennessee named Moneymaker, won the first WSOP that utilized the newest live tournament technology, the Hole-Card camera, the rest is as they say HISTORY.

Attendance may already have been on the rise in 2003, but the combination of Moneymaker’s story, the new Hole-Card cam technology, and a thriving, completely unregulated online poker industry saw attendance at both live tournaments and online increase exponentially. The online poker economy was like pouring gasoline onto an already raging fire, and by the time the WSOP episodes aired on ESPN in late 2003, poker was thriving as it never had before.

Lead-Up to UIGEA

Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP Victory not only put online poker on the map, but it also put online poker on the radar for politicians and other groups looking to ban or exploit the fledgling industry. As the online poker boom pressed on in 2004, 2005, and into 2006, it seemed that poker was entering a Golden Era with attendance numbers at poker tournaments through the roof and new players flocking to the online poker tables like moths to a light.

With professional poker players basically having a license to print money (you honestly couldn’t lose during this period if you had half a clue what you were doing at a poker table) the Government decided to step in and make their presence felt with a bit of legislation known by the Acronym UIGEA: the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.

Part 2: Post-2006

In Part two of this series I’ll take a look at how UIGEA initially impacted the online poker industry in 2006, and how the US government’s increasing crackdown on the industry caused the current post Black Friday climate we currently find ourselves in. This period also covers the scandal-ridden days of 2006-2008,when unscrupulous players and site owners fleeced the industry as a whole, and left online poker with a reputation much like live poker players suffered in the late 1800’s –a game full of con-artists, degenerates, and cheats.

In the next part of this series I’ll delve into how the online poker world adjusted to life after UIGEA legislation as the industry became fractured and the hundreds of online poker rooms changed their business model from attracting new players to rewarding the high-volume players for their loyalty. I’ll also look at how the players dealt with the new climate where the games grew increasingly tougher and tougher, and the threat of the industry being shut-down (especially in the US) loomed above their heads.

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