I remember the first time I heard of the Ship It Holla Ballas. It was 2008 and I was dating a girl in LA who was an aspiring filmmaker trying to put together a poker documentary. We met because she had reached out to get an interview, and she asked me to connect her with a few other players. I had a deep poker rolodex. I told her I could probably help her get interviews with any number of bracelet winners… Madsen, Cantu, Flack, Bartholdi, no problem.
“That’s all great,” she said, “but can you help me get in touch with the Ship It Holla Ballas?”
I gave her a blank stare. I had no idea what she was talking. The ship it what? She explained what they were. A new crew that was taking over the poker world. And just like that, I felt old for the first time in my life. I wasn’t in the youngest generation anymore. I couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. Everyone loves a sunrise.
Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback tell the story of this new crew in the book aptly named, Ship It Holla Ballas!
We have what is basically a formulaic retelling of a familiar story. A couple of young men, late teens or early twenties, find something they are good at. The group propels themselves quickly to fortune. Success makes them feel alienated from normal life, past friends and family. They form loose bonds built from their similarities. With plenty of time to kill, they fill the vacuum with sex and drugs. They go through existential crises. What’s it all about, Alfie? Eventually, something happens which gives them a wake up call… some sort of return to reality.
This story has been told more often than I can count. It’s a recurring theme that doesn’t seem to get old. Boiler Room. Wolf of Wall Street. Bringing Down the House. Blow. Savages. Mix the story with poker, and you have the Ship It Holla Ballas book. The result is an enjoyable read which paints an accurate picture of what poker was like from 2005 up to Black Friday.
The story centers around two main characters: Andrew “Good2cu” Robl and David “Raptor” Benefield. But the authors start their story by introducing David “Irieguy” Elliott. Irieguy turns out to be a fairly minor character in the story, and it’s not even at all clear that he was an official member of the unofficial crew. Yet, the authors decide to devote the first several chapters to Irieguy and his journey into online poker. Why? It almost felt like they just started writing, without a clear direction of where they were taking the reader. We are eventually introduced to Benefield in chapter four, but it’s not until we are well into the book that we first get introduced to Robl, who is unquestionably the central character in this story.
What follows is fifty or so chapters where we get the inside look at this subculture, through what reads like a third-party retelling of a few years of 2+2 trip reports, with a stream of cameo appearances by Tom “durrrr” Dwan, Jonathan “FieryJustice” Little, Peter “Apathy” Jetten, Phil “Jman” Galfond. Too much money, lots of drugs. Cocaine, ecstasy, always high on weed. Somewhere in the middle, we get the retelling of some ballas trashing hotel rooms in Europe and literally lighting money on fire. And through it all, a young Robl chasing tail, and Benefield trying to find a point of it all.
Eventually the fame comes. And Black Friday comes. Then our story abruptly stops, with Robl appearing to grow up a bit and get his act together, and Benefield looking outside of poker for fulfillment.
I read this book twice, and I think it gives a very strong and accurate portrayal of what poker was like between 2006 and 2009. There’s a lot to not like in the story itself. There were several times when I wanted to reach through the pages and shake Robl. The scene where Good2cu crashes his BMW trying to get out of a speeding ticket, risking his own life as well as the lives of his two passengers (not to mention other drivers), was just one example of insane irresponsibility. But we all do stupid shit when we’re young, so it’s easy to overlook the flaws and root for Robl.
As for the writing, there are some problems. For one, the book felt half-baked. I really would have liked to get a better picture of Benefield, and Dwan… it’s not surprising that Robl becomes the central character, since it seems like of all the subjects, he was the one with the biggest fame motive. He was likely the most willing to talk with Reback and Grotenstein. This would have been great had the story been all about Robl… but we’re meant to read about the whole group and as such the telling of the Ship It Holla Ballas feels uneven.
There are also quite a few points in the book where it feels like the authors are just trying to meet some sort of wordcount goal. There are whole chapters where I’d ask myself… did this really need to be in there? Case in point, chapter 42… we’re introduced to Alec “Trahaheo” Torelli, who wins $90k from a trustfunder in New York and buys himself a BMW with a vanity license plate. This is the first and pretty much only time Torelli is mentioned in the book. Cool story, bro… but why is it here?
There are confusing parts where the authors don’t seem to really know what the facts were. There is a whole chapter about the now infamous Bellagio bathroom bet… but the actual numbers at stake seem to change from paragraph to paragraph. How much was at stake and in the box… $60k or $80k? Depends on which paragraph you read.
Then, there are the unintentionally funny parts… the parts where the authors seem to try a little to hard to write words for shock value. My favorite LOL moment that was fairly obviously unintentional was their recounting of Isaac “WestMenloAA” Baron’s 21st birthday party. The ballas camp out in the Playboy suite of the Palms, and what ensues is a night of hookers, blow, overpriced food, public sex acts, and the kind of general debauchery that you would expect. And then we get this little gem:
“The next morning, Good2cu wraps a towel around his waist and walks from room to room, surveying the damage. People are passed out in every corner of the suite, several sporting fresh hickeys and bruises they won’t remember acquiring. One guest wakes up in the hallway with a dim memory of betting – and losing – $100,000 on a single hand of blackjack. Food and drink are spilled everywhere. Artwork has been removed from the walls, apparently mistaken for party favors. A used condom floats in the pool.”
And then two paragraphs later:
“Good2cu drops the towel and slips into the infinity pool, resting the back of his head against its edge.”
Now come on, guys. Are we really supposed to believe that our hero was chilling out in the infinity pool, contemplating his good fortune and how wonderful his life was while a used condom was floating next to his head? I’m betting against.
The biggest problem I had with the book, though, was that it didn’t spend enough time looking at the other side of the screen, the other side of the win. For every balla, there were a hundred dropouts who ended up busting and floundering around aimlessly… a poker casualty. The only time the book really hints about this side of poker is when they mention the Greg Hogan bank robbery. Hogan was the class president of Lehigh University, son of a preacher, all-around square. Then he gets attracted to online poker, loses a few grand, and decides the only way out of his mess is to rob a bank.
It’s a shame that the authors don’t spend more time on the uglier aspects of poker, because they shine in the few instances where they do. Perhaps the best scene for me was the one with Robl and his father coming into the admissions office and speaking to a guidance counselor. Robl explains that he’s dropping out of school to play poker for a living, and the guidance counselor objects strongly, telling the pair how often she’s heard the same thing. There’s a lesson here that I think could have been fleshed out a little more.
Instead, the chapter ends as abruptly as the book ends. We get Black Friday, the end of the Ship It Holla Balla era, a more mature Robl and Benefield, and an Animal House-esque epilogue which gives all the characters happy and defined endings.
The choice to use screen names rather than real names in the book was a distraction. It was difficult to keep the storylines apart without a cheat sheet of which screennames matched real names. It was also too easy to forget that these weren’t just characters… these stories are about real people that we know.
But for all its flaws, I loved the book, read it twice… and not just because there is a whole chapter (18) about my own exploits with The Crew. I’d heartily recommend Ship It Holla Ballas! Buy it on Amazon today by clicking on the cover below:
- Felt like I was riding next to Andrew Robl and David Benefield on their roller coaster ride through poker.
- Had a whole chapter on me and the Crew.
- It was fun to read.
- Using the online handles instead of real names was tedious and confusing.
- Rosy-colored view of poker didn't focus enough on the negative side of the poker boom.
- Not enough DURRRR!!!