At 8:24 PM here on the Isle of Man on Thursday, June 13th, 2013, PokerStars reached a mind-blowing milestone in our corporate history (and really in the history of poker) - we dealt our one hundred billionth hand of poker. Let me write that number out for you:
I won't try to draw any real world parallels, but suffice it to say few of us can wrap our heads around a number like that.
But I'm not here to talk about the size of the number; I want to talk about running the 100 billionth hand and how it's a proxy for how we got there in the first place.
I had the supreme honor of being the host for that hand. I got to tell the players what was happening, who won what, and so forth. But that was the easy part. Behind the scenes (where I was lucky enough to be), it was like Mission Control at an Apollo rocket launch.* My 30" monitor was covered with windows - three separate chat windows, my "script" for hosting the hand and, of course, the client itself.
*That's an exaggeration, obviously. But if all our people had been wearing white shirts, dark ties, and black-rimmed glasses, it might have looked somewhat similar.
One of those chat windows was a 20-way IM chat among many of the key staff members. The software developers, the CRM (Customer Relations Management) folks, the poker room management people, the tournaments people, customer support...
A note from the head of the poker room saying that we have over 250,000 real money players on the site...
See, as far as our 407,000 customers on PokerStars at that moment were concerned, it was just another day at the playground. Well, not just another day; it's not every day that we deal our 100 billionth hand of poker and give away a million dollars in half an hour. But our customers expected that our games would run just as smoothly and continuously as they have for almost 12 years now.
We had to make sure that the tsunami of poker players didn't cause any glitches.
"OLTP-MAIN is creeping up in the monitor"
One of our servers is beginning to show a little strain under the record crowds. The database team wants to be sure that the number of transactions doesn't affect the march toward 100 billion and asks the poker room to take down the play money Zoom games.
"PM Zoom is killed - last hands being dealt now..."
The poker room takes down the play money Zoom games; as soon as the big hand is over, they'll be brought back up.
The customer support manager chats that he'll get the message to our support representatives so they can answer the emails ("Hey - where'd our Zoom games go?!?!?").
As the counter on the client spins up, the chat actually slows - things are going according to plan. At 8:24pm the counter in the software client lobby counts down those last few hundreds of thousands of hands and then the message flashes up on the client:
The Milestone hand #100,000,000,000 is being dealt at Euryalos XI
The poker world and Twitter explode with the news while, in the meantime, there is "guarded optimism" in the IM chat.
"Here we go"
At the PokerStars office, people crowd around monitors, the CEO whips out his phone to take a picture of the table...
And, just as planned, the table pauses. I go to the chat box at Euryalos XI and type (actually copy/paste from the script):
Hi all - Welcome all to the final step in the Road to 100 Billion.
And we're off. I don't watch the IM chat - I'm too busy chatting at the table - but they had paused dealing at the table, and everybody is watching as the observer count at the table climbs to 20,000; 30,000; 40,000... by the time we actually deal the hand, 67,000 observers are watching a single hand of poker. That is approaching the capacity of Manchester United's Old Trafford. Visualize Old Trafford almost full of poker fans breathlessly watching the turn of a river card.
The hand goes off exactly as planned. A low-stakes poker player called "microulis69" wins $103,800 (and a $31.55 pot).
Payouts based on our bonus are calculated, double-checked, and approved for me to report to the players.
microulis69: $103,800 (biggest prize)
In the meantime, mission control continues their behind-the-scenes chat...
"Stake share 1% credited..."
Within seconds, the software has automatically begun crediting the "stake share" (over $830,000) to all players who were at $.02/$.05 no-limit hold'em tables when the magic hand (a $.02/$.05 no-limit hold'em game) was dealt. One of the senior poker room management people is reporting the status of the automatic crediting.
I sign off from the table with this:
And to everybody who contributed even one hand to this amazing total: thank you for playing at PokerStars.
The software and poker room teams aren't watching me; they're watching messages like this...
"Stake share 18% credited..."
"How is the lobby handling the rapid drop in players?"
And fairly rapidly, things return to normal at PokerStars. They do find a bottle of champagne** in the office, and the number of players on the site drops to a far more typical 150,000.
**The champagne is warm - getting bubbly ready was not at the top of anybody's to-do list.
Less than 24 hours later, in a $.10/$.25 no-limit hold'em game at table Agematsu VIII, player "T oleee2" collects a pot of $6.54 in hand #100,036,094,779. The button moves, a server shuffles a virtual deck, and the beat goes on.
Which is really the point here.
We didn't just wake up one morning and decide to deal hand number 100 billion; it doesn't work that way. Here's how you get to hand 100 billion: you do the job right, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for a dozen years, starting with hand #1.
In 100 billion hands, we are not aware of ever pushing a pot wrong (poker-speak for awarding the pot to the wrong player); it's unlikely we could do it without it getting noticed.
During those 100 billion hands, we've sent over 31 million emails to our customers. On most days, 85% of the emails we get from our customers are answered within an hour.
In the early days we recognised the importance of keeping player funds and operating capital segregated. Now that is a standard in most licensed jurisdictions and was fundamental in allowing us to cash out $125 million in American player balances within three weeks of leaving the U.S. market.
Our blog team has written and published almost 18,000 articles, keeping our players and the poker community at large informed about every aspect of PokerStars.
We have established our PS Live events as a gold standard around the world which players use as a metric for how live poker events should be run.
In short, PokerStars has developed the reputation that makes players start playing poker with us and stay with us. They trust us to provide the best software, the most reliable servers, world-class customer support, and fiduciary responsibility that many commercial banks would do well to emulate.
And thanks to those players and their trust, the hands roll over one by one, a thousand by a thousand, and ten million by ten million. So when hand #100,000,000,000 was dealt, it was monumental and yet simultaneously routine. It's just what we've been doing since late 2001 - dealing a fair game of poker and taking incredibly good care of poker players.
The warm champagne has gone flat and we've tossed out the leftovers from the pizza they brought in to sustain people as 100 billion approached. It's another day of dealing 50 million poker hands and there are customer emails to be answered within an hour.
Lee Jones is the Head of Poker Communications at PokerStars; he first joined the company in 2003. He has been involved in the professional poker world since the mid 1980's.