Remind Ed Hill about his old PokerStars player icon. Remind him that it was a cartoon cat looking back at a wary dog just on the edge of the frame.
No matter how long it’s been, Hill hasn’t forgotten about that cat.
“It’s got a mistletoe hanging from its tail,” Hill says, waiting for you to get the joke. When you don’t, he fills in the punch line.
“Kiss my ass,” he says.
It’s been nearly 15 years since poker players from around the world started choosing avatars to represent them on what would eventually become the world’s biggest online poker site. Some of those icons would come to represent opponents as scary and notorious as anyone you might find in a live poker room.
Hill’s clever cat and his screen name, animalmother, could easily have been the kind you wanted to avoid when you hit the table today. If things had been different, he might be the kind you see on the WCOOP leader boards every year.
As it is…well, imagine a cat with mistletoe on its tail and draw your own inference.
Three decades before the first World Championship of Online Poker, Ed Hill was finishing up a degree in statistics when a professor recommended a book.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, so I bought the book he was telling me to buy,” Hill said.
The book was a blackjack strategy book, the kind that could make a man like Hill modestly wealthy in a matter of months, the kind that could make a man like Hill unwelcome in casinos up and down the Vegas Strip.
“For anybody who is mathematically inclined, blackjack is a no-brainer,” he said. “I came out here with a thousand bucks in ’76, and I had $40,000 in three months.”
For five years, a half-decade in which Hill admitted he was lucky he didn’t go broke by ignoring bankroll management, Hill worked the casinos and built a roll that would ensure he’d never work a square job in his life.
By 1981, Hill fell victim to the same fate as many blackjack pros. Casinos didn’t want his business at the blackjack tables anymore.
“I was fooling around with poker just for something to do when I wasn’t playing blackjack,” he said. “I was starting to do well playing poker just about the time they started throwing me out of everywhere. So, I just went from blackjack to poker.”
Hill remembers juicy games in the early 80s, ones that were easy to beat with the kind of regularity that was frowned upon at the blackjack felt. Hill had found a seat in the game, one he had no plans of giving up.
And then he found PokerStars.
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Hill had already had his fair share of success by the time PokerStars showed up in 2001. He logged on, loaded up his cat avatar, and went to work, nearly leaving behind his Vegas poker life he’d curated over the past 20 years.
“For a few years, the only live poker I played was the [WSOP] Main Event,” Hill said. “Other than that, I played entirely online.”
In 2002, PokerStars hosted the World Championship of Online Poker, and Hill ended up at the very first WCOOP Main Event final table. Looking back at the list of people who cashed that year, it’s easy to see historic names like Pete “TheBeat” Giordano, Shae “-db-” Drobushevich, and Dustin “neverwin” Woolf. It’s harder to find many people are still active players today. The combination of time, fate, and Black Friday has turned many of the players from that first WCOOP into online poker ghosts.
This month, PokerStars is celebrating the fact it has signed up 100 million players since 2001. So many times during that 15 years, the compulsion to crown some of those players as legends of the game has been unavoidable. For a period of months or even years they seemed unbeatable. Sometimes, though, those would-be legends’ ascents would end up defining the often-misused description of “meteoric,” those bright flashes that fade and ultimately disappear.
Searching for ghosts is unsettling business. A deep dive into that first list of WCOOP cashers reveals less about the people who pocketed money and more about the fickle nature of fate. In 2002, poker was just beginning to understand the power the online game might one day realize. That first WCOOP Main Event nearly 14 years ago produced names that everyone might have thought could be legendary. Instead, many are now simply parts of history, good and bad. Whether done in by their own hand or squashed by the game’s evolution, nearly every one of those players has vanished into the ether.
Existentially, this is a terrifying reality for anyone currently running good. On the flip side, there is some schadenfreude for the people who can’t seem to catch a break.
For people like Ed Hill, it’s a shrug of the shoulders. Though you may not see the name on the list of today’s poker celebrities, Hill has been described by one Vegas insider as “one of the smartest poker people I’ve ever met.”
Be sure of this: Ed Hill is no ghost.
In the first years of WCOOP, Hill would end up making two big final tables. His last big finish was a $71,000 score in the 2008 running of online poker’s world championship. After that, you could still find him up and down the Vegas Strip, but his time in online came to a quiet end. The games got tougher and Black Friday turned off the lights for a man who is happiest in Las Vegas.
“I’m still playing poker,” Hill said. “It’s all I’ve ever done. This is year 40. I still got all the money I won.”
Hill is now 62 years old, and he longs for a day when online poker could return to America and bring a new generation of gamble-happy players back to the tables. Those were the good days, the ones when he was happy to leave the Vegas poker rooms behind for a life of online poker and the occasional round of golf. For now, those relaxed days are behind him, but he’s not stopped grinding.
“You still win. You just don’t win the way you used to win,” he said of his daily Vegas games. “The average opponent plays way better than they used to. I mean, this isn’t like finding money anymore.”
When it’s being kind, poker will make a man forget how easy it is to become a ghost of the game. When poker is being villainous, it reminds a man how dispensable he really is.
If you’re Ed Hill, you figured this out a long time ago, back before there was such a thing as online poker, back before the WCOOP final tables, and back before Black Friday changed everything. If you’re Ed Hill, you know that no matter how the game changes, no matter who comes and goes, no matter what laws may change, poker will always be a way he can make a living.
And if you don’t believe him, he’s a got a picture of a cat and some mistletoe for you.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said.
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Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging.