Tonight in Las Vegas and (near) live on ESPN, the final table of the World Series of Pokers’ Main Event begins. Though the tournament began in July, the “November Nine” resume play after a three month lay-off – competing for more than $8 million in prize money. This concept – whittling the full field down to a final table of nine, determining the winner live on TV in November – is a relatively new one, an idea unthinkable even ten years ago. Why would anyone care about the outcome of a single poker tournament so much as to wait months to decide a winner?
A lot can change in a decade. In the world of professional poker, ten years is enough time for a tidal wave of money to crash across the landscape – establishing poker as a sports entertainment force and changing the game forever. It took ten years for the poker bubble to stretch and expand across the globe before it finally burst. Slowly, widespread interest in poker declined, receding like the flood waters which forever re-shaped this pop culture juggernaut.
There is still solid interest in the World Series and professional poker in general but nowhere near the incredible heights it once reached. Attention has turned elsewhere. But why? The same factors that contributed to poker’s meteoric cultural rise undercut its popularity and eventually relegated it back to the margins where, fairly or otherwise, it belongs.
Across the last decade, the factors that fueled the unprecedented growth of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) contributed directly to its ultimate flameout. A classic bubble that progressed through all the stages before bursting in spectacular fashion. Before the 2013 WSOP Main Event champion is crowned, look back on the poker world’s trajectory and how the game borne from smokey casino cardrooms ended up as an area-style TV special with lights, analysts and months of all – filtered through the lens of one man whose interactions with the game closely follow a nearly identical trajectory.
The almost too-good-to-be-true story of Chris Moneymaker is well known, even ten years after the fact. Middle American everyman wins his way into the World Series of Poker’s Main Event and takes home the whole thing. The online qualifier converts a small qualifying tournament win into a $10000 entry fee into a $2.5 million jackpot and changes thousand of lives in the process.
Though Moneymaker’s triumph serves as a convenient starting point for the poker growth story, the storm gathered before Moneymaker’s win. The online “sit-n-go” tournament Moneymaker used to pay his entry was not unique, as the spread of broadband internet helped grow the online game at a record pace. The 2003 tournament Moneymaker won featured the most entries in the history of the World Series of Poker’s main event.
Total entires ballooned from 631 players in 2002 to 839 the following year, an increase of 33%. Main event entries more than doubled between 1999 and 2003. More and more online games and small tournaments allowed safe passage to the biggest tournament in the world to players otherwise unwilling to put up ten large of their own.
Online card rooms and the ability to gain entry to the Main Event completely overhauled the face of the World Series. New card rooms seemed to pop up weekly, each promising more cash-back bonuses and World Series seats to new players. Without the advertising budgets found in the later stage of the online poker explosion, it took different means for the internet-based game to get its hooks into potential players. Many took to irritating pop up ads doing whatever they could do to get their brand in front of as many eyeballs as possible. Some struck up partnerships with popular “lad mags”, drawing in the young players who probably saw Rounders on cable a dozen times.
Rounders’ cultural significance belies its modest box office output, as the Matt Damon/Ed Norton vehicle reinforced the idea that poker was a game that can be beaten by a skilled player as well as dutifully breaking down key nuances of Hold’em, immersing viewers in an irresistible universe with a rich lexicon and sexy lifestyle. Beyond the exotic New York City locales, the hole card cameras featured in Rounders presaged their use in WSOP broadcasts. Once ESPN added these cameras to their broadcasts, viewer engagement shot up.
Chris Moneymaker’s relatable everyman script came tailor-made for the exciting new delivery vehicle, grabbing attention from corners of society unfamiliar with the World Series and professional poker. The larger-than-life poker pros kept that attention, with colorful nicknames and personas beyond what even the Rounders screenwriters could imagine. It was the appeal of those who dared to live a life on the margins of society, singing for their supper every night on the unforgiving tables of Las Vegas. These rogues were their own bosses and, as one poker pro told Nate Silver in his book The Signal and the Noise, it seemed as though they “beat society.”
