Is There Another Poker Boom In The Cards Waiting To Be Dealt?

Sep 06

The poker boom helped the exposure of the game for years to come and while some believe that another one will take place in the near future, there are various elements which would indicate otherwise. From a lost love for the game to more available options online, poker might not be exploding any time soon.

Back in 2003, something extraordinary happened as the game of poker started to become one of the most popular gaming options in the world. While the action was mostly based around Texas hold’em, there was a perfect storm which caused a huge boom between 2003 and 2006 and opened the door to an industry which would reach billions in revenue in both land-based and online markets.

The poker boom saw the number of players double every year, or even more, during the mentioned period but it actually started picking up momentum a lot earlier. In 1998, the movie Rounders was released and it presented the game of poker from a new perspective with the help of known actors like Matt Damon and Edward Norton. The popularity of the film helped the game itself and the launch of online poker by Planet Poker meant that actually playing was just a few clicks away in the US.

The World Series of Poker also did its job at presenting the game in an appealing light and the telecasts for the Main Events started reaching more and more potential players. However, the main trigger was when amateur poker player Chris Moneymaker qualified for the 2003 WSOP Main Event from a $39 online satellite on PokerStars and went on to win the whole thing for $2,500,000. The pool of the event saw 839 players and this made it more than enough to show that even an amateur player with some knowledge of the game can take on the feared pros and win the most prestigious title in the world.

This was huge and combined with other existing factors, the boom was underway. By 2004, the WSOP increased its fields significantly and the Main Event now had a huge pool of 2,576 players at the tables; most of which were amateurs looking to reach the same level of success as Moneymaker and become millionaires in just a few days. The increased field also meant a lot more money since the buy-in is $10,000 and this in turn attracted even more players. In 2006, the number reached 8,773 competitors; making it 14 times more than in 2002, before the boom started.

The poker bubble eventually burst when the UIGEA was introduced in the US in late October 2006, leading to some of the biggest poker sites being shut down. In 2007, the Main Event field dropped down to 6,358.

Poker remains a very popular skill card game to this day and its large following is in big part due to the poker boom which took place a decade ago. In 2015, the WSOP Main Event saw 6,240 players take their seats at the tables, generating a prize pool of over $60 million. With the November Nine coming back in a couple of months to determine the champion, it is the perfect time wonder if another poker boom is in the cards.

The question is certainly a difficult one to answer since there are a lot of factors which can contribute to another big bubble for the game but the overall feel is that it is very unlikely. The US remains a big market which is not fully utilized right now due to the regulations available and while some states have taken measures to legalize poker within their borders, it is just a small part of a big industry. In Europe, online poker is almost saturated and the poker rooms are seeing an interesting problem with the increase in the average skill level at the tables, causing casual users to be discouraged right from the start. Overall, it is hard to see another poker boom taking place with the same magnitude it did in 2003 and there are several reasons for that.

More options to choose from

The increase of internet usage around the world has provided a great deal of opportunities for both entertainment and making money. If in 2004 online poker was by far the best choice when it came to money for some people with the right skills, nowadays the scales are not so one sided. Various players switched from games like StarCraft to play online poker since their skills allowed them to pay attention to multiple tables at the same time and thus maximize their winnings over a set period.

Nowadays, it is a lot harder to make a living out of playing poker online and there are more lucrative gaming options available for players with an inclination to spend hours a day on the internet. eSports based around the before-mentioned StarCraft game and other titles like LOL or DOTA 2 can now have tournaments that award millions of dollars to the winners and individual players can even make money through streaming or other mediums.

Even as a casual player, online poker no longer has the same visibility with the millions of apps available now and it just gets lost in front of the other options.

The skill gap is too big

Poker has long been considered a game of skill and while luck will always play a part in certain hands, it is safe to say that knowing how to play will give you an advantage in a long run over your opponents. If a decade ago the online poker tables mostly saw skilled players at the big buy-ins, nowadays it is incredible to see so many skilled users across all betting ranges.

