A window of opportunity is closing for value-seeking investors to gain access to some of the top ideas around.

When Gotham Capital's Joel Greenblatt and John Petry created

ValueInvestorsClub.com a half-decade ago, they put a cap on membership at 250 people to preserve the site's standards. Now the member roll has swelled to over 230, leaving just a few spots left, and the admissions process is becoming increasingly selective.

Those looking to join will need a great idea of their own.

"You need to submit an idea in written form that we think is exceptional in order to become a member," says Petry. "As we get more members, we're continually raising the bar in terms of the quality of ideas necessary for admittance. These days, I'd say we take only about one in 20 people that apply, and you'd be surprised how good most of the stuff we get is."

Membership has its privileges, granting instant access to all the ideas and commentary posted on the Web site by others in the club. It also has its responsibilities. Members are required to post at least two, and no more than six, ideas every year. That way, just a few ideas usually trickle in every day, and members rate the quality of each one on a scale of 1 to 10.

Greenblatt, author of

The Little Book That Beats the Market, first dreamed up the idea of forming an online club for exchanging investment ideas in 1999 when one of his own arguments was written up on an online message board. Greenblatt's firm has averaged 40% annual returns for over twenty years by following the investment philosophies pioneered by the late Benjamin Graham and David Dodd. Now he teaches a popular class on the subject at Columbia University, and the Internet struck him as the ideal place to connect with others that lust after public companies that aren't being valued properly by the stock market.

"We said to ourselves, 'What if we could get a lot of people who think like this all together in one place on the Web?'" says Petry. "At the same time, we didn't want the forum open to the general public because then you get stuck with all the other nonsense that goes on financial message boards."

While so much of the financial cyber-scape is polluted by pump-and-dump schemes and ill-informed rantings, ValueInvestorsClub.com seeks to provide a clear flow of information and cogent analysis. Petry monitors the site closely, and he has a team of developers making technical improvements to it. Meanwhile, Gotham Capital rewards members who submit the top-rated idea every week with a $5,000 prize. While the hedge fund has now invested over $1 million into the club, Petry says the investment has paid for itself many times over thanks to the well-timed trades it has made based on the site's information.

An early member of the club himself, Whitney Tilson of T2 Partners says he once made a windfall shorting shares of a company called

Orthodontics Centers of America

after one of his fellow members made a convincing case that it was overstating earnings and far overvalued.

"Normally, I'm an investor who does extensive research and weeks of work on an idea before I invest in it," says Tilson. "I shorted this within an hour of reading the write-up. That's how compelling it was. All I had to do was read it, look at the financial statements, and it took less than an hour to realize this company was an enormous fraud."

Eventually, Orthodontics Centers of America went bankrupt. While not all the ideas posted on ValueInvestorsClub.com are winners, many pan out over time. Tilson says the site is particularly good for investors looking for special situations, like spinoffs, and those running a small pool of capital.

"It has unusual, funky, often illiquid things that can be good for someone's personal account," says Tilson. "And you don't always have to act right away on these ideas."

Non-members can read ideas on ValueInvestorsClub.com on a 90-day delay, and if they're willing to register on the site and disclose their name and email address, they can read everything posted after 45 days. Petry says Gotham hasn't done much with the registration information it has collected, except send out a few mass emails about charity events and investment conferences.

In 2001, someone posted a write-up on

Imagistics

, an office-equipment supplier spun off from

Pitney Bowes

(PBI) - Get Report

, arguing the shares were being undervalued at $10.10. A year later, the stock was written up again as a value play at $19, and in 2004, it was posted a third-time at $35. The following November, Imagistics was bought out for $42 a share by a Dutch company.

"Even with a 90-day delay, you can go in and read the highest-rated ideas from really smart, experienced investors," says Tilson. "I always tell young people who approach me who want to get a job managing a fund to go read this stuff. If you can produce write-ups like that, you will have no trouble getting a job in this business."

Some of the most lucrative ideas that have been on the site include a 2002 write-up recommending shares of

NII Holdings

(NIHD) - Get Report

, a Latin American telecommunications provider, at $3.41. The stock was recently trading at $51.55. That same year, someone recommended shares of

Chicago Mercantile Exchange

(CME) - Get Report

two weeks after it went public at $44. It was recently trading at $455.69. In February of 2003,

McDermott International

(MDR) - Get Report

was recommended at $3.80 for "true deep value contrarians." The energy-services company now trades at over $44.

Recent highly rated ideas include a write-up on

PriceSmart

(PSMT) - Get Report

from February, when it was trading at $8.28. A club member said it was "an under-followed international warehouse-club franchise with the potential to appreciate 40% or more in the next year." Four months later, the shares are up 56% at $12.90. In March, a member recommended shares of

W.R. Grace

(GRA) - Get Report

at $10.49, saying the "The current market value overstates the company's asbestos and environmental liabilities relative to the growing value of its assets and options at its disposal." The shares recently sold for $12.02.

Meanwhile, the club is always open to new ideas. With a small attrition rate as members drop out or get kicked off for not pulling their weight, Petry says opportunities to join the club won't go away completely as they close in on 250 members. But, they'll get fewer and farther between.

"We may stop taking applications altogether at some point," says Petry. "That would probably only be temporary."

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