The rough and tumble world of professional poker existed long before the online game and ESPN. The allure of a card game that – armed with the guile and ability – anybody can make their living playing is unmistakeable. “It isn’t gambling, it is a skill game” has long been the rallying cry of both professionals and wannabe pros alike. In later years, ESPN went out of its way to market the wild gambling habits of these players, with their ongoing preposterous side bets and big money action that followed them around the globe.
With a headful of colorful movie quotes and a brand new access point to the game, poker became part of my daily life. Like most players who started out online, I had a very skewed perspective on my own poker playing ability. When I started out playing for fake chips, using the slightest bit of patience or thought usually placed me well in “no money” tournaments run on the “not for cash” side of my poker site of choice.
Having just returned from a stint living in Asia, I found myself with nothing but time and a whole lot of misplaced confidence. That deadly combination fueled my curiosity and eventually I took the plunge, making a small deposit on True Poker.com, an online card room built around animation-heavy 3D avatars. Like many before me, a small amount of initial success owing more to significant amounts of luck than skill planted the seed and a poker player was born.
A few books and a whole lot of online hands later and poker was more than just an occasional game with friends. Poker sunk into my bones. Modest online wins and a modicum of study gave way to frequent casino outings and more and more time spent playing, reading, thinking and dreaming about playing cards. The play on Truepoker was not especially strong in those days. Tournament payouts were modest and the low-stakes ring games were soft so my bankroll grew quickly.
Not all players were skilled and educated in the finer points of the game. For all the new blood the poker wave washed into the game, it chummed the water for a fast-growing pool of sharks. As my online balance grew, so did my confidence and drive to spend more time playing. As poker kept expanding its scope, more players made their way online and wandered into brick and mortar (B&M) casinos to investigate the games they saw on TV and try their luck.
Players who were just along for a good time or who simply didn’t care about the nickels they lost kept players like myself above water. Employing a very aggressive style, many players simply folded their cards when faced with an onslaught of my bets and raises, constantly questioning the validity of their holdings.
The game grew quickly and those on the leading edge benefited from the game’s many newcomers wading in to test the waters. The learning curve was steep but soon, the game was inescapable. Poker was about to take over.
Before long, poker was everywhere. The World Series of Poker on TV was a valuable property for ESPN. Online poker empowered players to take up the game and ESPN brought it into the homes of the as-yet uninitiated in volume. Given the success of ESPN’s Main Event coverage, the network branched out and began covering more and more World Series of Poker events.
The series grew from an invite-only test of poker skill (for which the winner was decided by popular vote) to the main event as it is now known – the $10,000 no-limit Texas Hold’em freeze out tournament – a summer-long festival featuring dozens of events staged for a wide spectrum of values and running the full gamut of poker variants. From the familiar no-limit events to Omaha and stud games to the increasingly esoteric games like razz and triple low, the WSOP continued to add mixed events that rotated between different games. The 2013 World Series of Poker included 62 bracelet (awarded to the winner in addition to the cash prize) events.
Beyond the poker pros, the World Series Main Event always attracted another type of characters – rich eccentrics. Las Vegas staples and L.A. movie producers with more money than sense, eager to take their shot and pick up some new stories for the country club. Self-promoters in costume and B-list actors hoping for a big payout and a little screen time. It all created an unbelievable atmosphere at the old Binion’s Casino on Fremont Street, away from the enormous mega hotel structures of the new Las Vegas Strip.
The atmosphere persisted until the WSOP was sold, whole hog, and eventually moved from the grimy confines of Binion’s to the all-suites Rio resort. Despite being a much more suitable home for an event of this scale, the event lost its soul in the move from its rightful home on Fremont Street to the brighter but ultimately sterile convention center floor at the Rio. Such is the way of a worldwide entertainment property – it is plucked from the clutches of its loyal protectors without a second thought. There is money to be made and the WSOP was in the process of printing money for a whole host of people.
