Biggest poker tournament ever? Check!
Every year throughout the world millions of school children, adventurous teens and adults with an appreciation of the incredible all open up the world-famous Guinness World Records publication to find out the outrageous limits of human potential.
Usain Bolt is in there for breaking the 100m world record (9.58 seconds). Do Ya Think I'm Sexy crooner Rod Stewart pops up too, holding the record for the largest music concert in history when an estimated 4 million (!!) people turned up on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach to hear him perform. And it's impossible to miss Robert Pershing Wadlow who strides into the record books courtesy of being the tallest man of all time, measuring in at a whopping 8ft 11in.
In 2008, a very familiar name made its debut in the Guinness World Records book: PokerStars. On December 28th PokerStars broke the world record for the world's biggest ever poker tournament when a staggering 35,000 players registered for an $11 event. It could have been many more players too - to ensure that the tournament ran smoothly without any hiccups PokerStars capped the entrants at 35,000. It sold out days before the cards were in the virtual air. Of course, a $500,000 guarantee (which ensured an overlay of $115,000) helped bring the players to the yard too.
While the tournament was a smashing success, the endeavour was not without risk. Scott Byron, Senior Manager, Operations & Poker Services, recalled that 'any time that you push the limits, there is some risk. If we overloaded the server capacity, we could crash the site. This would both be costly and embarrassing, in that we are publicly going for a record and failing.'
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Bryan Slick, a Senior Manager Poker Room Operations, was another brainchild of the record attempt. He too was concerned that the PokerStars servers wouldn't be able to cope with that many players in one tournament but, when it came to player numbers, he was optimistic in his approach. '[I wasn't surprised] when the tournament sold out days in advance - we put a lot of effort into advertising it and ran many satellites. We could have got 50,000 players [if we hadn't capped it].'
As the clock ticked down to start time 35,000 pre-registered players waited excitedly for their chance to be a part of poker history. Behind the scenes at PokerStars HQ, that excitement was tempered with a fair amount of concern. As Byron explains, 'The critical moment in any large tournament is the start time. This is not just because of the actual seating itself (opening thousands of tables at once), but because of the need to update all of the lobbies of the participating players at the same time - this is a huge increase in simultaneous data flow from the servers to the players. In most of our world record attempts there is usually a short lag at the start, and that's when we hold our breath!'
One of those players experiencing a short lag was Ted Cook from Chicago, Illinois. At the time Cook was a 41-year-old pro who had transitioned from live poker to the online game like millions of others before him in the wake of Chris Moneymaker's 2003 WSOP win. Cook says, 'I was playing every day then! I started on PokerStars in 2007 and only played tournaments, especially ones with big huge fields.'
They didn't get any bigger than this 35,000 runner field. And, with just a few tables left Cook was still in the running and doing well. The man called 'FuFish' was picking up chips and, as Cook recalls, the chatbox was going crazy for him too: 'There was a story on the PokerStars Blog about the tournament and the guy writing it [Kristin Bihr] was talking about what a raucous rail I had! All of my friends were on there and when word got around that I was getting deep in this tournament they were all coming out of the woodwork. My friends were dominating the chatbox!'
While Cook and his companions were masters of the verbal arts, sadly that didn't translate into tournament glory. Cook was eliminated on the very first hand of the final table when his pocket Sevens lost a race. He picked up $1,500 for the ninth place finish but says, 'based on my chip stack I couldn't be too disappointed. I was 8th or 9th in chips and I lost a race. How can you really complain? When you survive a field of 35,000 people everybody on that final probably had to get lucky and come from behind three or four times. I know I sure as hell did!'
Cook may have narrowly missed out on a major score - the eventual winner stan34powa won $30,000 - but, for PokerStars, the tournament was a tremendous success. Not only did this event propel the company into the record books but, just as important, it set the stage for a series of even more impressive feats in the future.
In 2008 a tournament with 35,000 players was unheard of. Now, as Byron explains, it's standard. 'Technology keeps advancing, and with it so does our capacity. We can now run events with 35,000 players routinely - these days it's when we start getting up into the 200,000 player range that we're pushing the limits.'
Of course, that doesn't stop PokerStars from pushing the online poker envelope; in fact, it just spurs backroom staff like Scott Byron and Bryan Slick on. 'By 2011, we had run a world record tournament with 200,000 players', says Byron, 'in 2014 we reached 225,000 and in 2015 we reached 253,698 players in a $0.01 event.'
So why does PokerStars continue to attempt these record-breaking feats year after year? Byron says the answer is definitely not because they're profitable. 'We don't do these tournaments for profit; we lose money on them! These tournaments are a lot of fun, for us and for the players.'
Slick, meanwhile, sees it as PokerStars's duty not to rest on their laurels. He says, 'The size of PokerStars is such that people expect this kind of performance from us, so it's not really Earth-shattering when we do such things. It seems strange but it's true. As for the 2015 tournament [with 253,698 players], that was mind-blowing.'
In one cold December night in 2008 PokerStars shifted the boundaries of what was possible in the world of poker. The company hit the record books and an everyday pro from Chicago fell at the final hurdle. It wouldn't be the last time that the Guinness World Records would hear from PokerStars, but that's a story for another day...
Other stories from this series:
Meet PokerStars' longest-serving player of all time
The ghosts of WCOOP
The Moneymaker Boom that almost wasn't
Alexander Stevic and the start of a new era in poker
The PokerStars Sunday Million Two-Timer Club
Smile! You're on Kid Poker Camera!
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Ross Jarvis is a writer for PokerStars