Dealer’s Choice: Not Enough Power To Go Around

BLUFF Magazine released its annual BLUFF Power 20 yesterday. If you’re not familiar with it, the Power 20 runs down the most influential people in poker. The process for determining the list’s members has varied over the years but these days it’s done by surveying about 60 people in and around the industry.

Back when the Power 20 was started in 2006 things were great for poker. The UIGEA hadn’t come along yet, online poker at its peak, the WPT was more popular than ever, and the WSOP was about to have the single biggest year in its history. There were probably closer to 40 or 50 people who legitimately had some kind of power at the peak of the industry, which made separating out a list of 20 of them at least somewhat meaningful.

Dealer’s Choice: Not Enough Power To Go Around
©Bluff Magazine The Power 20 (2011)

These days, though, it’s a different story. Between the fallout from UIGEA and the aftermath of Black Friday there has been a large amount of consolidation within the industry, both online and in the realm of land-based poker tours. Having a list of 20 people doesn’t make as much sense as it used to. It will probably make sense again someday – it’s hard to imagine a future where online poker doesn’t return to the United States, fully regulated and taxed all to hell. But for now most of the list is based on these figures’ potential to have power if a federal online poker bill ever passes, rather than the sort of power they can actually exercise at this precise moment in time.

Compare all those those “power players” to BLUFF’s original 2006 list of what it considered the 20 most influential people in poker. Seven of them back then were actual poker players, including the man at #1, Doyle Brunson; only three made this year’s list. (One of them, Tony G, is mostly recognized for owning PokerNews.) The #2 spot on the original list was held down by the largest sports cable network in the world; there hasn’t been a television company or producer to be found in two years now. Five members of the original list were real-money online poker rooms, the dominant forces in a huge worldwide market. And how many worldwide online room are on today’s list? You can guess how many there are for yourself.

Why do I say that the men in charge of the online arms of American casino companies don’t have real power right now? Right now they’re a little bit like draft picks in professional sports. There are reasons to see each one of them as having lots of potential to be a major player., for instance, will be the online portal to the most prestigious poker festival in the world – there’s a lot to be said for that. But just as a blue-chip rookie can break a leg and learn he’ll never walk again, all before he ever plays his first professional game, the online poker behemoths-in-waiting can still be hamstrung by several levels of government.

Right now legal online poker in the U.S., in the sense of a game specifically allowed by legislation and regulated by American state entities, is essentially nonexistent. Nevada has licensed several operators but nobody in that state has a functioning online poker network running; in fact, several applicants have requested additional time for software testing. Delaware has also technically legalized online poker, but there’s no network there, either. New Jersey has passed bills two years running and its governor, Chris Christie, has vetoed them two years running; his more recent veto was conditional and provided a roadmap to getting his signature online gambling, but as of yesterday there was no legal, regulated online poker in the Garden State.

Moreover, the potential online poker networks that are the closest to fruition right now are going to extremely limited in their liquidity. Nevada’s population is just 2.75 million people; even if two percent of all Nevadans were online playing poker at once they still wouldn’t have as many players as PokerStars does just after midnight ET on a Thursday right now. Delaware has the same problem only to a much larger degree. Even New Jersey, the 11th-largest state in the U.S. by population, would need close to one percent of its resident online to provide a world-class player pool. Clearly the best-case scenarios for all those states involve much smaller numbers.

The fact is that no single-state launch in the U.S., other than perhaps off-the-table California, could provide enough traffic to make poker profitable in the immediate future. The key to profitability in the United States will be setting up a network between multiple states, and there are lots of obstacles before that can become a reality. What that means is that all those potential players on the Power 20 don’t come anywhere near the very real influence held by the politicians on this list.

The politicians are the only people who have the genuine power to get rid of the roadblocks to nationwide online poker in the U.S. Even their power is drastically limited. They can’t just do whatever they like due to political concerns. Most of them have no incentive to get a deal done quickly, although in New Jersey the need to save Atlantic City is reason enough to make something happen in the relatively near future. And once politicians exercise their power on a particular issue, such as online poker, it’s gone unless they build in a reconsideration period down the road.

It might be a little more realistic right now to have a Power 10. It could be populated with the three players from this year’s list, the operators of major tournaments and tours, the politicians with actual gatekeeper power, and maybe one person with potential just to show the list is looking toward the future. With the way things are looking right now, ten spots ought to do for at least another year or two. Besides, once the WSOP is running around-the-clock satellites for the Main Event online and kids from Austin and Chicago are check-raising each other for real dollars again, you could always expand the list back to 20.