For all the expansion and money in the game, it is slightly unusual that the crown jewel of the poker world carries the same buy-in as it did in 1972. As such, it is now dwarfed by six-figure tournaments hosted around the world. Even within the WSOP itself, six other bracelet events carry buy-ins equal to or greater than the Main Event’s 10K fee. The “player’s choice” is now the $50K HORSE event, seen as a better test of top-to-bottom poker skill. Total Main Event entries are slowly declining after a peak of nearly 9000 players in 2006 – 2013′s total of 6352 paid entries is the lowest since 2005. The World Series of Poker brand grew and expanded to now include a full tournament circuit which spans the globe.
After the success of ESPN’s relaunch and repackaging of the World Series, more and more televised poker events popped up on TV screens. The World Poker Tour launched, attempted to mimic the high production values and big payouts of the World Series. It wasn’t long until the airwaves were littered with hour-long poker programs. The production costs were relatively low and the explosion of popularity allowed content providers to charge, as one television executive told me, nearly triple what a similarly rated show would earn. Poker was everywhere and everyone wanted a piece of the action.
There was plenty of action to go around. The boom of poker in Las Vegas and online grew rooms at local casinos around the world. While poker tables are not necessarily a cash cow for casinos, they do bring players through the doors. And the players came out in droves. A cohort of poker players consumed Doyle Brunson’s seminal work Super System, adapting its ethos and rushing in the new age of hyper-aggressive poker all at once.
As poker exploded on TV, it exploded into homes around the world. Suddenly, there were poker tournaments in the party rooms of hotels and condos and underground clubs springing up everywhere. Friends and I would play cards online all day, playing in the same poker rooms or even at the same table, talking via instant messenger about other players at the table. Road trips to Atlantic City featuring marathon sessions and easy seats.
Then the paydays slowed down and the novelty of playing cards to pay the bills wore thin. The vast majority of players eventually played the same way, or at least in the same spirit. But in the early days, those who heeded the aggression mandate were rewarded. Soon, more and more players employed similar strategies. They seemed younger, better. Then the more insidious side of poker’s pull began to rear its ugly head – the two pronged attack of entitlement and arrogance.
Once a poker player loses, they always think they can win their way back to even and beyond. That and the “entitled” belief that comes with success in the short term. “Not only can I win this money back, I will win this money back because I’m better than player x, y, and z.”
This mindset not only plagues small-time amateurs but the top pros as well. Poker players go broke time and time again by getting in over their head or allowing the degenerate gambler that lurks just below the surface to emerge. These players with diminished bankrolls end up as hired guns, playing with somebody else’s money, either in tournaments or big cash games – playing for a percentage of the chips sitting before them.
Televised poker encourages this among the top players, showcasing their cavalier attitude toward money in profile pieces used to build up the pros into the monied gods they need to sell the TV product. Odd then that televised poker coverage makes no mention of the backers and financiers who allow so many top players to compete in the televised events. Not to mention all the side deals the players’ themselves put into place. Grantland’s oral history of the 2003 WSOP details Chris Moneymaker’s attempts to strike a deal once he was “heads up” with pro Sammy Farha, a deal Farha shot down as it was not to his liking.
Moneymaker offered to split the remaining prize money evenly with Farha – a generous offer considering the young accountant’s sizable chip lead at the time. With avarice he would later come to regret, Farha shot down Moneymaker’s offer, instead asking for a greater share of the $3.8 million prize. Even a novice like Moneymaker knew what his big lead meant at that stage of the event. He decided they simply play the tournament out, with the bracelet and $2.5 million winner’s prize going to the last man standing. The rest, as they say, is history.
Viewers are sold the idea of lone wolf poker pros, living off their own victories and beholden to no one. Playing cards for the huge stacks of cash conspicuously dumped onto the table once they reach the final two players. The reality is often very different, as players strike deals and sell off their potential future earnings to insulate themselves against the swings and unexpected “variance” that is no-limit Hold’em.
