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Ship Those (Virtual) Chips: The Rise And Fall Of Online Poker's Youngest Crew

Ship It Holla Ballas by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback. (Courtesy Getty Images/Gallo Images)

In the early 2000s, the get-rich-quick scheme of choice for young college dropouts was poker — and not your grandfather's poker, with clinking chips on green felt tables. Online poker. For a few years it was a national obsession for a generation of young men who grew up playing hours and hours of video games.

Many of these players couldn't get into casinos because they were underage, but they used their brains and introductory statistics courses to rake in millions, often playing 10 or more games simultaneously on huge computer monitors.

The best of them formed the Ship It Holla Ballas. As a crew, they supported each other through marathon gaming sessions, and more importantly, partied like a rap-star's entourage.

In their new book Ship It Holla Ballas, authors Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback follow two members of the crew as they made enormous sums of money. Grotenstein tells NPR's Robert Smith neither crew member would qualify as a genius in a traditional sense, though they were both "highly intelligent."


Interview Highlights

On the title of the book

"It is a combination of three different terms: The first part, 'Ship It,' is an expression that you'll hear at the poker table often generally to express your pleasure when the chips are moving your way. ...

" 'Holla' actually came out of Shakespeare. ... That was sort of latched on as a way of saying, 'Right on!' when somebody said, 'Ship it.' ...

"A 'balla' was urban parlance for someone who was very good at basketball but has sort of grown to mean someone who is good at anything. So these kids were the Ship It Holla Ballas, a name that they chose both to separate themselves from the old farts who were already playing poker, and kind of an inside joke for themselves to seem a little bit more arrogant and maybe a little more extroverted than they actually were."

On the members of the Ship It Holla Ballas

"One of them was a high school athlete whose pitching career was cut short by a separated shoulder and kind of turned to poker as an outlet for that same kind of competitive energy that he had used on the baseball field. The name that he chose for himself was Raptor, which originally had been the name that he used on AOL's instant messenger.

"The other kid that we follow was named Good2cu. Good2cu was a kid from Michigan who grew up in a family that was kind of dissipating around him; his parents were going through a divorce, and [he] was also suffering from the typical awkward teenage stuff that a lot of kids go through — acne, trying to fit in, trying to find a girlfriend, loving computer games a lot more than he loved his schoolwork. Poker seemed like a dream for him, a chance to become the cool rockstar/poker player that he was seeing on TV."

On what gave them the edge

"Timing more than anything else. Nobody was yet treating the Internet as a completely different way of playing the game. So they turned to a site called Two Plus Two, which was a message board/clearinghouse for information about poker that was shared by a hive mind, a community of people who were really thinking about the game. When they stumbled into the area that was dedicated to these tournaments called Sit N' Gos, they discovered that a lot of people claimed they were almost literally minting money. ...

"What sort of united all of these kids was that they all treated poker like a business. When they talked about winning at the poker table they didn't talk about it in terms of 'Hey I won this much today,' but in terms of return on investment."

On the end of the era

"The United States government cracked down originally in 2008 with a set of laws ... that essentially outlawed online poker. And by the year 2010, online poker was effectively shut down in the United States and these kids were all forced to find something else to do with their time. ...

"Some of them went back to school. Some of them went back home and found real jobs in family businesses. Some of them were able to hold onto some of their money and use that to fund startup companies or do other things. And some of them decided that they had at this point become legitimate poker players and were ready to compete in the biggest games in the world and are still playing in those games and succeeding at those games."

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Transcript

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Every era has its seemingly surefire way for a young person to get rich quick. In the '80s, you went to Wall Street. In the late '90s, you could join a dot-com firm. And the odds, after the year 2000, the dream for greedy college students everywhere was to flop a full boat against a made flush. I'm referring here to poker, of course, specifically online poker. And for a few years, it was a national obsession on college campuses. People lost a lot of money, but a few - often young, social misfits - they made a killing. They used their brains and some introductory statistics courses to make millions. Jonathan Grotenstein is an author who followed a crew of these young people. And I feel like I should yell the title of your book.

JONATHAN GROTENSTEIN: It certainly sounds better when it's yelled.

SMITH: Yeah, do it.

GROTENSTEIN: "Ship it Holla Ballas!"

SMITH: Oh, I like you put the comma in there too. "Ship it Holla Ballas!" And what does this mean? Break it down for us. It's slang.

GROTENSTEIN: It is a combination of three different terms. The first part, ship it, is an expression that you'll hear at the poker table often, generally to express your pleasure when the chips are moving your way. Ship me that pot. Ship it to me. Holla is actually...

SMITH: A traditional greeting among young people.

GROTENSTEIN: ...a - yes. Among old people too. Actually, it came out of Shakespeare, but that was sort of latched on as a way of saying, you know, right on when somebody said ship it. So ship it holla. A balla was sort of urban parlance for someone who was very good at basketball but has sort of grown to being someone who's good at anything. So these kids were the Ship It Holla Ballas, a name that they chose, both to separate themselves from the old farts who were already playing poker, and kind of an inside joke for themselves to seem a little bit more arrogant and maybe a little more extroverted than they actually were.

SMITH: Yeah. I feel like a square just explaining this stuff.

