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Online poker fever

Raúl Mestre, 29, is Spain's top player of Texas Hold 'em and is the only Spaniard to have faced off with the world champion, Jungleman12. His initial investment was just 80 euros, but he has turned that into millions. After retiring at age 27, he has created an army of players who practice his own winning style

One morning in late May, Raúl Mestre woke up with terrible backache. He'd spent the night in agony caused by the sharp pains shooting through his lower spine. "You have the beginnings of a slipped disc. Either you take care of yourself or it's going to get worse," the physiotherapist told him. Mestre spent the rest of that day gritting his teeth and leaning his 1.90m-plus frame against the walls to relieve the pain. "I'm getting old," he said, prompting his friends to make fun of him about his "life of a retiree."

This is the story of a 29-year-old Valencian, known online as SirDonaldRM, who retired from the virtual poker tables at the age of 27, and is probably the best online poker player in Spain. He is certainly one of its first legends, and the only one to sit down face to face with the greatest players on Earth - young men like Daniel Cates, a 22-year-old American known as Jungleman12, who drives a Lexus ISC costing $40,000 and whose 2010 earnings were estimated at $5.5 million.

"I won't tell you whether I've made one million or four million euros"

Mestre often wears sunglasses so people won't see him doze off between hands

Mestre is probably the online poker player who has made the most money in this country, although he will not reveal exactly how much. The money comes from an economic activity of questionable justification, on which, typically, no taxes are paid. The winnings, of course, must be spent in small amounts or else laundered. All he will say is things like: "I won't tell you whether I've made one million euros or four million euros," "I feel I will not have any financial problems in my life," and "What does it take for me to be able to buy myself a Lamborghini? Three weeks of work?" He sums up his philosophy thus: "The key to retirement is not how much you make, but how much you spend."

Mestre is a prime example of a new breed to emerge thanks to the internet, an environment that produces two kinds of poker player: "One has a good time, the other makes money." He belongs to the second category. His is a lineage of studious, cold, disciplined, nocturnal and solitary individuals. In his mind, poker leaves the realm of chance to flirt with statistics, ratios, probabilities and matrixes: databases are exploited, and any minuscule advantage over the opponent is squeezed to the limit.

Raúl says he must have played "between three and four million hands" in the four years that he played full time, which entailed sitting 14 hours a day in front of four computer screens, playing at 16 tables simultaneously and making decisions every second and a half. Mestre talks hurriedly, spitting words out like bullets from a machine gun. "Poker is repetitive. If you want to make money, then forget about passion. It's about making the most profitable move on average. It's about resolving the same puzzle again and again with different pieces."

He admits that he has always been good at mind games. At the age of 13, he played his first card tournament with a Star Wars pack of cards, in which the players were divided into the good side and the dark side of the force. Since Raúl lived in Valencia and the tournament was being held in Madrid, he came to an agreement with his parents: he would not spend the night in the capital. So he took a late bus, got to Madrid at 6am and started playing at 9am. He reached the finals, but lost his last game because he was falling asleep. "They had to wake me up four times," he recalls.

The same thing happens to him when he plays face-to-face poker. He often wears sunglasses so people won't see him doze off between hands. But Mestre is essentially a digital animal, trained in the logic of role-play and video games. At the age of 15 he and some friends rented an apartment where they spent their afternoons playing military real-time strategy game Starcraft and collectible trading-card game Magic: The Gathering. Raúl's mother says he used to fill shoeboxes with packs of cards. In 2001 he placed eighth in a Magic international tournament and made 400,000 pesetas (2,400 euros), money that he spent on a more powerful computer.

But he never turned his back on his studies. Or rather, they were no effort for him. "I barely needed to study," he recalls. "When I understand the logic behind things, I have a good memory." He was admitted into chemical engineering school because this career motivated him "as little as all the others," and he began spending more time in other universes. He became the reigning champion of Warcraft III in Spain. And right around then, between 2002 and 2003, some friends told him about online poker. He had no idea how to play, nor was he particularly attracted to the game. But it looked like another way to make a bit of money. He learned Texas Hold'em, the most popular form of poker, and discovered that there was a lot of money to be made there. "People played so badly! They gave their money away like idiots," says Mestre, meaning that people were betting in statistically unfavorable situations.

It's not all about the math. Even the worst player has a realistic chance of winning, since the cards are dealt out randomly, and you could always end up with the hand of a lifetime. But the normal turn of events is that you are dealt average cards, and if players ignore the most basic statistical notions, they will end up losing in the long run.

This is what happens to 90 percent of online players: only an estimated four to seven percent actually make money in the long term. There are few sharks and many fish in the water (the terminology is theirs). It is a remorseless game in which nobody asks who is on the other side of the screen, and whether they are betting some loose change or their children's college tuition. It is a lot like a video game. There are lineups to join the table when a fish injects some liquidity into the circuit. There can be 60,000 users connected every second, according to pokerscout.com.