The November Nine stretches this ideal to its illogical conclusion. A recent article on the site Four Flush wondered if the November Nine hasn’t outlived its use, given the flagging TV numbers and bizarre dynamic it injects into the proceedings. The original idea of the November Nine was to allow the final table to air live culminating the WSOP season on ESPN in real time, rather than airing a pre-determined outcome months after the fact.
Citing the decrease in poker sponsorships available to final table participants – Four Flush notes that of recent winners, only Jonathan Duhamel currents holds a deal with one of the major online brans – not only does it no longer make financial sense for the players, it also removes the wildcard aspect of a lucky amateur playing alongside the seasoned pros.
Allowing players to spend three months improving has been terrible for the game…(n)ow the casual viewer sees a final table of nine extremely competent players; there is nobody at the final table that they can identify with, and root for as the long-shot underdog.
Rather than give the network a chance to promote the final table, it ends up an afterthought. The casual fans who inflated the poker bubble might not even realize the difference between a show hastily edited the night of airing or a show that took place months before.
However, the bigger issue is that fans have increasingly moved on. Thanks to a semi-obscure law passed to protect US ports in 2006, the casual poker fans and fat belly of the poker world moved on long ago.
Nothing gold can stay. The explosive growth experienced by the WSOP wasn’t going to last forever. At some point, things would begin to level off. The steep growth was unsustainable, anyone who thought otherwise was selling something or dreaming.
But when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 became law, it set the downfall of online poker into motion. Several prominent websites closed soon after October 13, 2006 and, after years of legal maneuvering, another key court decision temporarily closed some of the top poker sites in the world, including Full Tilt Poker and Poker Stars. These losses took the wind from the sails of the poker business.
My poker playing had largely trailed off, do the a combination of matters not the least of which included “not having any more money.” With the online avenue closed or at least partially obstructed, player poker became less and less an attractive option. I was not alone in this, as other players I spoke to mentioned their own poker apathy beginning around this time in addition to the difficulty in getting a good or at least profitable game.
Nate Silver describes his experience with Black Friday in the “Poker Bubble” chapter of The Signal and the Noise
Many of the professional players, reliant on the game for income, had soldiered on kept playing, but most of the amateurs withdrew their funds or went broke. The fragile ecology of the poker economy was turned upside down – without those weak players to prop the game up, the water level had risen, and some of the sharks turned into suckers.
My experiences are strikingly similar. The paradigm shifted. What it meant to be good or profitable in the early days changed. All players were aggressive, new players seemed unbelievably aggressive. They played more tables at once and played with a gusto I could not match. The online poker rooms diversified, offering more games and more tournaments, all of which became more places for me to lose money.
After grinding away, working “hard” to carve out a small profit at a no-limit hold’em table, I’d often find myself playing high/low pot-limit omaha, a more complex game that invites much more speculation and gambling – a game I didn’t know nearly as well. The patience once used to bide my time and play “my” game was gone. In its place was an urgent greed, a desire to play in tournaments I was unlikely to win in search of a big tournament payout I was never going to earn. Even when I was “running good”, I would leave the fertile ground of a lower stake game in search of bigger payouts against tougher competition – a great way to redistribute any winnings.
For me, online poker dried up and life options took me in another direction. As my personal life changed, the number of home games dwindled and the trips to the casino became fewer and farther between. Even my choice of cable provider impacted my consumption of poker. The official rights holder in my area didn’t broadcast in HD with my cable package, so I was that much less likely to watch the WSOP when it aired.
My experiences are not unique. The number of Main Event entries dropped conspicuslously after the first wave of online card rooms shuttered. Other televised sports cluttered up the broadcast schedule. Consider the rise of mixed martial arts alongside the decline of poker in the public consciousness. Like two ships passing in the night…
Bust might be a strong word. The game of poker and especially the World Series is not going anywhere. The entries into the Main Event seem to have stabilized, thanks in large part to the influx of players from around the world. TV numbers took a tumble from their peak but at the same time, they remain steady and much higher than before the boom.
