Money for Nothin’ and Chips for Free

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The year was 1985. U.K. band Dire Straits released the landmark album Brothers in Arms, which ultimately sold the almost unbelievable total of more than 30 million copies. It yielded multiple hit singles, one being Money for Nothing, from which the title of this article is adapted; the actual lyric is “chicks.” Music was, of course, a huge entertainment medium.

That summer, Bill Smith outlasted 139 other players to capture the main event at the sixteenth annual World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas. Having paid $10,000 to enter, he pocketed a tidy $700,000 from the total pool of $1.4 million. Outside poker’s own insular world, virtually no one noticed. As a form of entertainment, poker was completely off the radar.

Flash forward to the summer of 2005. Brothers in Arms remains a landmark British recording, one of the all-time top sellers. Music is still tremendously popular.

At the WSOP, Joseph Hachem took part in the main event. The entry fee was still $10,000, but the field and the prize money available had grown considerably. With 5,619 competitors, the total pool was an almost unbelievable $52,818,610. When Hachem emerged victorious, his share was a more than tidy $7.5 million. He also became an almost instant celebrity with endorsement deals and representation by the famed William Morris agency. Of the nine competitors who made it to the final table, six won more than the entire $1.4 million paid out 20 years earlier. All nine took home at least $1 million. It also didn’t hurt poker’s visibility when the WSOP ladies championship was captured in dominating fashion by Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Tilly.

As a form of entertainment, poker has exploded within the past few years. Around the world, millions have taken up the game, and when they’re not playing, they can watch more than a dozen poker shows on TV. And although it had already started, the boom is perhaps best defined and symbolized by a moment that took place in the summer of 2003. An accountant, the fittingly named Chris Moneymaker, won the WSOP main event. Unlike Hachem, he didn’t put up $10,000 to play. Instead, he paid about $40 to enter a so-called “satellite” online tournament in which the three top prizes were entries. After getting in this way, he then proceeded to win the big one, which had a top prize of $2.5 million that year. Ironically, he stated later that with four players left in the satellite, he considered playing to come fourth because it paid $8,000 in cash.

Moneymaker’s win demonstrated that an amateur could beat the top professionals to win the game’s most coveted championship. Of course, not everyone would turn $40 into $2.5 million, but how hard could it be to become good enough to make a few bucks?

With such thoughts in mind, it’s very easy to give poker a shot. Most poker newbies pick an online site, deposit some money – $50 is typical, but the minimum requirement is usually lower – and start playing. Quite a few lose it all. Some quit, but others consider it “paying their dues” while learning, or figure that hobbies usually cost something – and at least with poker, there’s a chance to profit. So, they deposit again. As they improve, they start to win, often by beating the next wave of newbies. How long it takes to become a winning player varies significantly from person to person; some never do.

JonM (online poker alias) took a different route. In his first year playing, he made well over $1,500. What’s more, he did so without ever risking a cent. How? By playing in “freeroll” tournaments that cost nothing to enter but pay cash to those who place highly. Most of the estimated 250 online poker sites offer them, usually with prize pools of $50 or less. However, at least a few each month pay out $1,000 to $5,000.

Occasionally, far larger amounts are available. JonM says he has played several events that paid out $20,000 each and one that had a pool of $100,000. He also entered three satellite tournaments where the high finishers qualified to play another freeroll for $1 million or more.

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While it’s not all that difficult to get started freerolling, sites have their own schedules and entry requirements. This means it can take some time to figure out where and how to begin. According to JonM, who has played on more than 25 sites, opening an account is pretty easy. You have to be legally an adult wherever you live, and you must provide basic information like your name, address and phone number plus a valid e-mail address. In most cases, you also have to enable the account for real money play. This is generally just a formality that does not require giving a credit card number or actually transferring any funds. Certain sites do oblige you to deposit before you can withdraw your winnings. However, you don’t have to bet the money; just let them hold it for a while. JonM suggests leaving any sites with more complicated requirements until you’re past the raw beginner stage.

One site at which he has played offers several $100 freerolls every day. They are open to all money-enabled players and capped at 1,000 entrants, of whom the top 15 win amounts ranging from $20 to $5. Withdrawals may be made without depositing, and JonM says he has cashed out about $50 in winnings from these events. Another site has approximately 35 cash freerolls on its daily schedule. The prize pool is $50 split 18 ways among 2,000 contestants, with the winner getting $10 down to $1. This site is one that requires a deposit before withdrawing; the minimum is $20. JonM reports cashing another $50 or so from his successes there.