Online poker has become one of the most explosive businesses of the 21st century, posting double-digit growth. Not long ago, the operator with the largest market share, Pokerstars, reported that 60 billion hands had been dealt on its site. And no matter who wins, the house always gets five percent of each bet. Although nobody will put forward categorical figures, annual profits are estimated at around five billion euros. In Spain, where the trend began around 2005, online casinos made around 85 million euros last year, according to the Spanish Association of Internet Bettors (Aedapi). Figures on players are less precise. Some people talk about 30,000 monthly users, others say 700,000.

Global casinos began operating out of tax havens, taking advantage of the internet's lack of borders. In Spain, where there was a legal gap until recently, a new Gaming Law went into effect in May forcing operators to get a license, to be headquartered somewhere in the European Economic Space, to pay the state 25 percent of profits and for their websites to have a Spanish domain name (ending in .es). Further legal developments are considering limits on betting, and the tax agency is also planning stricter control over players.

"It was a sector in which practically nobody declared their earnings," explains Laura Guillot, a lawyer who specializes in the gaming industry. But the big players, the pros, have been "castrated" by the new legislation. This opinion is shared by Mario V., aka Canfron, a computer programmer in his thirties who spends half the day in an office job and the other half playing at 12 or 14 poker tables at a time, an activity that is more lucrative than his day job. "Some [players] have started emigrating to England," he says. Although he lives in Spain, he travels to Italy once a month to pick up the wads of bills he makes from an illegal poker website.

Raúl Mestre started out by playing at a single table, but four months later he discovered a virtual room where he could open up several tables simultaneously. "I said to myself: Damn, I can get rich here!" He realized he was going to need more time, and so he informed his parents that he would be taking a year off from college to devote all of his efforts to online poker. If things went badly, he would go back to school. His parents hit the roof. The son of a copy editor at a regional newspaper and a housewife who helped grandpa out in the fields, Raúl was raised in a culture of personal effort. But he says he got the chills just imagining himself in a regular job, "with two kids, a mortgage, a boss making my life miserable... and without being able to walk away. That's the window of opportunity I saw in poker."

All the capital he's amassed is built on the 80 euros he placed in an account the first time he sat at a virtual table. He turned into a professional from one day to the next. Almost nobody understood him. "I had to prove that I was not being crazy. My need not to fail was very strong. Fortunately, I don't feel that way any more. When you start playing a lot, it's really hard work. I gave myself one free afternoon a week. All my waking hours were spent working."

But has he ever felt addicted?

"Define addicted," comes the response.

Did he ever think at any point: I have to stop this...

"Well for me it's like, let's say, grabbing a pick and heading down a mine," he explains. "I could get hooked on picking potatoes. I've never played poker like a hobby. I couldn't ever imagine that."

But there are some players who fall into gambling addiction. Scientific studies estimate that between 0.5 and one percent of the population gets pathologically hooked on various forms of gambling. Poker has always had its victims, but the consequences of its online version are still not very visible.

"It's very recent. When you get a new trend with the lure of easy money, a period of time usually elapses before its devastating effects become evident," says Enrique Echeburúa, a professor of clinical psychology at the Basque Country University and author of El juego patológico (or, The pathological game). Nobody loses a home or a business in a day. "But the risk is there. Online poker, and internet gambling in general, paves the way to a very high addiction level because of the absence of barriers."

Mestre's spacious fifth-floor apartment has two bathrooms. In each one, over the sink, there is a thick book on gaming and probabilities, Heads Up and The Odds in Sports Betting. He says he is trying to bring both together. While he studied and developed his own theories, he began writing articles for Poker-red.com, a digital magazine created by Simón Muñoz, the friend who first told him about poker. Later he started his own blog, dropping pointers about his playing technique. He got friends hooked on the game, and made a name for himself among the pros.

In 2007, Raúl made a quantum leap. He was hired by the betting house Unibet to promote their brand in Spain, and the company also suggested the creation of a team to go to real tournaments and play at virtual tables, in order to attract more players (and more money) to the game. And that is how Mestre began building his army, just like he used to do in the role-play games that he played. He instructed them as though he were training Jedi knights: study, discipline, leave all emotions behind when placing a bet ("Anger leads to hate," as Yoda says). Most of them were colleagues from his Magic and Starcraft days, with few or no notions about poker. He trained them to play short stacks and bet aggressively. It is an uncomfortable strategy, and was not common at the time. But there are many players at the bottom of the pyramid placing small bets; the number of players diminishes as the wagers grow. Quite a few poker soldiers served time in Mestre's living room. At one point there were 17 of them chipping away at the digital mine, alert to any new schools of fish in the ocean.

Ignacio González, publisher of the magazine Planet Póquer, says about Mestre: "He represents the most exaggerated figure of the statistical poker player. He is considered a real professor. He is a scholar, an analyst, Spain's top figure. I think he is a great mathematician and a great teacher."

These days, Mestre runs a larger space on Valencia's college campus where twentysomethings learn his technique, as taught by his lieutenants. Players from all over Spain line up for a chance to attend. Mestre's employer pays for the whole thing. Raúl goes by every afternoon, before or after stopping at his company, Aureka, which is home to the magazine Poker-red and to Educapoker, the largest online poker school in Spanish, with nearly 60,000 users. "I'm a better player now than I was two years ago," he says. "I could make more money. But I'm doing what I like."