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The return of Spirit Rock

The time of Prahlad Friedman is at hand.

That wording almost makes it sound like the second coming, doesn't it? Across the world, Internet fan boys of all shapes and sizes whisper the names of the most successful high-stakes players on the Web with reverence. They whisper the names of long-standing kings like Phil Ivey and Patrik Antonius. It seems that every year or two there's a next big thing -- before Tom Dwan there was Brian Townsend, before Townsend there was Erik Sagstrom, before Sagstrom, it was all Prahlad.

Friedman, also known by his online monikers "Spirit Rock" and "Mahatma," was the original online poker god, a player who stormed his way up the ranks to play against the best in the world with unbridled aggression, deadly accurate reads and just enough of a reputation for insanity to get his opponents to call him down at the worst of times. He became an international star with a deep run at the 2006 World Series of Poker, when he clashed with Jeffrey Lisandro and seemed poised to break out on the live tournament scene.

"I didn't even know there was this world of poker until my father won an $11,000, first-place prize in a lowball tournament in the Bay Area," said Friedman, whose first name is derived from Sanskrit, meaning "He who brings joy." "We were all excited, telling everyone that Pops won $11,000. That was a heap of money and piqued my interest. I asked him, 'What's this poker stuff?' and he taught me the basics."

"After I won, Prahlad came to me and asked about it and then he got right into it," said Friedman's father, Mark. "Prahlad always had a very pointed focus. Whether it was soccer or basketball or poker, he would read everything he could get his hands on and invest himself."

Interestingly, while the elder Friedman estimates he's played fewer than a half-dozen tournaments since that initial success, his son became one of the best players on the planet.

"That's usually how I get into something," said Prahlad, who will be featured in Tuesday night's WSOP coverage on ESPN (9 ET). "I just go to the book store, come out of there with like 10 books and gather as much information as I can. Around 19 or 20 years old, I'd sneak in behind Pops and play $1-2 or $2-4. It was really cool. I played here and there, kept reading, talked to the good players and found out people were making a living. I had no clue. I mean, they were playing a game that was fun. It was fascinating.

"I moved up gradually at The Oaks Casino, then to the $40/80 at Lucky Chances. I crushed the games for the first couple of months. I'd been beating everybody, brought $7,000 and lost all my money. Everyone knew I was beating everyone up, but no one would loan me money to play because they didn't want me at the table. It pissed me off. I said, 'Screw this, I'm going to Vegas,' because there was action every day there. I'd been craving everyday action. I lived there for a couple of years. I met my wife Dee [Luong] at the Bellagio. We've been married for three years, but we've been together for 10 years. We met at the $30/60 limit hold 'em game."

"Dee really gave Prahlad direction," Mark Friedman said. "He'd dropped out of Berkeley and I wasn't certain about his choice to spend his life in poker, but she gave him focus." Once Prahlad met Dee, Mark Friedman accepted his son's choice to become a poker player. Meanwhile, Prahlad was discovering online poker.

"I first started playing on ParadisePoker, $5/10, 6-max," he said. "It seemed bigger than you'd think because you could win $5,000 and from the comfort of home, which seemed extraordinary. I built my roll, started moving up and then I joined the $20/40 game. That was huge. You could win $10,000. Just sit at home [and] win $10,000. You didn't have to deal with some of the nastier folks you meet in the gambling world. It was great. I started putting money on different sites. It just got bigger and bigger after that. We're talking $50,000 swings. Then, UB came about."

At the peak of his powers, Friedman's confidence was struck a blow when he became one of the biggest victims of the super-user scandal at UltimateBet. "They were the first to get no-limit going," he said. "They had $5/10 no-limit where I did well, then they opened $10/20. The first time I played I won $15,000 and I was like, 'Wow, this is for me.' Now, people play $500/1,000 and it's insane, but back then, $25/50 was huge."

What Friedman didn't know was that he was about to become one of the biggest victims of the biggest cheating scandal in online poker history. As has been revealed since, the former owners of the online giant had access to opposing hole cards in real time and were using that to siphon money off of their customers.

"Everyone was playing that game -- Ivey, Cunningham, all the top players in the world. I used to play Chip Reese and Doyle Brunson heads-up every day. I was beating everyone. $50/100 no-limit opened and it just kept getting bigger. Pot-limit Omaha and lots of hold 'em and I got a lot of experience. Of course, at this time I was getting cheated. Who knew? The No. 1 thing people asked me was, 'Aren't you worried about getting cheated?' and I'd tell them it was secure and I was doing well and making money, but people were telling me to be careful because I was the guy they'd go after because I'd play anyone. You see guys now who only play the bad players. I'll go on now and there will be 30 guys waiting for a game and none will play me. I wasn't like that. That opened me up to being a big victim.

"I remember days where I'd be up $50,000 and then I'd play some random guy and he'd kill me. I'd just play and play and play and not quit a guy. I never did that. I would give them 10 buy-ins because I had so much confidence and felt I could adapt to the way they were playing. Occasionally I'd win a huge pot on a hero call. That was tough for me. I was doing so well, was on top of the world and then hit that rough patch. I figured it was variance. Variance happens. I thought maybe people had adjusted or I was bluffing too much. I'd overbet the four-flush board and get called by a pair. That was rough.

"After losing so much, it took a while to get my confidence back. I had a style that fit me really well. I was loose-aggressive. I would go nuts and people thought I was tilting and they'd play like I was. Everyone remembers the insane bluffs. I would just shift gears and get paid more than anyone."

The losing took its toll.

"For a while, I started playing nittier, had to play a little more ABC poker. I had to cut my bluffing frequency way down because I thought I was getting looked up [making obvious bluffs]. It made me switch up when I didn't need to. That really screwed me up for a bit. Finding out that there was cheating sent my confidence through the roof. It meant I was beating everyone and should have won even more. It made me feel good, knowing I had a strong strategy, knowing I could play how I wanted to. There's a little paranoia now. It's scary to find out, but it makes you happy to get the refund and to know your game is still great. Everything happens for a reason."

Friedman has forgiven UltimateBet, but not founder Russ Hamilton, considered by many the primary culprit in the scandal.

"If Russ doesn't get in trouble, karma will take care of itself," he said. "I don't think that guy's happy right now. I think he's a tortured soul. He can't even play in a tournament. He has to hide away for life. I'd love to see him go to jail, but it'll play itself out. I'm not sitting here hating the guy every day. I'm not going to let it eat me up."

"I'm playing at UB again," Friedman admitted. "I think they took care of me, did right by me. I don't represent them when I say this. I don't want to get sponsored by anyone. I think they did a good job. Not everyone feels that way, but that's how they treated me. I think it's probably a safe place to play now because everyone's watching so closely. I'm not mad at them, but they'll have to live with their rep for a long time."

Now after three years of virtual invisibility on the tournament circuit and a newly restored confidence, Prahlad is flying high again. In addition to a $1.034 million win at the World Poker Tour's 2009 Legends of Poker in August, he ran deep in this year's WSOP main event. That new success means increased exposure for a multimedia talent who, in addition to his poker play, spends plenty of time with other pursuits, including writing and -- as we've seen on ESPN -- rap.

Much has been made of Friedman's infamous "Poker is Fun," but he doesn't take his art quite as seriously as the fan boys seem to. "When I do those raps, it's always for fun," Prahlad said with a smile. "It's funny that ESPN has become my outlet. When I was a kid, I wanted to be on ESPN playing basketball. That's all I ever wanted. It's funny to find ourselves on ESPN for playing poker."

You can find the archive of his work here and searching for "pragress."

Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.