Who were the Ship It Holla Ballas? Arguably the most successful poker crew of all time, they took advantage of the online poker boom to win tens of millions of dollars before most of them were old enough to set foot inside a casino. Then they did what any red-blooded teenagers with mountains of cash and no responsibilities would do: They partied like rock stars, transforming themselves from Internet nerds with zero life skills into legends, at least in their own minds. In this excerpt from Ship It Holla Ballas!, this group of teenage college dropouts, united by social media, head to Bahamas for a caper.
PARADISE ISLAND, BAHAMAS (May 2006)
It's been three years since Chris Moneymaker's victory at the World Series of Poker, but the poker economy, powered by recreational players with dreams of winning millions on TV, shows no signs of slowing down. Online poker rooms host around-the-clock satellites and super-satellites -- inexpensive tournaments whose winners gain admission into tournaments with much bigger entry fees. The swell of new entrants inflates the prize pool, which in turn attracts even more attention from amateurs hoping to become the next Moneymaker. They are participating in what economists call a "virtuous circle," a feedback loop that builds its own positive momentum. By 2006, the circle has become so culturally entrenched as to have earned a nickname from the mainstream media: the "poker boom."
The World Series of Poker still rules in terms of prestige, but it only happens once a year. Upstarts such as the World Poker Tour and the European Poker Tour fill the void with a new business model: Smaller, lesser-known tournaments get aggregated and packaged into television-friendly "seasons" culminating in championships. The virtuous circle spins a few more times. Where the WSOP Main Event used to be the only tournament with a $10,000 buy-in and a seven-figure prize for the winner, now there are dozens.
When the online cardrooms aren't feeding players into live tournaments, they're creating tournaments of their own. In 2002, Party Poker hosted the inaugural Party Poker Million aboard a cruise ship on the Mexican Riviera. The event was a hit—one year later, the World Poker Tour added the Party Poker Million II to its first season's schedule. In its second season, the WPT added a tournament in Aruba sponsored by Ultimate Bet and a tournament aboard a Caribbean-bound cruise ship hosted by PokerStars.
The Caribbean theme isn't coincidental -- by hosting their events on tropical islands or cruise ships, the online cardrooms can skirt U.S. law and allow players as young as 18, their bread-and butter-clientele, to play in the kind of tournaments they grew up watching on TV. It's why Paradise Poker chooses the Atlantis, an enormous resort and water park on the Bahamas' Paradise Island, to host its first ever brick-and-mortar tournament: "The Conquest of Paradise Island."
The Conquest fails to secure any TV coverage or commitments from well-known pros -- in the months leading up to the event, there's some speculation whether it will even take place. But the allure of lax gambling and drinking laws in a tropical setting is enough for the tournament to attract over 300 players, a large percentage of whom are under 21.
Good2cu, Apathy, and DonButtons fly there from Miami. Raptor, durrrr, Deuce2High, Bonafone, TheUsher, and FieryJustice meet them at the resort. They're buzzed before the first round of boat drinks even hits their lips -- for most of them, this is the biggest tournament they've ever entered.
Only durrrr can laugh off the $5,000 entry fee. While the rest of them are still devoting most of their attention to Sit N Gos, durrrr is regularly playing in the biggest cash games on the Internet. He probably shouldn't be – any old-school player would scoff at his horrendous bankroll management, which sees him routinely flirt with going broke – but what does he have to lose? He's 19 years old, has no wife or kids to support, is blessed with an active intelligence, and is fully capable of returning to college if the whole poker thing doesn't work out.
Why wouldn't he take shots at the biggest games? When he loses – an inevitability for even the best poker players – he simply drops down to a game with smaller stakes, rebuilds his bankroll, and waits for the chance to take another shot. But when he wins…. No one's sure exactly how much money durrrr has, as it's an ever-changing number, but for several brief stretches lately he's been, at least according to the pixels on the screen, a millionaire.
The rest of the Ballas are doing their best to catch him. Most of them are now hundred-thousandaires. Good2cu has pushed his net worth close to $200,000. Raptor's earned enough money to buy himself a brand-new car – a sporty Subaru Impreza WRX – and is looking to buy a house with durrrr in Fort Worth.
The Ballas are brimming with confidence as they take their seats in the tournament room at the Atlantis, but, one by one, they get eliminated. Only FieryJustice makes it past the first day, hanging around long enough to win back his entry fee.
Not the experience they'd hoped for, but hardly the end of the world -- Paradise Island is aptly named. The sky is blue, the weather warm, the summer humidity a few weeks away. There are swimming pools and fruity drinks, plenty of craps and blackjack tables, and a murderer's row of waterslides, apparently designed by an imaginative child touched by madness: "The Abyss" begins with a 50-foot vertical drop into total darkness; "The Leap of Faith" travels through a lagoon stocked with sharks.
