"Brilliant young minds" or "arrogant little pricks"? Such is the question with which authors Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback leave their readers at the conclusion of Ship It Holla Ballas!, a book-length portrait of a group of young, successful poker players whose games were nurtured online during the "boom" era.
Grotenstein and Reback earlier teamed for All In: The (Almost) Entirely True Story of the World Series of Poker, a lengthy blow-by-blow history of the WSOP. With Ship It Holla Ballas!, the pair have chosen a narrower scope for their storytelling, concentrating chiefly on the dozen or so players loosely grouped under the name from which the book takes its title. The result is a quicker, less arduous read than was the case with All In, with the anecdotes and characters engaging enough to keep the pages turning.
Self-named heroes in an adventure of their own making
The story begins in the late 1990s and early 2000s amid the earliest days of online poker, carrying through the period of the game's explosion in popularity and ending shortly before Black Friday.
The first half of the narrative gradually introduces the "Ship It Holla Ballas!" one by one, interestingly choosing to identify them only by their online screen names as though they were characters in some fantastic adventure story. The book then goes on to relate the story of their subsequent self-identification as members of a group bound by a shared desire to win big at the tables and party hard while doing so.
Good2cu (Andrew Robl) and Raptor (David Benefield) emerge early on as the book's primary protagonists, with TheUsher (Alan Sass), Irieguy (Dave Elliot), Apathy (Peter Jetten), Inyaface (Max Greenwood), Jman (Phil Galfond), and durrrr (Tom Dwan) earning a lot of attention as well. Others gliding in and out of the story include Traheho (Alec Torelli), FieryJustice (Jonathan Little), DonHolatchya (Dustin Sitar), Deuce2High (Mario Silvestri), and Travis Rice (TravestyFund).
Soon, however, the reason for the authors' decision to stick with the players' screen names becomes readily apparent. This is some fantastic adventure story they are telling, mostly populated with young, brash, skillful poker players who in some cases seem as interested in becoming "internet famous" as in reaping the significant rewards available to online players.
Tales surrounding the group members' staggering online successes and occasional failures dominate the narrative, with the gradual accumulation of their several significant live scores earning mention once they begin to occur (in most cases later on, after players have turned 21). These individual stories play out against a contextual backdrop of the poker "boom" and the game's quick growth during the mid-2000s, the minor speed bump of the UIGEA in 2006, and continued prosperity until the story concludes just before Black Friday.
How the "ballas" roll
For a book about poker players, there's a curious lack of conflict throughout.
The group does encounter a few troubles amid the accumulation of ever-growing bankrolls, the frequent trips and parties, the crazy (and sometimes dangerous) prop bets, and other high times, with the occasional totaled BMW or burglary of laptops causing momentary setbacks. A couple of downswings also induce periods of self-doubt in some, although these episodes never seem to last especially long.
Indeed, in most cases such problems are resolved by the end of the short chapter in which they arise. And rarely do any conflicts occur between members of the group, giving the impression at times of a hard-to-fathom harmony among the poker-playing fraternity.
The general threat of the new generation of "ballas" to the established pros -- played out as a conflict between online vs. live players and/or young vs. old -- receives some attention very late in the book, highlighted by Dwan's infamous heads-up battle versus Phil Hellmuth at the 2008 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship. But again the "war" between the two factions begins and ends abruptly, just as Dwan and Hellmuth's match did with durrrr catching that lucky ten to crack the Poker Brat's aces.
A consequence, perhaps, is a kind of double difficulty for some (many?) readers to identify with the oddly-named "heroes" of Ship It Holla Ballas! Not only are the stakes for which they play beyond what most have experienced, but the general lack of resistance they seem to encounter makes their story that much more fantastic seeming (and harder to relate to).
That said, the portraits of Robl (Good2cu) and Benefield (Raptor) do provide some depth, with both at least having to struggle with inner conflicts along the way. Benefield's frequent bouts of "existential despair" over the meaning -- or lack thereof -- of his chosen occupation are well presented by the authors. Meanwhile, Robl's various insecurities manifest themselves in several ways, most notably in his creation of the group's website, part of an ongoing effort to create (and perhaps live up to) an imagined persona (the "balla").
A "crew" or a collection of characters?
Early on the authors seem to hint at broader themes, such as the way each of these disparate individuals from all over the U.S. and Canada not only find each other, but perhaps need each other in ways that go beyond having someone with whom to discuss optimal sit-n-go strategy. Benefield's status as an adoptive child and the divorce of Robl's parents (for example) seem to suggest that they along with the other "Ship It Holla Ballas" will find in the group something they each lack otherwise.
But these ideas ultimately prove largely incidental to the group's story, and in fact by the latter stages of the book as individual members ultimately are shown moving on to continue in poker on their own or to pursue other endeavors, the whole notion that this ever was an actual, functioning "crew" is thrown somewhat into doubt.
The book's positives include an interesting portrait of the subculture of online poker as it existed during the 2000s, a subculture shaped in large part by internet forums (especially Two Plus Two) and blogs. While much of this community's development has played out publicly online already, it has done so in highly fragmented fashion, thus adding some value to Grotenstein and Reback's work of culling and compiling.
The exploration of some of the subjects' conscious efforts at creating various online personae -- Robl's, in particular -- proves intriguing as well, although interestingly there is little connection drawn between the importance of image creation at the poker table and this kind of social experimentation at identifying oneself through forum posts, blog posts, and other mediated means.
The writing is also clear throughout and at times clever, too, thus making the book a relatively easy and enjoyable read.
"Living the dream" or "acting like total idiots"?
Ultimately the authors leave it to their readers to decide for themselves how to answer the question of whether to admire or abhor the "Ship It Holla Ballas."
Grotenstein and Reback most certainly spend a lot of time in their book celebrating the young men's entrepreneurial ingenuity and free spiritedness. However, to their credit they aren't always romanticizing the "balla" lifestyle, especially when revealing as well unflattering details that somewhat humanize their subjects.
While it might be regarded by some as covering a niche within a niche, Ship It Holla Ballas! nonetheless is an engaging read that should prove interesting in particular to those who themselves experienced the whole "rise and fall" narrative of poker during the 2000s, albeit likely not to the extremes of Good2cu, Raptor, Jman, durrrr, and their cohorts.