Monday, March 13, 2006


Here's the mondogonzowacko entry among the internet's poker venues. With bizarre, color-rich graphics that owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Williams (if not an LSD flashback or two), one of FullTilt's foci is immediately clear: serving up the eye candy as a way to keep customers interested in the site's action.

Of course, there's more to FullTilt than the mondo-flashy feel and slicker-than-average software; the site also boasts a top-heavy marketing approach, with a large American advertising budget and a paid-huckster lineup of many of the game's biggest poker names. Even better, these players --- instantly identifiable by name and customized avatar --- make random appearances on the garbage tables, presumably as part of their endorsement contracts. (More on that elsewhere on this page.) So you have a chance to watch the pros, games and strategies bared for all to see, that you don't get anywhere else. This isn't to say that the big names aren't online anywhere else, but for the most part, you can't tell... unless you've rubbed your Magic Divining Poker Chip and gleaned that the user with the handle "SN_Nord_164" on is, say, Gus Hansen.

That said, go to FullTilt if you want to learn their complete lineup of endorsers; said huckstering is their job, not mine. Except for a personal tale of me at a table with Phil Ivey [second sidebar at right], you'll not find a whiff of a FullTilt plug here.

So, top-end advertising aside, how has FullTilt been drawing users to its site? The tried-and-true method, of course: offering a nice signup bonus to new users. In fact, FullTilt offers one of the biggest new-user bonuses around, a 100% match bonus up to $600. And it seems there's always a 50% reload offer to be had, too.

And yet... (Notice how there's always an "And yet..." to these stories?) FullTilt's bonuses are generous, but are notoriously tough to clear. I was still learning the ropes of bonus-whoring and working on a miniscule budget when I gave FullTilt a whirl, with the result that I made a first deposit of only $150, rather than $600. In retrospect, it was one of the wisest decisions I've made. More than once I almost cut my losses and ran, though I came out all right at the end of my time in FullTilt BonusPurgAtory.

Because, it turns out, your FullTilt bonus clears in a significant way only when you win a hand, so there's no hanging around, leaving the LAG's (Loose-Aggressives) to do the dirty work and pay for the rake. And owing to this, the low-limit fixed games are about as tight/weak as they come. Despite these being 9-player tables, not 10, you'll still have a hard time finding a table with a flops-seen percentage much over 30. And I'm talking about games as low as .25/.50! Squeeze those quarters, kiddies; I know I do, though usually at mildly higher stakes! Play gets a bit skittish, too, with players jumping from one table to the next searching for some sort of an edge, or just from being tired of taking bad beats from some talking eggplant boasting a snarly grin from petal to petal. So even though you've got a 9-player max, you won't find very many tables where the seats stay full; you'll end up jumping around, just like everyone else, trying to find the action.

As for the effects on play, I was getting out-tight/weaked for a long time, my bankroll struggling to stay steady as my incremental bonus payouts barely matched the mild losses incurred by my play, and at the slow clearance rates, the annoyance factor is magnified. But hey, I'm learning how this game works myself: I recognized the effects of the tight/weak party, began making the adjustment to a more aggressive post-flop style, and started to turn the corner. I can therefore state that playing on FullTilt, bankroll issues aside, did improve my game. My game has lots more room for improvement, too. By the time I cleared my $150 match bonus, my overall bankroll (including that $150 bonus) was up to about $380. I've done worse. But at .50/1 and 1/2, it's like pulling teeth.

Heh. Speaking of teeth, that brings us back to those mondogonzowacko avatars and background images. Each user can select an avatar for usage from a library of 50 or more choices. Not only is there a selection of crazed-but-sterotypical images, but you can also choose various animals or inanimate objects, such as a rock. Get it, a "rock"? Rimshot, please. Here's the "ba-da-bing" as well. Shark, fish, and all the other poker syllogisms are therein personified, too. (As an aside, there's one black-boxer avatar that looks more than a bit like Mike Tyson, and when that avatar's mood is set to "angry" (next paragraph) I swear you can see a bit of Evander Holyfield's ear in the pseudo-Tyson's mouth.)

Each of the avatars can also be made to appear in one of four emotional states: normal (usually mildly happy in appearance), happy (for this, think of PeeWee Herman on a sugar high), angry (ditto with PeeWee, but now when the cops storm the porn theatre) and confused. The pros, when you encounter them, have their own customized avatar-caricatures. So do all four Chris Ferguson avatars look the same?