GROTENSTEIN: Me too.

SMITH: So you and your co-author followed a group of young people who decided to forego college. They decided they didn't want to get a job. They decided they wanted to play online poker and make millions. And you describe them as the loudest, craziest and richest crew in poker. Tell me about a few of them.

GROTENSTEIN: Well, our book mostly concentrates on two of the kids. One of them was a high school athlete whose pitching career was cut short by a separated shoulder and kind of turned to poker as a way - an outlet for that same kind of competitive energy that he had used on the baseball field. The name that he chose for himself was Raptor, which had originally been the name that he used on AOL's instant messenger.

The other kid that we follow was named Good2cu. Good2cu was a kid from Michigan who grew up in a family that was kind of dissipating around him - his parents were going through a divorce - and was also suffering from kind of the typical awkward teenage stuff that a lot of kids go through - acne, trying to fit in, trying to find a girlfriend, loving computer games a lot more than he loved his schoolwork, and poker seemed like a dream for him, a chance to become the kind of, you know, cool rock star/poker player that he was seeing on TV.

SMITH: So over the course of the book, you follow Raptor and Good2cu as they make enormous sums of money. Were they geniuses?

GROTENSTEIN: Geniuses is a tough term to apply to these kids. They were highly intelligent. I'm not sure that either kid would qualify as a genius in any sort of traditional sense.

SMITH: So what gave them the edge?

GROTENSTEIN: Timing, more than anything else. Nobody was yet treating the Internet as a completely different way of playing the game. So they turned to a site called Two Plus Two, which was a message board, slash, kind of clearinghouse for information about poker that was shared by a hive mind, a community of people who were really thinking about the game.

And when they stumbled into the area that was dedicated to these tournaments called Sit N' Gos, they discovered that a lot of people claimed they were almost literally minting money at Sit N' Gos, that they were looking at the game in terms of how much am I going to win today as opposed to, ha, I wonder if I'm going to be able to beat this game.

SMITH: Well, there was something else about their timing. Not only were they there when Internet poker just started out, but this is also a moment when poker in general sort of entered the popular consciousness. 2003, there was an event that these young people looked at as sort of transformative.

GROTENSTEIN: Yes. In 2003, a guy named Chris Moneymaker, who was sort of, you know, the American everyman. He was an accountant from Tennessee who had won his way into the World Series of Poker in a $27 tournament that eventually got him onto poker's biggest stage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is the World Series of Poker. Chris Moneymaker going all-in with nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A stunning play for Moneymaker.

GROTENSTEIN: When Moneymaker beat a very well-known professional player named Sammy Barha on national TV, it kind of set the world on fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And considering this situation - I know we're early in the century - but that's the bluff of the century.

GROTENSTEIN: Suddenly, everybody realized that, you know, they could be the next Chris Moneymaker. And online poker seems to be the path to getting there.

SMITH: You know, you have this great moment in the book where Good2cu, who's a college student at the time, talks to his father about quitting college to play poker. And it reminded me of every moment at which a young person says, no, no, no, you don't understand. The world is changing. I have a way to make money you may not approve of.

GROTENSTEIN: Yes. I - that was exactly what it was. And to Good2cu's father's credit, he understood. He didn't necessarily approve but realized that his son had developed his dreams sitting on the couch watching the World Series of Poker with him. And to sort of make his case, Good2cu showed his father all of the meticulous records he had kept on his poker playing.

SMITH: He had spreadsheets, like, showing how much he was winning and losing every day with each game, his strategies, how many games he could play at the same time. I mean, he was running this like a business playing online poker.

GROTENSTEIN: That's exactly right. What sort of united all of these kids is that they all treated poker like a business. When they talked about winning at the poker table, they didn't talk about it in terms of, hey, I won this much today, but in terms of return on investment. If I invest this much time and this much money into a game, I can expect to see this kind of rate of return on that particular investment.

SMITH: And, you know, if they had been 30, 35, 40 years old, they would have been sober, smart businessmen, but they were not. They were 18, 19, 20 years old making a ton of money, and they acted like adolescents. True?

GROTENSTEIN: Yes. There is a scene in our book where in between throwing pieces of furniture off of a Mediterranean hotel window into the sea below, these kids are literally burning euros to light cigars.

SMITH: You know, well, people may have noticed that we're talking about this in the past tense. This was a limited era, the online poker playing era. What happened?

GROTENSTEIN: It lasted almost exactly 10 years. The United States government cracked down originally in 2008 with a set of laws that were tacked on to a Homeland Security bill that essentially outlawed online poker. And by the year 2010, online poker was effectively shut down in the United States and these kids were all forced to find something else to do with their time.

SMITH: So where did these kids that we follow in this book, where'd they go?

GROTENSTEIN: Some of them went back to school. Some of them went back home and found real jobs in family businesses. Some of them were able to hold onto some of their money and used that to fund startup companies or do other things. And some of them decided that they had, at this point, become legitimate poker players and were ready to compete in the biggest games in the world and are still playing in those games and succeeding at those games.

SMITH: Jonathan Grotenstein is one of the authors of "Ship It Holla Ballas!" Jonathan, thanks for speaking with us.

GROTENSTEIN: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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