If you’re headed to Las Vegas this summer, you might be lucky enough to catch Phil Ivey playing a few hands of poker. Or unlucky enough to be playing against him.
The ten-time bracelet winner is arguably the best poker player in the world, and he’s returning to the World Series of Poker after a year away. Ivey hasn’t cashed in a WSOP event since 2014, in fact. He’s in good form right now, fresh off a Triton series win in the trendy short-deck format for almost $1.7 million.
When he returns to the Rio this summer, Ivey will have a new sponsor on his chest. You may have already seen the logo printed on his T-shirt during that recent win.
Virtue Poker is one of a growing list of cryptocurrency poker sites, none of which have gained much traction so far. This one’s a little different, though, drawing support from three of the game’s elite.
Virtue Poker is a fledgling online poker site that operates on the Ethereum blockchain. In the simplest terms, a blockchain is a decentralized, public ledger of transactions — such as those that occur within a poker game. Players transact in virtual currency instead of fiat money.
Development tank ConsenSys served as the incubator for Virtue Poker. The company started to hatch around May 2015, and the founders spent the next 18 months building a prototype. The Alpha is now running play-money games for about 500 testers. A public Beta should follow later this year, and the company is working toward a full launch in the first half of 2019.
The project is ambitiously funded, too. A couple weeks ago, Virtue Poker closed a token sale that raised more than $18 million at current rates. The funding has allowed the founders to scale their team to 17 members, including the addition of some sponsored pros.
They picked three pretty good ones.
You’ll see three players wearing Virtue Poker patches throughout the WSOP:
All three are WSOP bracelet winners, and each has cashed for more than $20 million in live events. Between them, they have 14 bracelets and more than $75 million in combined tournament winnings.
CEO Ryan Gittleson said the trio will help set the roadmap for Virtue Poker. “We keep the pulse of what’s going on in the industry so we can incorporate it into our platform,” he said. You’ll see short-deck poker on the client, for example, since the high-stakes crowd is going nuts for it right now. When Gittleson first met Ivey in October, “it was the only game he was playing.”
Come time for the WSOP Main Event, you may run into some “randos” sporting Virtue Poker patches. Be nice to them.
The site offered a free $10,000 buy-in to anyone who contributed at least 150 Ethereum (currently about $80,000) to the token sale. Almost 50 investors did so, and they should be easy to spot. Patches are optional, but Gittleson says he expects most of the qualifiers to wear one. The key backers will also be treated to a private team dinner on June 30.
Gittleson says Virtue Poker is “buttoning up another promotion around Phil Ivey,” but wouldn’t provide details just yet.
Virtue Poker was created to address two problems that have plagued some online sites:
In short, unregulated sites don’t provide much transparency into their gaming servers. Without the level of regulatory oversight present in established markets, it can be difficult to be sure that the games are fair. And more than one offshore site has closed up shop and run off with player funds.
Blockchain technology comes with some inherent safeguards, though, which may appeal to players who remember UltimateBet or Full Tilt Poker.
To protect fairness, Virtue Poker decentralizes the deck using a shuffling protocol called “mental poker.” Here’s how Gittleson explains it:
It takes every player seated at a table, connects them together using a peer-to-peer subnet so that they’re communicating with each other, then involves all players in shuffling the deck of cards — for each player, for each hand played on the platform.
Basically, no single player can see the undiscovered hole cards. Nor can the Virtue Poker servers or employees. The randomization is handled on demand by the players, as a group. Short of breaking the encryption, there’s no way to see the cards that have not been revealed. So no Russ Hamilton superusers.
The Virtue Poker founders won’t “Ray Bitar” your bankroll, either. Player funds are stored in their own Ethereum wallets, and the site uses smart contracts to control the exchange of currency. Buy-ins are essentially escrowed on the public ledger, then contractually awarded to the winning players when the game is complete.
Virtue Poker never touches the funds.
You probably won’t see Virtue Poker in the US for a couple years, at least.
First of all, owners are taking the cautious, legal approach to operation, so they’ll initially launch into regulated markets abroad.
“Our strategy isn’t to circumvent the laws and regulations that have been put in place around the world,” Gittleson said. The company’s first gaming license is currently pending approval in Malta.
As a whole, though, the limited US market is still unappealing for young operators. The cost of state-by-state licensure is simply too prohibitive for all but the largest sites, like PokerStars. An online poker license in PA, for example, costs $4 million.
“Hopefully the legislation over time enables smaller startups to also participate at the state level,” Gittleson said.
Virtue Poker retains legal counsel from one of the firms that has done the most work surrounding online gambling, Ifrah Law.