Blind World Magazine

Online Poker for the Blind.

November 08, 2005.
Poker News.

You've heard about blinds in poker, but this is something else: blind people are playing poker and you may get a real blind man's bluff from an opponent if you log onto

University of Massachusetts buddies, Jeremie Spitzer and Paul Silva were playing video games when their blind friend, Tim Keenan, strolled by and said, "Hey, I want to play computer games, too." Hmm, what could be done about that?

As they pondered this, they came up with a common denominator: they all played cards. Braille decks of cards have been around for a long time. Blind people enjoy a friendly game of poker, too.

So, these physics and computer science majors put their heads together. Here was the challenge: create online card games that blind and sighted people could play as equals, using "Universal Access" design principles, with a chat room where they could schmooze as they play.

Tim was already an accomplished computer user, interfacing a "screen reader" for his studies. This is software that reads aloud (in a synthetic voice) what is on the screen.

Could they come up with online games that would allow blind people, many of whom use a screen reader, to play cards with people from all over the world, like the online poker rooms open to us all do now?

After some field research and beta testing they went online in 2002. Crazy Eights was their first offering followed by Five Card Draw Poker. Texas Hold 'em is being beta tested and evaluated by a band of volunteers and will soon be rolled out on their site.

"The World Series of Poker and Celebrity Poker Showdown have become household names," says co-founder Spitzer. "We're excited to bring this phenomenon to people who have, until now, been left out." So, thanks to the three guys from Amherst, blind players will soon be saying, "All in."

Jeremie, Paul, and Tim were not interested in a money-making, online, offshore casino. They took the social route, wanting to build a community around card games. All games use only play money. The site is supported by a $7.95 monthly fee, with discounts for quarterly or annual payments.

About 500 users are registered. Most are blind, some are partially sighted, some have no vision problems at all, and a few are both deaf and blind. One distinguishing feature of the site is online volunteers, who are available to help new users with questions.

Dave O, a computer consultant and a Hold 'em tester, blind since birth, has been playing since the site first went online. Logging on as "Wolf," he says, "The games are top notch, and the people honestly care about the users."

The American Council for the Blind has sponsored AllinPlay poker tournaments. Tournament prizes include gift certificates and MP3 players.

Some major computer training centers for the blind are using the site to motivate new computer users. Recently demonstrated at a Smithsonian symposium, the card room is considered to be a good model for basic navigation.

While most players use a screen reader, the games can also be interfaced with screen magnifiers for those with some vision, or with Braille output, for those who prefer these devices over a screen reader.

Players are generally enthusiastic about the site. Some are more enthusiastic than others: "Bama," from the Heart of Dixie, and "LR," a Brit, met in one of the card rooms. They chatted. They found they had things in common. They decided to meet. They took a cruise. Bama is now wearing an engagement ring and they are working on a wedding date. Love at first site!

Shirley J, a "domestic engineer" with a progressive vision loss that started at age 9, plays as "Shimmer." She says, "The games are extremely well designed, and the site itself offers more than adequate information to help answer any and all questions from newcomers."

Rick F., "Rickster," a legally blind business manager and consultant, is looking forward to Texas Hold 'em and hopes the site will offer blackjack as well. He says that "is a one-of-a-kind pioneer site (for blind people) in terms of multiplayer gaming."

By all means, if you have a blind or partially sighted friend or relative, have them take a "look" at it. Anyone can cruise the site on a trial basis.

But beware of the blind man's (or woman's) bluff. It may cause you to see things in a different light, so to speak.

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