Clearly, the probability of winning anything in such large tournaments is pretty small, as are the prize amounts. So, how did he manage to amass over $1,500? The vast majority came from private freerolls where the numbers can be much more favorable. In an admittedly atypical example, he played in one that had only 11 entrants vying for nine prizes. What’s more common is to play for the same $50 or $100 as above, but against far fewer opponents, often 50 to 150 rather than 1,000 or 2,000. These smaller events tend to pay the top nine, 10 or 15 places. This means an average player will cash about 10 percent of the time, and JonM says he does better than that. As above, the individual prize amounts are small, frequently $2 to $5. However, he plays almost every day and occasionally wins larger sums – $200 is the most so far – and every little bit adds up.

JonM does warn that looking at his total winnings doesn’t give a complete picture. By his own estimate, he plays about 20 hours a week, which means he made about $1.50 an hour. He also spends at least a few hours each week reading up on how to improve his game, so his overall rate is even lower. The fact he makes anything at all is a nice bonus since he plays as a hobby, so don’t expect him to quit his job and turn pro any time soon.

It has been estimated that this year’s WSOP main event winner will receive as much as $10 million from a total prize pool that will almost certainly exceed $60 million. A few people who play for this enormous jackpot will have won their way in through freerolls. So, although the odds are very slim, JonM could turn out to be 2006’s Joseph Hachem. In any case, he’ll happily continue to enjoy winning money for nothing while playing as a pastime. And yes, he has also gotten a set of poker chips for free.

Richard Aihoshi has been writing about a different form of online gaming, massively multiplayer online worlds, for nearly a decade. His interest in poker is more recent. He started playing several months ago and has made a few dollars from freerolls himself.

[div class=”sidebar”]Be The Quintessential Poker Newbie: Tips for showing what a rookie you really are

1. Understand advanced poker odds
The uninitiated may think a hand being “the favorite” means its probability of winning exceeds 50 percent. For example, consider a hand of two eights (88) against a single opponent holding an ace and a five (A5). According to conventional mathematics, the pair will win about 70 percent of the time. Simplistic nonsense! When 88 is dealt to you, it should prevail against A5 every single time. Well, almost. Once an eon or so, the poker deities will conspire to let the other hand triumph. When this happens …

2. Make sure everyone knows what just happened
It’s silly to think the other players at your table are actually watching the action so it’s your sacred duty to make sure they know they just missed a once in an eon occurrence. A common way of accomplishing this is to type something like “amazing luck!!!!!” or “what an incredible suckout!!!!!” into the chat box. The use of multiple exclamation marks is highly recommended, but not mandatory.

3. Learn and inform by asking
Using the same example hands, the obvious question to ask is something like, “You called me with A5?” – in case you were only 99.99% sure. The advanced usage of this concept is to inform the other players what happened (see #2 above). The recommended style is a single question mark, so this is especially good to know when your fingers are cramping up from repeatedly typing multiple exclamations.

4. Share your wealth of knowledge at the table
You know the opponent’s A5 will lose to your 88 almost 100 percent of the time. However, since that’s an advanced odds concept they may not grasp, don’t go into details. Settle for something like, “You have to be careful with A5 in case you run into a medium pocket pair.” This is actually a form of reverse psychology. Given that your 88 is virtually guaranteed to win, you definitely want them to bet with A5. But who’s going to take advice from someone who’s playing in a freeroll? It’s far more likely they’ll do the exact opposite.

5. Bet “all in” as often as possible
On TV, you see the pros bet all their chips quite often. Sure, they’re late in tournaments, playing with high mandatory bets at tables where only a few opponents remain, whereas you’ll usually be playing at full tables of nine or 10. But so what? If once every 10 hands or so is good enough for them, more often must be even better. You may not always have strong hands like 88, or even A5 though, particularly if you go all in every hand, so you’ll have to …

6. Bluff big
Naturally, all in is especially good. Wimpy bluffs are for … well, wimps. If the opponents fold in terror and you win with your 72 or 53, great. It’s especially satisfying when you bet 1,000 or 1,500 chips to win a pot that holds 15 or 25. For even more self-gratification, pat yourself on the back and gain the instant respect of the entire table by showing your two little cards. And, on those rare occasions when someone happens to hit the “Call” button by mistake and you lose, you can …

7. Get emotional
This is a natural reaction. After all, you’re playing in a freeroll that cost you nothing to enter, and you’ve invested precious time that you could have spent … um, reading The Escapist. Also, if you stay emotional long enough, there’s a cool bonus. The next time you bluff big, which may have to wait until your next tournament if you busted out, you can really hammer your mouse button. The other players won’t know, but you’ll get a little rush of self-satisfaction. And if someone happens to hit the “Call” button by mistake and you lose again, you’ll be primed for a bigger rush next time. And the time after. And the time after …

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