BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
If the 1990s were the Wild West of the internet age, a new book portrays Match.com founder Gary Kremen as the white-hat good guy engaged in an epic duel that involved a brothel, a claim jumper and an alleged gunfight on the streets of Tijuana.
Kremen, 55, amused an audience last night (April 11) at Books Inc. in Mountain View alongside David Kushner, the author of “The Players Ball: A Genius, a Con Man and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise.”
In addition to inventing online dating — he claims to be responsible for the birth of more than 1 million babies — Kremen represents Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills as an elected member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District board.
But last night’s talk dealt with juicier subjects than water policy.
After all, Kremen and Kushner had just returned from a very different gathering in Los Angeles — a reunion for the Player’s Ball, a 1970s party for Chicago pimps that lent the book its name.
The book looks back at Kremen’s start in 1993, when the Stanford grad grew tired of looking for love by recording voice messages at 1-900 numbers and placing personal ads in the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Metro alt-weekly in San Jose.
Kremen started Match.com with a $2,500 credit card loan and eventually grew it 2% to 3% per day.
At first, the site was operated over email: users would send in photos and answer brief questionnaires. This was around the time that photos attached to emails was a radical new innovation, Kremen said.
Kremen, who Kushner said resembled at the time “some Belushi in a stained tie-dye T-shirt,” confidently told a skeptical TV reporter that the site would “bring more love to the world than anyone since Jesus Christ.”
When pitching investors, he said he did the best with “horny old guys” at companies like Intel.
To any entrepreneurs in the audience, Kremen advised: “If you can change your story or pitch to meet their needs, it makes it easier.”
But the product took some hammering out to attract women to the site. When Kremen sent a sample questionnaire to a former classmate, Beverly Anderson, she responded: “What the hell is this? You can’t ask me my weight!”
Around the same time, Kremen registered about 20 domain names, including jobs.com, housing.com and, yes, sex.com.
The battle over sex.com
Kremen never intended to squat on those URLs: he wanted to start businesses to help people find things they needed other than dates. Sex.com could have been a health and wellness information site, he said.
But around 1997, Kremen realized that sex.com had somehow been registered to Stephen Michael Cohen, who turned out to be a prolific con man and convicted felon — the black-hat opponent in Kremen’s saloon-door-kicking duel.
U.S. Appellate Judge Alex Kozinski once described Cohen as having “boundless enthusiasm and bounded integrity,” Kremen recalled.
Cohen ran swingers clubs and “kind of a brothel” in Orange County, Kremen said.
His schemes have supposedly included a Mexican pharmacy that sells counterfeit Viagra and a “phony” online bank that sells savings bonds for Mexican immigrants to send money home to their families.
“He’s very good at taking advantage of the weak,” Kremen said.
In fighting with Kremen over the domain name, Cohen impersonated lawyers, judges and government officials on the phone and held licenses as a private investigator and locksmith. At times he used the identities of dead people. Somewhere along the line, Cohen said he engaged in a gunfight on the streets of Tijuana, Kushner said without further explanation.
An ‘evil genius type’
Kremen would talk on the phone with Cohen almost daily, sometimes for hours. He said he did this to gather intelligence because Cohen was “one of those evil genius types who would tell you the plan” to destroy you, like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies.
Cohen even managed to change his caller ID and to hack into Kremen’s voicemails.
While researching the book, Kushner got to dig through Cohen’s hard drive, which Kremen had come to possess through the discovery process in court. It was like combing through a bizarre Bond villain’s brain: Kushner found family crests Cohen was designing and hundreds of phone numbers that he used.
But when Kushner came across a collection of pictures of shrimp, he called Kremen.
“Ah, you found the camarones,” Kremen said.
Kremen explained that Cohen used shrimp to smuggle drugs across the border, but became more focused on the shrimp than the drugs. He leased a 10,000-square-foot mansion with a pool on a lagoon in Mexico — not so different from an estate in Atherton, Kremen said — where he started growing shrimp, laundering money and making millions of dollars a month.
But when Kremen won a $65 million court decision against Cohen for the domain sex.com, he slapped a lien on the shrimp lagoon property. After he took possession of it, he found everything had been stripped from the property, including toilets and copper wire.
Kremen’s lawyer, Jim Wagstaffe, said the case set a precedent that domain names are property. The sex.com domain name was sold in 2003 for a record amount.
If the story sounds cinematic, fans of the book may be in luck. Kremen and Kushner hinted that a movie was possible. It wouldn’t be a first for Kushner.
A bearded man in the back said he would like to play Kremen in the film. But Kremen said that if there were a movie, he would like to have someone like Jack Black play him.