3 February 2024
The early 2000s marked a never-saw-it-coming increase in popular appeal for poker. You might say, “not new”, and you are correct because indeed for centuries, poker has enchanted gamblers with its fusion of psychological strategy and fortune. However, it was in the initially mentioned period that interest in poker detonated massively.
Swung by… you could call it a growth storm, the early 2000s witnessed what became known as the “Poker Boom”. Various new players and even non-players became attracted to the game, seeking what was not lost. Or nobody knows.
This post will inspect the key factors that triggered this boom and subsequent decline in poker’s reputation. If you are someone who lived in the climactic era of poker, it’s no exaggeration to admit you likely have numerous lingering questions about the mysterious point where poker stands today. You will tick off some questions with this post.
The poker boom did not take place one Monday morning but was the consequence of converging impacts in the late 1990s. Rounders the 1998 film starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, played a major role in shaking things up.
The film portrayed poker as a thrilling game of expertise and strategy, heightening broader attraction among its crowd of millions. Rounders underscored poker’s potential for both entertainment and earnings. At the same time, the rise of the internet and online poker was opening up unprecedented access to the card game. The first online poker game between people can be traced back to 1994 on the text-based IRC-Poker.
Back in the day, there was this thing called IRC-Poker. It was basically poker, but people played it over the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) protocol. This platform made it possible to chat with other players and place bets with “fake” money. It soon became old school and in 1998, Planet Poker launched as the inaugural “real” money poker platform on the internet. This invention allowed players across regions and time zones to compete against each other independently from their homes or wherever with internet access.
Users also at a point began to smell old school and old age in Planet Poker, as its software and server started showing imperfections. This coincided with the emergence of other online poker sites including Paradise Poker, PartyPoker, and PokerStars during the same period.
The combination of Rounders’ Hollywood spotlight and online poker’s convenient accessibility set the foundation for greater participation in the game. These formative developments would set the stage for the explosive growth yet to come as the boom gathered momentum through the early 2000s.
Isn’t this getting hotter? Keep going, you have not seen anything.
No argument, the movie Rounders and the rise of online poker platforms helped establish the stage, the true turning point for poker’s reputation came in 2003 with the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas. The WSOP has been held annually since 1970, but it came with a special package in 2003. In that year, this dude named Chris Moneymaker, who was just a regular player, pulled off this crazy win in the WSOP Main Event.
His win (US$2.5 million) was remarkable as he had only qualified through a $39 satellite match on the online poker site PokerStars. Moneymaker’s against-the-odds, rags-to-riches style story made poker fans crazier globally with an intense or maybe unreasonable fascination with the game.
Almost immediately, anyone with internet access and desire was motivated by Moneymaker’s triumph, believing they too could achieve glory in the biggest poker tournaments. Chris Moneymaker’s win was dubbed the “Moneymaker Effect”. Wait, wait, wait, hold up. Did you catch it? This is sheer cosmic comedy. Chris is rocking the last name “Moneymaker” and, oh look, he goes ahead and makes a fortune! Fate’s got a wicked sense of humour, doesn’t it?
PokerStars and other online card rooms saw massive increases in new registrations. Most striking was the surge in entrants pouring into the subsequent year’s WSOP Main Event as fervor reached a fever pitch.
Television played a remarkable role in propelling poker into the mainstream during its boom years. ESPN, in partnership with 441 Productions, took a pioneering approach to bringing poker programming to the small screen. They reformed how the game was presented on television. They crafted custom broadcasts that made it more accessible and gripping to wider audiences.
One particularly innovative technology introduced was the “hole card camera”. Viewers got a chance to peek behind the scenes and feel more engaged with the coverage, almost as if they were playing along. This added extra layers of intrigue, allowing audiences to spot bluffs, clever plays, and strategic gambles unfolding in real time. More people became aware of poker and started keeping up with the game from the comfort of their homes. Before anyone knew what was happening, more people were glued to poker games on their television as if they were watching an NBA game.
Another catalyst was the debut of the World Poker Tour (WPT) television show in 2002. The WPT showcased high-stakes poker tournaments from casinos globally, transporting fans courtside as the action unfolded. Captivating multi-camera shoots coupled with dramatic commentary fueled even non-players to feel immersed in the excitement.
Today, nobody can say these pioneering presentations on ESPN and the WPT didn’t do much to energise mainstream interest through television exposure during the boom years.
Poker’s popularity kept rising and so did the number of celebrities. Noteworthy ones including Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey, and Phil Hellmuth enraptured the collective viewership with their dazzling techniques and charismatic identities.
These players came to define the game with their unique styles and daring betting tactics. Negreanu, one of the most accomplished tournament winners ever, brought flair to the table — he shook it.
On Ivey’s side, he earned the moniker “The Phenom” owing to his uncanny skills for interpreting adversaries. Hellmuth, holding the record with 15 WSOP bracelets, unsettled opponents with his unpredictable tendencies and fiery outbursts. That is spirit.