But it is the current strengths within the game that prevent it from growing again. Players from Finland, Russia, and other non-English speaking nations tend not to make for the same brand of exciting television beyond the actual play on the tables. It is the flattened Earth envisioned in James McManus’ Positively Fifth Street - an account of the 2000 WSOP and the circus-like trial of two people charged with the murder of the tournament’s de facto host, Ted Binion. More growth of the game internationally keeps the industry on an even keel but might just hurt its popularity stateside.
More and more, the table action of the WSOP requires more spit and polish by producers to turn slow-moving tournament action into a compelling hour-long television product. Especially in the Main Event, players spend more time considering their moves, given the large sums of money at play. The glacial place and realities of current technology allows players the chance to plug in their headphones, further slowing the game and reducing the table banter significantly.
As for the World Series, it still means far too many players. A WSOP bracelet is something many top professionals covet. Yet poker is not like other popular sports – money changes hands in real time. Poker players possess many more avenues to generate their personal revenue beyond big tournaments.
Consider the man considered to be the top no-limit Hold’em player in the world – Tom Dwan. During the first day of this year’s Main Event - the massive field forces organizers to split the first day of the tournament into groups, as all 6500 players can’t fit in the same Las Vegas venue at the same time - Dwan was nowhere to be found.
The man known as “durrrr” simply didn’t show up for the first day of the biggest poker tournament in the world – he was playing more lucrative cash games at one of the sleek, new hotels in the middle of the Strip. After being blinded off (in which the dealer takes his blind antes in absentia), Dwan arrived to a short stack of chips on Day Two – a stack he promptly lost in less than one hour.
It’s a money game – that’s it. If Tiger Woods or Rory McIllroy could earn similar salaries playing private matches at clubs around the world, they would. But no matter how rich you are, you aren’t going to play Tigers Woods in a match for $2MM. But in the poker world, very rich men and women line up to lose their money to guys like Dwan every day.
Poker is a business. It always was, even before ESPN and Corporate America came looking for their cut. Benny Binion staged the original World Series of Poker as a way to promote his casino. Nothing more, nothing less. The World Series as we now know it will continue to evolve as will the players and fans of the game, even after November Nine-style gimmicks become distant memories.
I last played poker in a casino about 18 months ago. My family spent a few weeks in Florida for the winter while I was stuck behind in the frozen north for work. One Friday night, I drove north from my home to the closest casino. With more nervousness than I care to admit, I added my name to the waiting list, peering through the glass at the tables inside the poker room. When my name was finally called, I bought some chips and quickly took my seat.
Everything was the same, but I had changed. My perspective and priorities were so much different than five or ten years prior. The game seemed almost overwhelming at first but the rhythms of table became second nature once I got over the fear of losing the couple hundred bucks in front of me. The old habits came rushing back – arranging chips a certain way, establishing a routine when checking hole cards, drawing up instant character sketches for the other players at the table.
As late night gave way to early morning, the table broke up as players became scarce. A quick check of the chips in front of me showed I had a few stacks of chips more than I started with. Energized, I floated to the cashier and made tracks for the parking lot. Just as it was when I first started playing, any money I made that night came courtesy of good fortune, not good play. But it felt good to check in on the game once again, free of obligation and resentment. It’s amazing the difference a couple lucky draws makes.
When the November Nine sit around a table surrounded by bright lights and expensive HD cameras, they won’t be playing to regain a lost thrill with little more than beer money. The life of one of those nine men will change forever between now and Wednesday. Even as TV ratings sag and new players come to the game in drops rather than torrents, the power of the WSOP remains.
In the next 48 hours, somebody is going to earn $8.4 million by winning a poker tournament. Even if that total is down from its peak in 2006, that is an awe-inspiring amount of money. The game might not be as fresh as it was or on the lips of as many people as it used to be, but it remains. The evolution from worldwide phenomenon to get-rich quick fad still has many chapters yet unwritten. The game and the business share one key trait – once the cards are in the air, anything can happen.
The final table airs near live on ESPN2 at 8pm Monday night. Coverage begins at 10pm on TSN2 in Canada