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

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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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