But this week the most popular attraction is the hotel lobby. The wireless Internet in the rooms doesn't work for shit, forcing guests to gather in the only decent hot spot. No matter what time of day or night, at least 50 young online players are there, hunched over their laptops, madly clicking away.
Amped by one of these sessions, Good2cu, Apathy, durrrr, and FieryJustice decide to pay a nighttime visit to the Mayan Temple. A random mom overhears their plans and, in need of some adult time (and possibly a stern talking-to in regards to good parental judgment), asks if her 16-year-old daughter can tag along. "Take good care of her," Mom says before disappearing into a bar.
The girl, half-mortified, half-intrigued, and probably a little drunk herself, attaches herself to the group. So does sublime8700, a Two Plus Twoer enjoying a long weekend away from the University of Michigan.
The Mayan Temple turns out to be closed -- an unsurprising development, given that it's past 2 a.m. What is surprising is that the lagoon full of sharks, with the minor exception of a waist-high railing, is wide open and easily accessible.
"This would never fly in America," observes FieryJustice. "There'd be like seven security guards here to keep some idiot from jumping in."
They all stare into the water. Lights line the pool, clearly illuminating the sharks as they make their predatory rounds.
"Two thousand dollars," says durrrr.
"What are you talking about?" asks the 16-year-old girl.
"I'll give anyone here two thousand bucks if they swim down and touch the bottom."
"Hell no," says Good2cu. "It's like 20 feet deep. Oh yeah, and it's filled with sharks."
"Fine. Three thousand."
"I might consider it," says FieryJustice, "for 50k."
"No fucking way," says Apathy, "but I'll kick in five hundred bucks if anyone's actually thinking about it."
"Me too," adds FieryJustice.
"Are you guys serious?" asks the girl. "That's enough to buy a car."
"A crappy one," laughs durrrr. "But, hey, if you do it, you can spend the money any way you want."
"If you're still alive," says Good2cu.
The girl appraises the tank. "You'll seriously give me $5,000 if I do it?"
"He's good for it," Apathy assures her.
Taking a deep breath, she takes off her shoes, strips down to her bikini, and steps out onto the ledge overlooking the pool.
A wave of terror and excitement passes through them: Holy shit. She's actually going to do it.
Several sharks draw near. The sight of them triggers an eruption of fear from some recessed area of her lizard-brain, and the girl, legs shaking, steps back from the edge. "No freaking way!"
For a moment, no one knows whether to be disappointed or relieved.
"Screw it," says sublime8700. "I'll do it for 5k."
sublime8700 started playing poker online a year ago. He's made enough money to be able to travel to the Bahamas, put himself up in a $300-a-night room, and enter a $5,000 tournament, but not enough to drop out of college and play the game for a living. For him, $5,000 isn't life-changing money, but it isn't chump change either.
Before he can change his mind, he whips off his shirt, climbs over the railing, and jumps into the water.
For a second, no one can believe he's actually done it.
Then panic sets in. durrrr runs to a nearby tree, trying to rip off one of its branches.
"What are you doing?!" Good2cu yells.
"Trying to find something to throw at the sharks!"
But sublime8700 is already pulling himself out of the water, no worse for wear, with a huge smile on his face.
Back in the lobby, durrrr transfers $5,000 into sublime8700's online poker account. Having swum with sharks and lived to tell about it, he's feeling about as good as a human being can without benefit of sex or drugs, and he doesn't want that sensation to go away. "I'm going to take a shot!" he announces to everyone within earshot.
Using the money he just won from durrrr, sublime8700 buys into a $25/$50 no-limit cash game, the biggest he's ever played. The adrenaline builds as he realizes he's sitting at the same table as Mike Matusow, a world famous pro (pictured at left).
Seconds later, sublime8700 gets dealt an ace and a queen, a premium hand with only five players in the game. There is a raise and a call in front of him, but his instincts tell him that neither player is particularly strong. He figures that if he bets all of his chips, he'll scare the other two players into folding, allowing him to win a decent-sized pot without too much stress.
But sublime8700 forgets to take one thing into account: while a $5,000 bet might feel intimidating to him, it means virtually nothing to Matusow, who has won and lost millions of dollars in his career. "Smells like ace-queen," Matusow types in the chat box before calling with a measly pair of deuces.
The odds are more or less 50/50, but the onus is on sublime8700 to improve. He needs to catch an ace or a queen to win the hand. Neither card arrives. Fifteen minutes after risking his life for $5,000, he's lost it all to Mike Matusow on a single hand of poker.
There are sharks, and then there are sharks.
-- Excerpted by permission from Ship It Holla Ballas! by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback. Copyright (c) 2012 by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback. Published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and iTunes.