A Tale of Two Pokers: Live vs. Online
It’s neither the best of times, nor is it the worst of times. Gone are the days when poker was the topic du jour. No longer are office coolers around the world populated with people discussing “the amazing poker hand they saw on TV last night” nor are hordes of new players signing up for accounts on the big online poker sites. On the other hand, online poker operators are battling fiercely for larger slices of the current player pool and things are looking better than they have in a long while as far as brick and mortar poker. The game of poker itself still has its devotees and the industry as a whole is racking its brains to keep trying to boost poker’s popularity back to levels last seen in the glory days after Chris Moneymaker’s win at the 2003 World Series of Poker. Let’s take a closer look at the state of both live and online poker in 2019 and discuss the future prospects or each.
Now 16 years after the impossibly-named accountant from Tennessee captured the world’s attention with his astonishing victory against the best poker players in the world, the rollercoaster ride-like timeline of online poker is one people are pretty familiar with.
People all over the world were clamoring to get into poker by opening accounts online. The idea of being able to play the game they saw on television from the comfort of their living rooms, whether for high stakes or for pennies, was nothing short of revolutionary. Sites like PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, partypoker, and others saw their databases swell to unprecedented heights, and raked in millions of dollars each day by offering cash games and tournaments 24/7 to a worldwide pool of players.
Disaster struck on April 15, 2011, when Black Friday eliminated the United States market from the worldwide player pool. Ever since then, the online poker world – while it’s recovered somewhat from that huge blow – has struggled. For years, the operators have continued to make earnest efforts to run promotions that entice new players to open accounts and existing players to keep depositing and playing. Yet, they’ve been facing an uphill battle, mostly due to legislative issues.
A main reason that online poker had a heyday in the first place is that it boasted a de facto worldwide player pool. Once lawmakers in numerous countries decided to get in on the act and either outlaw or regulate the game, or ring-fence their jurisdiction’s market, the lifeblood of online poker action – the large pool of players – began to dry up:
- A country like France, for example, might have a great pool of online poker players, but when they can only play against their countrymen online rather than log in at, say, 3am and find tons of potential opponents hailing from elsewhere in the world waiting for them at the tables, action will suffer.
- Australia was a hotbed of online poker activity, until they experienced their own death knell on August 9, 2017, when the country’s legislators outlawed the game.
There have been a number of other legislative developments in European and other countries related to online poker, but very generally speaking (of course there are some exceptions) the more involved governments have gotten, the more setbacks the game and industry have had on the whole.
Moreover, unfortunately the prevalence of bots and constant threats to game integrity that operators have to contend with have continued to cast a shadow over the otherwise erstwhile efforts to positively promote the game.
The news hasn’t been all bad, though. While online poker isn’t permitted on a federal level in the U.S., a number of states have authorized it, including Delaware, Nevada, and New Jersey. Realizing the need for liquidity for online poker to function properly and for operators to profit and thus generate tax revenues, interstate agreements have come to the fore. A fourth state, Pennsylvania, has legalized online poker as well, with operators set to launch imminently. Logic dictates that the state’s player pool will also eventually join the existing interstate pacts. While it’s a far cry from a U.S.-wide market, and the interstate market is still ring-fenced from the worldwide player pool, it’s still something. As additional states hopefully “join the club”, things could really only get better.
Meanwhile, as the largest online poker rooms are owned by entities that are publicly traded on stock exchanges around the world, they need to continue showing profit for investors. As such, numerous professional players have felt the squeeze, with rakeback promotions being curtailed in favor or shifting promotional budget to acquiring and retaining recreational players. Affiliates, too, have suffered, with lifetime revenue share deals being scaled back to two-year contracts.
At the end of the day, however, what hasn’t ebbed is the pure desire of poker aficionados to keep playing the game they love. Numerous unregulated online poker sites exist that cater to players both in the U.S. as well as the rest of the world living in jurisdictions where online poker is not currently classified as legal. While these sites could in principle either be shut down or close up shop from one day to the next, that hasn’t stopped people from using them to play poker online.
That burning desire to play poker that people have has manifested itself in a far more pervasive way in live poker.