As for game variety, FullTilt adds razz (7-card "lowball" stud) to the standard mix of games. Is it the only site offering this game? Being a razz player must be a "cult" thing, after all: I remember T.J. Cloutier at the final table of ESPN's 2004 WSOP Razz coverage, saying, "I hate this damn game." I might be misremembering the "damn" part, or I might not. Still, he was in the final three (with Ferguson and Moneymaker) when he said it. No wonder razz didn't make the '05 ESPN schedule.

Again, I'm not sure if any other sites offer razz, so if you want to learn this variant, FullTilt might well be the place to go. They even run occasional tourneys, usually promoted with chat-window text like the following: "Hurry up and join our $1 Razz Tourney before you come to your senses!" Now that's a game with an image problem.

Back to the software --- its slickness fits well with the in-your-face graphics. I've played three tables at once without problems, despite my running an old clunker, and it's possible to have fourth and fifth windows open and working as well. Sneak a peek between hands to check out the merchandise in the FullTilt store; I snagged a hat with my bonus points, free of charge. (Thank you, FullTilt. It's a nice gesture on your part. Though that poster showing the stars posed in the alley --- oops, that's Fremont St. --- is still the nth degree of poker dorkiness.)

Another nice touch: For any bonus you're working on, you can view your progress in real time. A few other sites can match this, but none exceed it. And the bonuses are paid out in real-time increments, too, complete with popup-window notification. That's the way to do it.

Cash and carry? No problems depositing or withdrawing. I always have that first-time-dread syndrome when trying either a deposit or a withdrawal, never quite knowing (or trusting) what I'm getting myself into. But the deposit was fast and easy, and both of my system withdrawals were processed in a little over a day... nice plus marks there, as well.

Overall? Playing at FullTilt can only be described as a unique experience. It's not a quick path to riches, due to the extreme tightness of the games, but it does have other rewards. FullTilt has a long way to go before they'll become a dominant online force, but they're doing lots of things right. One wonders about their bankroll, in the long run; with their reliance on top-heavy advertising celebrity endorsers and splashy gimmicks, even the most well-funded of operations dances a finer wire than the rest. It'll be interesting to watch FullTilt's future.

Time For a $&%^tail?

One thing you'll discover after playing for a bit at FullTilt is that the chat window employs auto-censoring software, replacing George Carlin's seven deadly words (and then some!) with their $%^&#%@ equivalents. Whether this is a plus or a minus is left to the user; I consider swearing in a chat window to be one of the most cheapest, moronic forms of intimidation a player can attempt. Whether the player doing the cussin' is on tilt isn't the point; others do at as a way to try to tilt their opponents. It doesn't work on me, though, thanks! :-)

Anyhow, FullTilt's censoring software is a bit aggressive, wiping out a whole lot of otherwise legitimate stuff in the interest of keeping the sight of an erstwhile "$%@&!" from our otherwise-pure-as-an-angel's orbs. So one day, after my internal light bulb flickered to life, I clued in my table on the FullTilt programmers' excess.

"Hey, all," I typed --- or, at least, this is what appeared -- "I think I'm in the mood for a #*@!tail tonight. Then I'm going to watch some reruns on NBC... always loved that pea%&#& logo of theirs. There's going to be a marathon of old Baretta reruns --- always loved his pet $*#%ateel, Fred, too!"

Me, Ivey and the Railbirds of a Feather

I mentioned in the main review that at FullTilt you, too, might get a chance to play with a pro. This carries a hefty chunk of intrinsic "neatness" value, since the vast majority of us are never going to be able to sit down in the upper level of the poker room at the Bellagio and play some $1,000/$2,000 with Ivey in person. Why is Ivey doing this? Because he's getting paid to, of course; he and the other celebrity players on the FullTilt roster have signed on to do this penance as a way to reap their (probably hefty) financial rewards.

Penance is the right word, too. Surfing on down to the garbage tables where players like me chop away might not be as putrid a skill level of game action as it sounds, but when it comes to the flock o' (rail)birds that accumulate, well, as the saying goes, "There's got to be a better way."
Backfill time. One Friday night in the middle of July, after just having left a 1/2 table that dropped from nine to four players in the wink of an eye, imagine my surprise, scanning the front-page boards, to see the title of a neighboring table turn red. This is FullTilt code for "Pro Player Seated Here." I clicked on in, and sure enough, Phil Ivey (?!?!) was at the table. The table was full, of course, but since it was my stakes and not much else was available, I joined the waiting list. This put me first in line, but soon enough there 60 or so others right behind me. Sixty friggin' people thinking they're going to get a chance to play?? In yer dreams, people! But one can hardly blame the attempt --- after all, who doesn't want to rub shoulders with greatness?

