7 Lies You Believe About the Poker Boom

Poker Cards and Chips

The poker boom came and passed years ago. But many players still look back fondly on this rapid period of growth, which lasted from 2003 to 2006.

Prior to the boom, poker was seen as a sleazy underground game. Afterward, players like Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson, and Mike Matusow were household names.

Many narratives were created during this period and are still widely believed today. However, some of these beliefs are nothing more than half-truths, or even flat-out lies.

Keep reading to find out seven of the biggest lies still being pushed long after the boom.

1 – Chris Moneymaker Caused the Poker Boom

Chris Moneymaker etched his name into poker history after winning the 2003 WSOP Main Event along with $2.5 million. Moneymaker stood out because he was an amateur with marginal skills at best. In fact, he was still working as a comptroller in Tennessee at the time of his victory.

The future champion booked his $10k Main Event seat via an $86 PokerStars. He parlayed his good fortune into a bigger stroke of luck by winning the ME. Moneymaker was subsequently seen as the spark that ignited the poker boom.

This layman did convince many players that they too could achieve poker stardom with average skills. But this narrative goes haywire when Moneymaker is credited with being the sole reason for the boom.

Poker Player Chris Moneymaker

If this was the case, then Robert Varkonyi would’ve inspired far more amateurs when he took down the 2002 WSOP Main Event. He was a far worse player than Moneymaker.

Instead, the latter’s victory was part of a perfect mix of events. Here’s what helped increase poker popularity just before his big win:

  • PokerStars and other sites were offering lots of WSOP Main Event prize packages.
  • Online poker was coming into its own.
  • The World Poker Tour (WPT) launched in 2002.
  • Poker TV shows were gaining traction.

Chris Moneymaker was no doubt an important marketing tool for PokerStars and other sites. He even landed an appearance on Jay Leno. But other events set the stage for a boom before he came along.

2 – You Would’ve Crushed Poker During the Boom Years

The average poker player today is far better than laymen who played during the boom. The skill gap isn’t even close.

Modern players take this as a sign that they would’ve owned the game back then. Some even believe they would’ve been highly successful pros.

These thoughts are true in theory. Anybody who’s beating $0.50/$1 no-limit hold’em today might have won a fortune in 2003.

However, the key aspect to realize is that both skill standards and strategy materials were low back then. The first training site, CardRunners, didn’t launch until 2005. Even then, poker training didn’t get popular until a few years later.

Twitch didn’t even exist at the time. Formerly Justin.tv, it didn’t feature pro poker streamers until the mid-2010s. Of course, books, magazines, and online articles existed at the time. But these materials didn’t offer quite as detailed of strategy as what’s available today.

Relatively speaking, you were no more likely to crush poker during the boom years than you are today. You wouldn’t have had the same in-depth resources at your fingertips back then.

3 – The US Was the Only Country Responsible for the Poker Boom

Poker was founded on Mississippi riverboats in the 1800s. Texas hold’em is named after the state that it was developed in.

Given this history, it only makes sense that most of the poker boom also took place in America. But a misperception exists that the entire boom happened in the US. The reality is that certain European countries also played a role in the matter.

Britain’s Late Night Poker (1999-2002) was the first televised poker show to use hole cams. These cams, which allow viewers to see a player’s hole cards, helped popularize future poker shows.

Besides debuting the hole cam, Late Night Poker introduced Europeans to a number of colorful personalities. Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott, John Duthie, Tony G, and Vickey Coren were some of the prominent players to appear on it.

France also saw a spike in poker interest in the mid-2000s. The Aviation Club de France became one of Europe’s hottest poker destinations. Of course, many Americans flooded online poker sites and tournaments to form the boom’s foundation. But Europe had a hand in popularizing the game as well.

4 – Poker Sites Were Getting Filthy Rich

Considering poker’s accelerated popularity, many assumed that online sites at the time were pulling in fortunes. This idea was true to some degree. Giants such as Absolute Poker, Full Tilt, PokerStars, and UB Poker were making millions in revenue every week.

But for every Full Tilt or Absolute, there were plenty of sites that were too late to the party. Some of these same internet rooms only lasted a few years before folding.

Tablet Displaying Online Poker

Even Absolute, Full Tilt, and UB struggled after the boom ended. All of them eventually went bankrupt following Black Friday (covered later).

Of course, each of the bigger sites were successful at some point during the boom. But this was only because money was rapidly flowing into the game.

Online gambling companies have found that solely relying on rake from tournaments and cash games isn’t the most lucrative business. Instead, all-around gambling sites, ones with a casino, poker, and sportsbook, are more successful today.