Traditionally, the industry looks to the World Series of Poker Main Event attendance as the bellwether for “how things are going.” After a record-setting 2006 attendance of 8,773, numbers took a big hit in the wake of the UIGEA. From 6,358 participants in the 2007 WSOP Main Event, numbers climbed steadily once again until 2010, in which 7,319 players took a seat at the felt. In the wake of Black Friday, numbers stagnated, ranging from 6,352–6,865 between the years of 2011 and 2016. Happy days are here again though, as we’ve witnessed a dramatic increase in participation at the WSOP Main Event over the last three years. This past summer, a new record was almost set, as 8,569 players plunked down $10,000 for their shot at the most prestigious tournament in live poker.
That single tournament aside, more and more people are showing up to play poker in brick and mortar establishments around the world. From the European Poker Tour to the Aussie Millions, we’re seeing record and near-record fields in both main events as well as side events. Events with buy-ins of $25,000 and higher used to be quite rare, but they seem to be happening on an almost weekly basis these days. In fact Triton Poker just ran an event in London featuring the highest buy-in in history, £1,050,000, which attracted 50(!) participants. Moreover, a number of smaller tours have popped up in the United States as well as the rest of the world catering to players with more humble bankrolls, and they’re all seeing great numbers of attendees.
I have had the good fortune to attend the World Series of Poker as well as a number of tournament festivals held in locations like the Bahamas, Bucharest, Malta, and elsewhere over the last few years. In each place, the action was buzzing. Tables were full. People were enjoying themselves. Without a doubt a stranger to the game who would have visited a poker festival over the last few years anywhere around the world would have no reason to believe that live poker is anything but thriving. TheHendonmob.com, which tracks live poker event results, experienced yet another record-setting year in Web traffic, and that growth shows no signs of slowing down either.
And that’s just the tournament scene! Cash games appear to be humming right along, too. Waiting lists for open seats could be found at dozens of poker rooms over the summer in Las Vegas. Popular poker vloggers like Andrew Neeme and Brad Owen are traversing the globe and attracting hundreds of players to each of their meet-up games playing for stakes of $2/5 and higher in the middle of the week. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that David Oppenheim, an almost purely cash game player, was one of two inductees into the Poker Hall of Fame this year (along with Chris Moneymaker).
While more and more content producers than ever before are competing for our attention, and televised poker can no longer command the same audience as it has in the past, new avenues have opened up to further expose the game to the “divided” masses. Twitch has become a favored outlet for producers of live poker tournaments to stream the action. The company behind Poker Central/PokerGO invested heavily in creating a state-of-the-art studio in Las Vegas from which to broadcast their own slate of prestigious events, along with numerous other marquee live events on the yearly poker calendar. According to all indicators, increasing amounts of poker-lovers are happily paying the monthly subscription fee (a la Netflix) to tune in and watch the first-rate productions. So too, the World Poker Tour shows no signs of slowing down after 17 years in the business, distributing their own cutting-edge live poker event broadcasts to fans watching in over 100 countries around the world.
No longer content to solely learn from playing or from watching the pros on TV, players are investing in becoming better, enrolling in poker training courses covering every possible aspect of Texas Hold’em play and even some other poker variants. Players are also working on their mental game to try and get an edge on their opponents – hell, even MasterClass is getting in on the act, having gotten Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey to share some of their secrets, as you’ve surely seen clips of on social media.
In poker, as in life, there’s variance. Sometimes you get hit by the deck and run hot, and other times you couldn’t snap a cold streak if your life depended on it. Over the past decade and a half, both live and online poker have experienced their share of variance. Things seem to have rebounded to almost record levels on the live poker scene, and all indicators point to continued growth and flourishing. Online poker could use some help though. Without lawmakers making active pushes to get the game legalized in more jurisdictions and working to combine player pools, the game will continue to struggle. Another thing about poker though… you’ve gotta play the hand you’re dealt, and you certainly can’t win if you fold.
Shuffle up and deal!
About Robbie Strazynski
Robbie Strazynski is the founder of Cardplayerlifestyle.com. Over the last decade, Robbie has carved out a niche for himself as an independent member of the poker media corps as a writer, publisher, podcaster, and video presenter. From coverage at live poker events to publishing buzzworthy and controversial op-eds to conducting interviews with the biggest names in poker, Robbie’s constant goal is to provide the poker-loving masses with engaging entertainment. Robbie also translated Pulling the Trigger: The Autobiography of Eli Elezra from Hebrew into English, is the co-host of the Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast, and won the 2018 Global Poker Award for Charitable Initiative of the Year.