Dealer’s Choice: Clubbing With Seals

A few weeks back I wrote about my introduction to the wonderful world of Bitcoin. One of the first things I did once I’d traded a few U.S. dollars for BTC was find a place to play some poker.

Dealers Choice, Clubbing with SealsThe market isn’t a particularly big one right now. Only a handful of more traditional online poker rooms have branched out into accepting Bitcoins at the moment and most of them don’t take American players, who have the most reason to want to play poker with a digital cryptocurrency instead of something more commonly recognized as money. That leaves just a few options, and by far the most popular one is Seals With Clubs.

The room is fronted by poker pro Bryan Micon and operates solely on Bitcoins. The clientele is a funky mix of Bitcoin enthusiasts, hardcore poker players, and players who are maybe, just possibly, looking to gamble with the coins they’ve made selling things on Silk Road. (If nothing else there’s some historical precedent there; Jimmy Chagra was a regular in Las Vegas’ biggest games in the late 1970s.) The chat is uncensored so everyone feels free to be themselves, for better or worse.  Most of the time it just results in a much more colorful atmosphere than the standard online poker experience, but if you’re too shy to take the kind of chat you find in other Micon-influenced corners of the web, you might want to avoid getting involved in it.

A single Bitcoin has lasted me the last two weeks playing at Seals With Clubs. Here’s what I’ve seen so far. 

Rake and banking

Loose action is a big strength, but so is the rake structure. At 2.5 percent of the pot, rounded down, up to a max of 0.1 BTC, it’s lower than you’ll find in almost any poker game. All other things being equal, that effectively means that a player who breaks even at other sites with higher rake would win at Seals. There are also rakeback rewards at different tiers, reducing the cost of playing at Seals even further.

Banking, the bane of the online poker player over the last few years, is refreshingly simple at Seals With Clubs. Every transaction is conducted with Bitcoins so there is no traditional banking involved. Players are given a Bitcoin address where they can send coins for deposit, and chips from those deposits become available instantly. There’s no documentation or email address required to open an account, so a new player can be at the table playing poker for real money within minutes of signing up. (And if he doesn’t opt to use an email address, incidentally, he will be locked out if he ever forgets his password.)

When it comes time to cash out a player can specify any Bitcoin address for withdrawal, and usually they’ll have their winnings within 12 hours. That’s the kind of standard that American players haven’t enjoyed online since the poker boom, and it’s one of the real highlights of playing poker for Bitcoins. 

The action

The coin of the realm is the Seals chip, the value of which is pegged at 1/1,000th of a Bitcoin. As such the value of Seals chips in US dollars can change depending on the going exchange rate for Bitcoins. Right now the bigger no-limit cash games that have any players in them are played with blinds of 300/600 (a little bigger than $3/$6), 75/150 ($1/$2). Sometimes these games will run full-ring, but more often than not they’re shorthanded. The smaller-stakes games, played with blinds worth a few cents each, tend to fill up much more often.

For an online poker room the action is slow the majority of the time: in two weeks of playing during afternoons and late nights, with a couple of morning and evening hours thrown in, I’ve only seen more than 100 players signed in two or three times. Even then not all of them were actually sitting in games; some were just there for the chat. But comparing such a small place to the titans of online poker doesn’t really seem fair. Think of Seals more like an underground room in some North American metropolitan area with small but consistent traffic, and it looks a little more attractive. That’s especially true once you’ve actually sat at a table and played.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the action at Seals With Clubs is about as loose as you’re going to find anywhere online. A fairly decent percentage of the player base is more familiar with bitcoins – for one reason or another – than they are with poker. This is one of the site’s biggest strengths. The money in online poker hasn’t been this easy since the early days of the poker boom. There are definitely sharks hanging around but they’re outnumbered by fish who’ve been brought to the site through Seals’ advertising efforts throughout the Bitcoin web. The lower-stakes tables are peppered with these guys, ready to chase any and every draw and bluff whenever they miss.

The kind of gamble you see in home games and underground games is what you get at these tables, making poker at Seals With Clubs a lot more fun than poker has been on regulated sites for quite some time.

The software 

If you’re used to slick, standalone poker software a la PokerStars or Full Tilt – or even some lesser but fairly standard modern online poker room – you’ll probably be disappointed with the browser-based Flash experience at Seals. That isn’t to say that the software that runs the room – Poker Mavens by Briggs Softworks – is bad per se. In fact it’s perfectly acceptable for running simple games of poker. But if you want to mass-multitable, or play anything other than Omaha or Hold’em, or register late for tournaments – all common activities these days – you’re out of luck.

If you play long enough at a single table you’ll hear almost always hear somebody bitching about how the software is “ghetto,” or reporting that they’re lagging, or they’ve been forced to sit out even though they said they wanted to play a hand. Though it can be a little glitchy sometimes, the fact is that the software’s not as bad as its worst detractors claim. But it’s also not highly advanced or specialized to the particular task, which I take as a simple sign that the market for Bitcoin poker is in its infancy.

It seems like Seals With Clubs can only grow right now. The money there is as easy as one can find just about anywhere in poker these days, and the ease of moving money in and out of the site should begin to look pretty appealing to more sharp poker players in the near term. If traffic really begins to pick up, though, the software will probably prove to be something of a thorn in the site’s side. The first person to come along and offer the same financial ease of use with an alternative software package that could handle more traffic and offer more variety in games probably won’t take long to dominate the market, even if it were mostly an incremental improvement over the Flash software that Seals uses.

Aside from the loose money and financial benefits I think that’s the biggest takeaway from playing poker at Seals With Clubs: America is supposed to be the land of the free but Americans can’t use the best poker software in the world to play a game for a little cash because its operators are tied down by artificial barriers. The adaptation of software intended to be used on a smaller scale is impressive and even admirable, but the fact remains that we shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel just to throw a few chips around the table. For now, though, the action is loose enough to keep me from thinking about that too often.