Which is exactly why FullTilt does this, after all; it's damn good for business. Or, as Phil carefully stated it when someone queried him as to why he was slumming with us losers: "There was a request."

Now, we'll take it at face value that the person behind the customized "Phil Ivey" icon was indeed Phil, despite this being a Friday night, when the fish action on a live floor could be presumed to be at its peak. After all, some buddy of his could, in theory, log on using his account, do some of this table-appearance hopping, and make everyone happier all around. (As someone who's worked with professionals and endorsement contracts, I'd say it's a given that each pro poker player under contract to FullTilt has to spend a pre-specified number of hours playing trash poker with the hoi polloi like me.) (As an aside, never get me started on the veracity quotient of famous athletes like E.R. or B.R. or J.M.,Jr.; I have rather more than third-person knowledge of a myriad of celebrity hijinks... and am even bound by a nondiscloure agreement or two.)

Anyway, here was Phil, playing away, politely answering some of the questions inevitably tossed his way. And I soon got my seat, as one of the other players at the table --- maybe player "Acadian" (a friendly sort, most of the time) --- allowed the first waiting person (me) to share in the experience.

I sat down, said hi to Phil and all, thanked him for his time --- because I knew the score of why he was there. And I had an inkling of what was about to happen.

It didn't take long.

Like the crescendo of drunks outside an overcrowded football stadium restroom, the railbird chat became ever more incessant and antagonistic. "Hey, Phil!" said one. "Can you waggle your big ears for us?" (This referred to the custom Ivey avatar on display at the table; it also has four "moods", should Ivey choose to show them off. But as for the chat, it quickly started scrolling so fast one couldn't keep up, especially Ivey, the target....

"You and me, Ivey! You're not so tough!"

"I've got $50. Let's go heads-up at the Omaha table!"

"$50? I've got $100! Let's get it on, Phil!"

"Loved it when Moneymaker gave you that bad beat!"

"You ain't so tough. I've got your $^& covered!"

... and more, much more, and nastier, ever nastier.

Fucking morons, all. Mindless taunts aside, does any person not verifiably of "idiot" mentality believe that Phil Ivey actually needs Joe Blowhard's $50 of heads-up action? That Phil couldn't do just fine walking down to the floor of the Bellagio or the Mirage, there relieving some of the ever-present fish of a whole lot more than that? Those fishies would only be too happy to donate as long as they can bathe themselves in the fame of playing with an Ivey or a Ferguson or a Lederer... just as we enjoy playing them on FullTilt, sucking up to them and telling you about it all on sites like this.


Well, to dispense with the game part of the story, I played my normal tight/still-too-passive style, then managed to win a big pot from Ivey when I ran him off a hand where a Q-J-10 rainbow flopped and an 8 came off on the turn. I had Q-Q that hand, and I believe he had A-Q suited, but I'll never know, will I? He could have had 9-9, but we'd capped it pre-flop, so I was pretty sure he wasn't on K-9, and I bet hard trying to sell him on my pretend A-K while hoping he didn't have the same. And I guess he didn't have the 9-9, either, though I was quite willing to pay him off to see it or the dreaded slick, knowing that I had at least a solid second-best.
Anyway, back to the railboors. By this time the chat window was nearing uselessness due to the overflowing morondation; morons are effervescent, you know, bubbling up to the surface when sufficiently agitated. So, after about three laps, I thanked Phil again, and gave up my seat to the next maybe-fortunate soul in that nearly endless waiting list.

As for poor Phil --- or poor Phil's Doppelganger, perhaps --- he gave it up after another lap himself. And who can blame him? As it stands now, FullTilt's "play with the pros" idea is a wonderful idea that's woefully counterproductive in practice. I had a mixed experience, not a great one; this is a concept that screams to be reworked. Frankly put, there needs to be a way for a pro to turn off the railbird chat when he's undertaking one of these charity tours. Or, at the least, for the pro to have a "limit" function on call, where only the first five or so names on the waiting list can actually fire away with their questions. Remember, dear reader, that these poker-pro guys and gals hear the same questions thousands of times; there is precious little any of us can ask or say that they haven't already heard. It's fun for us to do the asking and sucking-up, but for them it's just a tedious lesson in politeness and public relations.

We can intrepret it as such: If FullTilt had its corporate head screwed on straight, they wouldn't subject their contract players to the levels of abuse that I witnessed. They'd find a workaround.

My guess is that sometime down the road, they'll need to.

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