High Speed High Roller

Type the term “gaming” into an internet search engine, and the pages you’ll see will fall into one of two camps. The first camp includes sites that deal with the traditional act of playing games, which these days often means playing games on a television or computer screen. The other camp includes sites that deal with wagering money on games of chance, a meaning for the word gaming that has been created by an industry eager to avoid the negative connotations of the word gambling.

It’s rare to find a site that marries both meanings of the term. Sure, betting on videogames is nothing new, as anyone who’s put five dollars on the outcome of a tight Halo match can tell you. But it’s rare to find a web site devoted to gambling on videogames the same way a site like GoldenPalace is devoted to betting on blackjack and its ilk.

Which is why I was so surprised to stumble across WorldWinner.com, a site that proudly bills itself as “the leading global provider of online games for cash and prizes.” While the site does offer free accounts that let users play online versions of everything from Minesweeper to Zuma, the real appeal is the upgraded memberships that let you put your hard-earned cash on the line against others who have done the same.

I’ve always been intrigued by games of chance, but I was never under any illusions about winning money in a casino. With the probability skewed so heavily toward the house, I knew I was essentially paying for the privilege to play games of chance.

But WorldWinner.com would have you believe it’s different. Unlike casino games, where you have to be lucky to win (for the most part), WorldWinner stresses that “the outcome of each competition is determined by the player’s skill.” I don’t have the chops to make a six-figure salary at a poker table, but after years of the other form of gaming, I was sure I could beat just about anyone in the right game.

Finding out if I was right initially proved harder than it seemed. While offshore gambling sites will happily flaunt U.S. internet gaming laws with impunity, Massachusetts-based WorldWinner respects the wishes of the 13 states that don’t allow “sweepstakes, contests, and tournaments with entry fees and/or prizes,” my native Maryland among them. This setback was easy enough to overcome, though: One borrowed out-of-state PayPal account later, I had deposited my first $20 into the WorldWinner system and earned a $20 sign-up bonus in the process.

Now that I was in the system, I had to choose what game to make my specialty. Minesweeper seemed like a good choice, since I had built up my skills at the game over years of procrastinating. A few quick practice matches and I was ready to put my money on the line.

Feeling a little nervous and a little excited, I put one dollar down on a three-person match. Muscle memory calmed my nerves as I clicked through the board a little slower than I would have liked. As soon as I finished, a results screen popped up showing me ahead of one other contestant, with the third slot sitting open. I could pay an extra fee to take up that slot, guaranteeing a small cash prize, or wait it out and hope whoever was next to enter would finish behind me.

I decided to wait it out, filling the nerve-wracking minutes trying to learn about my faceless opponent. Unfortunately, all I was able to learn about nmann06.pgo from his WorldWinner profile is he’s a fan of Luxor and Bejeweled, he’s from Kentucky, he signed up for the site in October and he had already played enough to earn a rank of “level 9”. (Earning new ranking levels doesn’t make you any more money, but they do make you realize just how much time you’ve spent on the site.)

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From the profile screen, I could send nmann06.pgo a message, challenge him to another match or add him to my buddies list. Based on his low score in our current competition, I sent him a challenge, which he accepted and I won – easy money. We eventually traded a few messages about Minesweeper and our experience with the site, but he seemed less than eager to take up my further offers to take money from him. Despite the site’s community-building features, gambling on WorldWinner felt more like sending e-mails from a video poker machine than meeting a kindred spirit at a blackjack table.

With my internet gambling cherry popped by my first win (I just barely bested the third entrant’s score), it was a much less nerve-wracking process to enter a few dozen more Minesweeper competitions. I was scanning the results of these matches when I realized WorldWinner’s devotion to skill-based games only went so far. While it’s true that there’s more skill in Minesweeper than in a slot machine or a casino table games, there is still randomness in the arrangement of the mines. WorldWinner tries to minimize this factor by giving players a free move if they get stuck and are forced to guess, but the fact remains that some setups remain harder than others.