The easy access to information, guides, tutorials and ways to practice has made the average poker player very skilled and this forces the players to try to get even better. As a result, the skill gap between a casual player and a regular one is huge and quickly becomes discouraging. It is not just that unskilled players lose since they would have lost in 2004 as well, but now they lose way faster as the pros are much better.

It is believed that even the best poker player of 2003 would lose in a very short time against one of the high-average skilled players of today. And even considering the faster learning process available thanks to the easy access of information, it doesn’t even come close to bridging the gap.

Poker players also seem to have lost a certain love for the game and an interest to keep it going. This was something needed for the poker boom to take place and it seems that the desire to destroy the opponent is much more predominant nowadays. This adds on to the image of the game and makes casual players look at other options.

Regulations on top of regulations

What made the online poker industry so appealing for a lot of major companies was the fact that there were no real regulations with teeth. The taxes were almost ignorable and the big sites were making a lot of money by adding up rake from the tables. This in turn allowed them to invest in marketing and give back some of the money to players in the form of bonuses and promotions.

There was also a global player pool that basically made sure there were always a lot of tables to choose from and the action never stopped since the card game could break any barrier. The passing of new laws and regulations has totally changed this aspect and it can be seen across the world. While the US there are only a handful of states with legal online poker, and they aren’t even allowed to share pools yet, Europe is facing similar issues with countries having their own regulations in place.

A perfect storm is very rare

It wasn’t only Chris Moneymaker winning the WSOP Main Event that started the boom. Televised poker became a lot bigger, mostly due to the use of hole card cameras which actually showed the viewers what cards each player was holding during the hand and not just after it was over. James McManus had just released Positively Fifth Street after finishing fifth in the 2000 WSOP Main Event and the book went on to become a best-seller. Rounders was reaching cult status. Online poker sites and forums became more and more popular as well as welcoming. The ESPN decided to broadcast the Main Even action.

All of this and more took place at the exact right time and they can’t really be recreated. The novelty of the game is gone. Poker was basically unknown on a global scale in 2003 and this made it the hot new thing when it became popular, something which cannot be done again. Not being popular also meant that not a lot of people knew how to really play the game and the few sharks did not affect the large banks of fish who were smitten right away with the game.

Casino games taking over

With poker not showing any signs of exploding again in popularity, the same cannot be said about one of its main competitors. Casino games have been becoming more and more visible in the online gaming market and operators have shown steady growth in the area.

In fact, after Amaya acquired Rational Group, and with it leading poker rooms PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, for $4.9 billion in June last year, it has expanded the products into several new verticals. One of the successful ones was an online casino operation which first went live on Full Tilt Poker and then expanded to include PokerStars as well. Both of these rooms where in the top five at the time based on the number of active users but PokerStars is the standout case since it has been in the first position for years and averages almost ten times more players than the other big poker rooms. The introduction of casino games here showed a clear sign that this would be a vertical worth exploring.

For the first quarter of 2015, online poker represented 95% of the revenue earned by Amaya. When Q2 ended, the number went down below 90% as online casino represented 11%, or C$36 million, of the total take. The addition of live dealer games and slots to the network certainly helped but it is still a huge increase in a short period of time and about 320,000 users seem to agree as they checked out the casino games in Q2.

And Amaya is just an example of how poker and casino games can work together but there is a lot of room to grow in the future. The operator did not have any focused marketing campaign for its new options, doesn’t offer a mobile casino app or even a web app, and the selection of slots is quite small. This will probably change by the end of the year.

There is also the problem if social casino games to consider which provide an interesting alternative to online poker. While these games are designed to be played for fun and go around the real money problem, a recent study shows that 46% of social casino gamers in the US and Western Europe spend money in order to buy the respective virtual coins. It is important to point out that these coins cannot be changed back to real money. Just two years ago the percentage was at 36.