Mass media played a key role in driving these pros into the spotlight. Television broadcasts, magazine articles, and increasing online coverage highlighted players’ successes as well as mistakes, displaying both their poker mastery and colourful personalities. Through this exposure, poker’s first set of figures got rockstar-like reputations as the new modern “gunslingers”, vying for prestige, riches, and the coveted titles awarded each year at the WSOP.
Poker grew and grew reaching a stage where it had a profound influence on popular culture globally. Suddenly, poker themes permeated movies, television, music, and more. Apart from Rounders, another blockbuster film Casino Royale became a beloved classic celebrating the game. TV programs such as High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark gave viewers a front-row seat to witness intense high-stakes action comfortably from home.
Additionally, the non-stop growth of online poker kept things going. Advancing technology and expanding internet access brought new spices. This empowered players to do more such as competing in virtual card rooms worldwide, no matter their location.
Sites such as Full Tilt Poker, PartyPoker, and PokerStars witnessed meteoric growth in user participation. Data shows that over 1.4 million people in the USA played online poker for real money from September 2009 to March 2010.
Poker’s aptitude to attract new demographics in distant areas previously segregated from physical casinos was unlocked. The combined pools of online poker players in the United States blossomed.
The influx of new poker fans globally from diverse regions swelled poker’s popularity to an unmatched scale. At one point, online poker sites started offering educational resources to support recreational and aspiring competitive players in refining their skills. These resources also provided opportunities to qualify for live tournaments through online satellite events.
Despite achieving what some might call the “unthinkable”, interest in poker ultimately commenced declining.
A significant shift that pushed poker in this direction occurred with the passing of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) in the United States in 2006.
The UIGEA prohibited payment processors from processing payments from U.S. customers if it is related to internet gambling, or if the type of gambling is not allowed under existing laws.
At the time the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 was enacted, there were no federal laws in the United States that explicitly legalised online poker. Therefore, online poker fell into the category of “unlawful internet gambling” under this law.
This reality wounded the poker industry. It instigated a downturn with the exit of the large U.S. participant pool from primary online sites. Many sites, such as industry leader PartyPoker, opted to withdraw from the lucrative U.S. market, resulting in a decline in overall player numbers.
The clock hands ticked away and the clouds transformed into night, time marched on, and the initial energy surrounding poker as the “hot” new form of entertainment started to fade as cultural fascinations shifted.
As the late 2000s arrived, other genres seized people’s interest while poker shows lost their initial appeal. Weekly televised poker programs that had attracted millions of viewers were cancelled or changed formats. Live event fields also began trending downward from their peak years as poker withdrew from the mainstream spotlight.
By 2011, participation had decreased substantially from its apex. Online play continued globally and major tournaments still drew thousands, but the hype surrounding poker had undeniably cooled off from its stratospheric heights earlier in the decade. The poker boom could not be sustained indefinitely.
So many scandals rocked the boom period, but the Black Friday event in 2011 was the grandpa of them. This event saw the indictment of some of the biggest poker sites by the FBI on an issue bordering on money laundering, cheating, and illegalities. The major poker sites hit by this scandal were Absolute Poker, PokerStars, and Full Tilt Poker.
They were forced to close their doors mostly to US customers. Many customers were restricted from the sites or their money. The sites were fined huge amounts of money, running into hundreds of millions, and some did not survive the aftermath of the Black Friday event. Also, there were cases of online poker sites closing down, with people never recovering their money. Many people did not trust the system anymore, and that brought a decline in the number of people playing the game.
Because of the boom, many people entered the poker market directly or indirectly. The market became very saturated, and, you know, high competition set in. Investors who could not compete in the saturated market had to leave.
Some began to do shady things to remain afloat. Some brought in more tournaments to keep viewers’ attention on them. These viewers of course became tired of the numerous poker tournaments. More and more people became pro poker players. It became difficult for the upcoming players to climb the ranks. This led to viewer fatigue since they kept seeing the same people in every tournament. Gradually, the interest of investors, players, and followers died down.
While the boom itself might no longer be “booming”, its effect on the poker community and the broader world is undeniable. It introduced poker to a fresh global audience, sparking a passion for the game in countless individuals. The boom years left an indelible imprint and lasting legacy that moulded poker into what it continues as today.
One thing to note is that, even after the decline, interest gradually stabilised at lower but still substantial levels. The boom also fueled remarkable growth for the rising online poker sector, which still attracts millions of fans on a global scale today.
The story of poker’s ascent from a pastime to a global phenomenon and subsequent descent provides profound insights into how new technologies, media, and public interest can shape the relevance of activities and entertainment.
You should visualise the positive impact these elements, especially new technologies and media, could have on society and the world if used in the right way. Unfortunately, the current use often falls short. Here’s to hoping for a positive change.
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