The luck-of-the-draw opponent matching system adds another bit of randomness to the proceedings. Winning a competition depends not only on your score, but the score of the next person of a comparable skill level to enter into a similar tournament. Sometimes a low score will end up winning against some newbie, other times a great score will lose to a shark. It all depends on who happens to enter around the same time as you.

You’d think this would balance itself out in the long run, but the opponent pool is seriously tainted by self selection. This effect became apparent after I got beat in competition after competition by the same two usernames: nnrupp.pgo and estremil.pgo. Occasionally, I’d get an easy win against some fresh meat newbie, but the vast majority of entries and wins seemed to be funneled to these two Minesweeper sharks. It’s possible that these guys were just natural Minesweeper experts, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being set up to take a fall to the house shills, “ringers” meant to prevent WorldWinner from having to pay any real winners.

Tired of losing to the experts, I decided to try losing some money to myself. After you’ve entered enough cash games, WorldWinner takes away its small nod to human interaction and opens up TopThis!, a competition type that lets you wager money against your median score, meaning you’re statistically likely to win half the time and lose the other half. This is where the specter of true gambling addiction can grab you – while man-on-man competitions require you to wait for opponents (and thus take a break when none are available), you can bet money against yourself at any time of the day as quickly as your little mouse will let you.

This is what happened to me, as a mad dash of increasingly frantic TopThis! competitions quickly chipped away at my account balance until it was nothing. I was ready to call it quits and write off the whole experience, until WorldWinner noticed my low balance and tried to win me back with some free playing money. I dived back in, determined not to squander my new bankroll as I had my previous one.

I tentatively tried my hand at a few new games to find one that would unlock my earning potential, but none of them seemed like a perfect fit. Blackjack-based Catch-21 required too much luck. Scrabble-based WordMojo required too much vocabulary. Match-three-based Bejeweled required too much color coordination. With $5 left to my WorldWinner name, I finally stumbled across the game that I quickly determined would be my path to riches.

Mean Greens Mini-golf is different from the other WorldWinner games because it seems perfectible. While all the other casual games on the site require some mixture of reflexes, quick-thinking and planning ahead, conquering the mini-golf course is as simple as figuring out the correct angle and power needed for each hole. I decided to give it a go.

After a few hours of practice games, everything fell into place, and I made my first wager on mini-golf. A couple lucky bounces on holes 7 and 8 left me with a score of 16 – my lowest yet and a score I was confident would win me some money. I opened the results page, only to find that I had tied for first with someone going by the handle of gussiedgd2.pgo. (There’s that “.pgo” extension again.) I couldn’t believe it. Here was practically the best performance I could muster, and all I had to show for it was a tie for first place. What’s worse, thanks to the vagaries of the competition’s prize structure, a tie actually meant I lost a little money.

It was about this time that I realized that the only real winner in these competitions is WorldWinner.com. While individual players can and do indeed win money from individual competitions, the house always takes a cut that makes real, long-term winning nearly impossible. A $1 bet on a three-person match nets the winner $2.25 and WorldWinner $0.75 in profit. A $5 one-on-one match nets the winning player $8, the company $2. It may sound hard to build a successful business on such minuscule amounts, but when you consider that WorldWinner operates more than 11 million games a month, you can see how each little slice contributes to a really big pie.

I continued to putter around (pun intended) at Mini Golf for a while, but after a few days of ups and downs my $5 had again dwindled to next to nothing. I finally gave up the ghost and realized I wasn’t going to be able to retire on my millions of dollars of Minesweeper winnings. I also came to realize that playing these games for money turned a fun way to pass the time into a tense, nerve-wracking quest for digital perfection. Skill or luck, I found that when it comes to gaming, mixing the two definitions isn’t any fun at all.

Kyle Orland is a video game freelancer. He writes about the world of video game journalism on his weblog, Video Game Media Watch.

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