A pause in the action
All of the watercooler talk regarding high-stakes online play these days surrounds the player simply known as "Isildur1." Whether the mystery man is losing $1.3 million pots, winning $5 million off Tom "Durrrr" Dwan or just refusing to out his identity to the world, he's casting a shadow over the rest of the online poker community.
"He has an incredibly aggressive style and all the players who are playing right now have very aggressive styles," said Brian Townsend, who, amongst others, has played for a significant amount of time with "Isildur1." "When two guys like that play heads up pot-limit Omaha, the game is played really aggressively and the money goes in a lot. Both players are getting good prices on their bluffs or semibluffs. What look to a lot of people like really spewy plays are pretty standard because you're almost never worse than 2-1. You get huge swings because of that."
All this recent action is obfuscating another big development. While "Isildur1" splits his time between playing heads up with Townsend, Dwan, Patrik Antonius, Phil Ivey and Ilari "Ziigmund" Sahamies, there are a number of customary big-game players who have been curiously absent from the action.
For the past couple of years, Phil "OMGClayAiken" Galfond, Hac "trex313" Dang, and Hac's brother Di "urindanger" Dang have been regulars in the biggest online games in the world on Full Tilt Poker. Now that the spotlight's been shone on those games more brightly than ever, the three have been curiously absent despite "Isuldur1's" massively fluctuating bankroll seeming to offer an opportunity to reach previously unattained heights.
Galfond and the Dangs stepped back in part because their customary games dried up.
"I stopped playing for a month or so when the pot-limit Omaha went away," Hac recalled. PLO had been the game of choice among the high rollers, but the action was trending toward "seven-game," a rotation of PLO, no-limit hold 'em, limit hold 'em, Omaha, razz, seven-card stud and seven-card stud eight-or-better. "I'd hoped for PLO to come back, but it never did. I started learning seven-game. I played $200/$400 and $400/$800 and sat $2,000/$4,000 when the rotation was good. When 'Isildur1' came in though, the seven-game stopped running."
With "Isildur1's" style of play leading to the biggest hands ever seen online, even these nosebleeders are wary of getting back into the action.
"I have taken a step back," said Galfond, who was ranked ninth in ESPN.com's player rankings. "Just starting the last month. I mean, mainly it was just a financial decision. I've been on a small downswing and have spent a lot of money on my home and travel and realized a big downswing in the big games would put me in a bad position. I don't want to risk it."
"We've all been learning seven-card together, so when Phil took a step back, that played a role in my doing so too," said Di. "I've also been really busy, doing things on the side, starting a restaurant and training really hard for football. The last few days, I've been grinding no-limit hold 'em, $50/$100 ante or $100/$200. I'm rusty from not playing in two months. There are a lot of spots where I'm nervous, not quite sure what I should do. Also, the players have gotten better, evolved in the last two months. I'm not ready yet. I guess you know you're ready when your confidence comes back. I'm still really shaky on a lot of spots. I hope I'll get it back soon."
Barry Greenstein, who has seen more than a few shooting poker stars come and go, is objective in his assessments.
"Skills can deteriorate," said Greenstein, a regular in the biggest live cash games in the world. "For older guys, it can be because of age. For the younger players, it's staying in stroke [maintaining a playing rhythm]. These guys who are playing every day in stroke, they'll stay there. A lot of people disappear because they lose their edge."
"Galfond is a great player," Greenstein praised. "Some people say he has to play 'Isildur1' or he's not that good. In sitting back, he's just saying we're playing for a lot of money and he doesn't see the value in taking on a challenge. He's still a good player. A lot of the good young guys are laying low because the games aren't as lucrative right now. There are major contributors who aren't playing right now, the games are toughening up at all levels It's good management to avoid the games right now. Even with a small edge, with the volatility 'Isildur1' brings, it is way over everyone's bankroll. We see the railbirds criticize anyone who isn't a kamikaze pilot, but it's a sign of maturity if nothing else. If you lose, that money may not be easy to make back again because the poker economy isn't as good as a couple of years ago. A guy like Tom Dwan is going to have to go back to work at lower stakes to rebuild his roll."
"Thing is, there's a lot of times where certain people including myself need a fish at the game in order to play," said Hac. "That's just how it is in poker. You need a reason to play and without one there's not much point in playing. There are guys like Antonius and Ivey who are really good and have a lot of money and are so close to the top in any game so it doesn't matter. And they're playing to be the best, which is worth a lot to them. I'm not at the top. I don't consider myself one of the best three in the world or better than them, so I'm not going to wager money I can't afford to be gambling."
"I see a lot of money going back and forth and it's tempting to get back in," Galfond reflected. "Every day, someone's winning $1.5 million and I'd like it to be me, but the risks are bigger too. I need to make sure I'm rolled for those games. These are business decisions. I just don't think it's smart for me to play the best games right now."
"These young kids were never at the top," said Greenstein. "They just had a good run. They are great players, but not because of the number of hands they've played or the money they've won but it's because of who they've beaten."
When the fish return, these three will come with them. Although much of the online poker community is obsessed with the prestige of being the best and living a certain lifestyle, for Galfond and the Dang brothers, it's about the bottom line.
"I don't want to be the best," reflected Hac. "It's something I do well. I'd be lying if I said I was here to be the best. I'm here for monetary reasons. It makes it so I don't need a job and it is fun. There's no point to sitting around and playing regulars who are as aggressive, smart and as good as you are. You're all just sitting around trying to beat one another and it keeps going in circles."
As "Isildur1's" hot streak seems to be coming to a close, the games should calm down enough to lure the producers back into the game. When they return, so too will Galfond and the Dangs. Until then, they're content to sit on the sideline and wait.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.
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