Poker is one of the most strategic casino games out there. This element of strategy makes for some fascinating drama on the tables.
Poker experienced a series of massive expansions in popularity from the 1980s through the 2000s. Casinos installed posh poker rooms to accommodate the hordes of new players looking to try their hand.
However, there’s been a downturn in popularity recently. Poker rooms where it was once common to find an hour or more wait are now struggling to fill tables. Is the “poker boom” dead?
Lighting the Fire
Real money poker experienced a boost in popularity that absolutely nobody could have seen coming in 2003. By that time, the World Series of Poker had become a staple on ESPN, and even people who had barely played in a home game would tune in to watch the drama unfold.
I can remember Scotty Nguyen’s famous line from the 1998 event like it was yesterday, “You call, it’s gonna be all over, baby!” That’s the best sentence ever uttered around a poker table as far as I’m concerned.
The stage had been set, and in 2003, Chris Moneymaker was the catalyst for the largest poker boom of them all. Moneymaker had won his seat in the tournament through an online satellite tournament. Online poker was still very much in its infancy at the time.
For that matter, the internet was still a novel concept to many. Netflix would actually mail you a DVD, then you’d have to mail it back. I’m not joking; that’s actually how it happened. I certainly didn’t have Wi-Fi and didn’t recall anybody that did.
So, the idea that any significant online poker presence came as a total surprise to many players. Serious poker players scoffed at the online rooms and claimed the players substandard. Of course, that was before Moneymaker flipped the poker world on its head by winning the WSOP Main Event.
Suddenly, the online poker rooms were legitimized, and players flocked to them by the truckload. Thousands upon thousands of players began to look at poker as a potential new career opportunity.
The Poker Shine Begins to Dull
The 2003 WSOP Main Event was a significant turning point in poker’s popularity. Millions of casual poker players became enthralled with the game.
You couldn’t walk into a giant retailer or even a gas station without being confronted with DIY poker sets. These sets came with chips, cards, table felt, dealer and blinds buttons, and usually some cheap metallic case.
They were everywhere, and people couldn’t get enough. One Christmas, I received three of the poker sets and probably gave twice that many as gifts. Still, the poker boom was in full effect. Online poker sites began to run out of server space due to the massive influx of new players.
Before the decline of PokerStars and Full Tilt, they were household names, and they drew the largest names in poker to promote their brands. Tens of millions were exchanging hands regularly during the boom.
The beautiful thing about Texas Holdem is that you can learn the basics of play relatively quickly. Still, you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to master it.
You could find a game anywhere you went. Bars were hosting regular tournaments or games, the internet was full of cash games where better players could make a mint exploiting the “fish,” and home games took off.
Towards the end of the boom, I would spend every Sunday night at a poker table in the country club’s locker room.
Things slowed to a crawl around 2007. The end of the boom can be attributed to several things, but whether it was players that were tired of getting picked off by better players or simply a loss of interest is inconsequential.
The fact is that the shine had worn off, and players got wrapped up in other hobbies.
Leveling off of Poker Players
Don’t confuse the death of the poker boom with the death of poker. Poker is still very much alive and well.
You can stroll into any large casino across the globe anytime and find a cash game that matches your budget. Most casinos still offer tournaments daily.
However, it has become more difficult for online poker players. Many players were beat to the point of exhaustion. It became taxing to find a game where they weren’t getting beat up by truly elite players. So, they vanished as quickly as they came.
Poker becomes far less exciting when your sole focus is not losing all of your money. It became a chore to navigate through the bloodied waters and players up and left. Still, there are a ton of cash games floating around for the dedicated player. Even the pros were affected by the boom, which ensued leveling off.
The cash cow that they had been handed began to dwindle, and it went back to pro vs. pro more and more. Many of the newly-crowned pros were forced out due to the ultra-competitive climate that had been created by the new players.
Could the Game Experience Another Rapid Resurgence?
Poker is primed for another significant boom. Online gambling laws are beginning to loosen across the United States. More people than in recent history are looking for ways to be entertained from home.
In fact, over the last five years, online gambling in the US has reached heights never before imagined. Almost every state has laws on the book, which would open the door for online gambling.
Most importantly, poker is just as great of a game today as it was in 1972 when Amarillo Slim won the WSOP Main Event and became a regular personality on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Love him or hate him (most of those that knew him fell under the latter), Amarillo Slim was a spectacle. He loved telling tall tales of his adventures both on and off of the poker table.
People love a great story, and the right mix of background and personality could easily ignite a massive resurgence. Possibly taking the game to heights never seen before.
The struggle will be finding a personality. Today’s young players are calculated and cool. You’ll rarely see much emotion or trash talking on this year’s ESPN coverage of the Main Event.
Even without some breakout player with a larger-than-life personality, poker is poised to boom. More and more casino gamblers are becoming experts on the games they play.
A byproduct of this newfound knowledge is their realization that there’s no way to get rid of the house edge. So, they turn to poker. In poker, you aren’t encumbered by the advantage the casino holds over you. You only need to be more skilled than your opponent.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but at least you’ve got a chance.
Long Live the Game, Not the Dream
While the poker dream, one of untold riches and fame, has largely been extinguished. The possibility still exists for the players that dedicate their lives to the craft.
Study its intricacies and learn from the pioneers of the game. You don’t have to become a millionaire to become an accomplished player. You don’t need a WSOP bracelet to be a successful poker player. Winning a tournament at a casino or a charity event can be very rewarding.
Play for the love of the game and win or lose, you’ll be successful.
Is the poker boom dead? Yes, but the game is very much alive and well. I won’t be at all surprised if we see another significant boom in the next three to five years. Gambling online in the US is becoming more and more common.
High-quality online poker sites are popping up all the time. And it’s not too farfetched to think that a new generation of players might just encourage another poker boom.
My bet is that the coming years will welcome an online poker explosion.