5 – Ivey, Antonius, and Hellmuth Got Rich by Crushing the Competition

Many stars of the poker boom were mythicized as elite grinders who crushed opponents to the tune of millions. A select few players did win a lot of money on the tables alone. However, the majority of well-known pros got far richer from sponsorships and/or investments.

For example, Annie Duke and Phil Hellmuth made a lot of money through lucrative UB sponsorships. Barry Greenstein and Daniel Negreanu benefited from sponsorships with PokerStars.

Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Gus Hansen, Patrik Antonius, and Phil Ivey made plenty from their Full Tilt deals and/or investments.

Hansen collected an extra $5 million through the sale of PokerChamps. He founded the online poker room along with Tony G and Erik “Erik123” Sagström in 2003. The trio sold the site to Betfair just two years later for $15 million (split three ways).

This is just a small sample size of the players who earned more from side deals during the boom than they did from actually playing.

6 – Middle Aged Men Fueled the Boom

The faces of the poker boom were mostly in their thirties and forties. Or, in the case of Doyle Brunson, they were even much older.

This created the notion that middle-aged men were the ones rushing to the poker tables. The idea made sense too, when considering that they had jobs and free income to blow on their poker dreams. But the truth eventually revealed itself in the later part of the decade.

Elite pros who emerged from the ashes of the boom, such as Tom Dwan and Phil Galfond, weren’t grizzled men who worked as plumbers and bus drivers before making it big. The new breed of pros consisted of college dropouts, who spent their late teen years glued to laptops.

Of course, the college-dropout-turned-pro story only masked the ugly reality of the poker boom—it was built on the backs of students.

College students are rightly stereotyped as not having much money. But in numbers, they scraped together a collective fortune and contributed much to the game’s economy.

Countless naïve students saw online poker as an easy route toward riches, or at least avoiding the regular workforce. But many just blew their money, struggled with schoolwork, and/or failed to refine their social skills due to a poker obsession.

Of course, plenty of middle-aged and older people took up the game. But the age represented on TV shows like Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker wasn’t entirely indicative of the average player.

7 – The UIGEA Killed Poker Growth

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) is often credited with ending the poker boom. And rightfully so, given that the UIGEA convinced payment processors (e.g. Neteller) to leave the US and made placing poker deposits much harder. However, some take this legal event too far and claim it was the end of poker growth.

WSOP ME attendance is often used as the key metric to show how poker “died” after the UIGEA. But this figure isn’t entirely representative of what really happened.

2006, the last year of the poker boom, saw a record 8,773 players enter the WSOP Main Event. This total dropped to 6,358 entrants the following year.

A big reason why ME attendance dropped so much is that fewer prize packages were being awarded. Many poker sites were too busy finding a shady payment processor or bank who’d work with them, rather than handing out numerous $10k Main Event seats.

The UIGEA didn’t completely undo several years of accelerated poker growth. It merely served as a log in the road. Sites eventually found their way around this law thanks to unsavory payment solutions.

In 2011, the US countered with Black Friday, the day when the Department of Justice indicted figureheads of prominent internet poker rooms. Black Friday was more destructive to the game than the UIGEA. Absolute Poker, Full Tilt, and UB were exposed and forced to shut down.

Other factors that have hurt online poker since then include bots, split markets due to regulation, and tougher games. But live poker appears to be as strong as ever.

The WSOP has set attendance record after record in recent years. Furthermore, the 2019 Main Event’s attendance of 8,569 is quite close to the 2006 mark.

Poker growth never technically died because of the UIGEA alone. Despite all of the problems with the game, it remains very popular in the live arena.

Conclusion

Most contend that poker will never experience a boom quite like it did from 2003 to 2006. The game went from a backroom gambling affair to a global phenomenon during this period.

But the good times only lasted so long. The boom ended in 2006 after the UIGEA was passed. Plenty of misconceptions still exist about this period years long after it drew to a close.

First off, Chris Moneymaker didn’t singlehandedly usher in the poker boom. He had a lot of help from prior events that boosted the game’s popularity.

The US wasn’t the only country that contributed to the game’s growth either. Several European countries also helped poker explode as well. Despite the boon, not every site involved was making lots of money. Many of the smaller poker rooms found out the hard way that the game isn’t a quick ticket to riches.

However, a lot of prominent players did cash in on the boom, just not from the tables. They benefited from sponsorships and business dealings more than they did from playing the game.

Another misconception is that middle-aged men kept the boom years rolling. Instead, college students and other young adults were just as much, if not more, responsible for the matter.

Finally, the UIGEA may have prematurely ended the poker boom. It didn’t, however, kill off the game’s growth, which has continued on a global level.