Poker is big business, and like most big businesses it’s serious stuff. It’s a revenue generator for gaming companies and governments, and for a relatively small number of the people who actually play the game. It’s an entertainment product for the rest of the players who put in time at the tables. And in some places where poker used to be big business but isn’t anymore, lobbying for legalization has become a business of its own. All this business is great for all those entities taking their increasingly larger cuts, but the pie isn’t getting bigger and it’s bringing poker down.
Things weren’t always this way. For a few brief years in the 2000s the world enjoyed what I think of now as “peak poker.” TV and online poker fueled exponential growth in America’s poker-playing population. Tournaments with $10,000 buy-ins proliferated around the U.S., and eventually the rest of the world, to match voracious demand that was itself stoked by cheap-to-produce poker shows flooding cable networks from Bravo to GSN to SpikeTV. Some of these shows featured actual poker players, who became household names overnight. Most were stocked with mid-to-low-level celebrities, many of whom had no poker experience at all. Every show featured a “Here are the rules of Texas Hold’em” segment at the start of the game so they could learn along with the audience, who more often than not were themselves playing online. The level of play was far from professional, but it didn’t matter a bit as long as everyone was having a good time. (Besides, at least some of the audience was made up of players who enjoyed feeling superior to the amateurs on the TV.)
The WSOP Main Event was the ultimate barometer of peak poker. The once-stately tournament took on a circus-like atmosphere from 2004-2006. Online qualifiers, whose competition for seats was of a much lower quality than live satellite winners, lowered the average age of the tournament field and its average skill level. Some people who ponied up $10,000 showed up in crazy outfits and had little left to show for it other than seeing their faces twice on ESPN: when they were initially spotted at the tables in their ridiculous get-ups, and when they busted from the tournament, almost always short of the money. It wasn’t just the amateurs, though. Former world champ and eternal self-promoter Phil Hellmuth made grand entrances to the tournament in head-scratching costumes of his own, seeking the same camera time as the amateurs (but usually lasting much longer). And a slew of young would-be pros made names – and sponsorships – for themselves by running good at the right time. By 2006, when more than 10 times as many players showed up as had for the record-breaking 2003 tournament won by Chris Moneymaker, peak poker’s ultimate embodiment came along in the form of blustery amateur Jamie Gold’s seemingly predestined run through the largest poker tournament in history.
Players who had no business at the table with the big boys were somehow now capable not only of hanging with them but in many instances coming out on top. Everywhere you turned there was a camera, and poker rooms were paying one-day bonuses to anybody who’d slap on a patch while sitting at a featured table. Celebrities were hiring poker pros to teach them to play. Money was there for every oddball project that had a tie-in to America’s most popular game. Reality show featuring amateur players living in a mansion during the WSOP? Check! Competition show featuring rappers playing poker? Check! It was during these times that learned it was better not to ask myself why anyone would care to watch a disinterested Ed Lover of Yo! MTV Raps fame announce to two similarly disinterested MCs I’d never heard of that the blinds and antes had gone up again. The better path was to appreciate that I’d somehow stumbled into an alternate universe custom-designed by a poker dork and enjoy the ride.
There didn’t seem to be any end in sight when we were near the end of peak poker. Perhaps that’s why I recall sometimes wishing that things could be just a bit less of a constant sideshow and a bit more serious. Then came UIGEA in late 2006, turning everything upside down with a swipe of the president’s pen. Online games got tougher as recreational players dropped out. Live tournament field sizes shrank without a constant feed of online satellite winners. Rappers no longer played poker on syndicated TV shows, so bloggers no longer wrote about them. Suddenly I had an acute appreciation for the market power of allowing people to have a good time.
Nolan Dalla wrote an excellent piece for PokerNews last week in which he asked if, in the light of all the changes since the era I call peak poker, the game had become unbeatable. He discussed how, between the rising overall skill level and the game’s slowing growth, there are more good poker players in the world today than at any time in history. Spoiler alert: Dalla concludes this is a poor state of affairs for the game’s future health, given that money in the game is most often made when other players make mistakes. His prescription: “working toward ways to create a new poker boom.” We’ll never be able to recreate the last poker boom exactly, but what we can do is strive to recreate as many aspects as possible of the peak poker years.
The undoubted key is the expansion of legalization beyond Delaware, Nevada, and New Jersey. But beyond that, as more states go online in the next few years, the new online poker rooms will need to go above and beyond simply offering games and make their players’ experience as enjoyable as possible. Cheap satellites to land-based tournaments hold out the promise not only of a potential big score, but also of a live tournament experience, which can be a game-changer for relative newcomers who begin playing online. Opportunities for players to get their feet wet at small stakes before diving into the deep end allows newcomers to preserve more of their bankrolls as they learn the game, giving them a chance to develop a love for the game instead of simply seeing it as another occasional entertainment option. And for goodness’ sake, make sure to get poker back on television with somebody – anybody – besides a bunch of pros playing. If I can’t watch and feel like I could beat everyone on the screen, there’s no way I can convince myself it’s 2006 all over again.