The Future Of Poker
Poker, especially online poker, has had a great run the past five years. Those of us who were playing poker before Moneymaker's epic 2003 win could never have imagined the growth of the game's player base, both in the US and in Europe. In terms of amounts wagered and active players, it is safe to say that poker has grown more than tenfold in just half a decade.
First The US, Then Europe
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Poker's boom came in stages. While most pinpoint Moneymaker's win as the start of the poker boom in the US, the truth is it really came the summer of 2004, about the time when Raymer won. Moneymaker's win got people playing poker, though it generally takes a few months before someone migrates from playing poker at home to playing poker online for real money. Most of the US poker boom occurred in 2004 and 2005. By the time of the UIGEA, the poker boom was well over in the US.
The Internet is a global phenomenon, and it was only a matter of time before Europeans realized that you could actually win money on the Internet just by being good at a card game. At first, poker became popular just in the countries where people spoke fluent English. This was largely because almost none of the online poker sites had their websites or software available in foreign languages (in fact, PokerTips.org was translated well before most of the online poker sites).
Poker soon spread throughout Europe though. The UIGEA may have inadvertently spurred this by encouraging the online poker rooms to translate their software and market more to European countries. It is safe to say though that by now the poker boom in Europe is on its last legs. Europe is now beginning the "plateau" stage that the US has been in the past few years.
Some have speculated that poker is about to boom in other countries, such as Eastern Europe and Asia. So far, this has just been speculation, and I personally don't see this occurring anytime soon. In my opinion, at least one of these significant problems pertains to any of these emerging markets: lack of high speed internet access, low disposable income, lack of enthusiasm for poker, payment processing problems, and local government hostility to online gambling.
I believe poker right now is in a full blown "plateau" stage and will likely stay this way for at least the next three years. Poker as a whole is still growing a little, though at a steadier and much, much slower pace than in the past. Some new players are coming aboard, largely from Europe, though a lot of these players just have the effect of replacing existing players that now play less.
A Few Predictions
No forward looking article would be complete without a few predictions. Never shy to stick my foot in my mouth in a Weekly Shuffle, here are a few predictions I have about the poker world that are largely based on the "plateau" assumption.
The 2008-2010 WSOP Main Events will have between 4500 and 6500 entrants. I was far too pessimistic before with the under 2000 entrants prediction for the 2008 WSOP. We will see a dropoff in entrants, largely due to the inability of US-facing sites to send players, as well as the WSOP's increase in competition from European tournaments (such as the World Series of Poker Europe). Otherwise, the WSOP Main Event in 2008-2010 will be more or less the same as the 2007 event.
Poker games will get marginally tougher. With fewer newbies in the poker world as well as existing players getting better with practice, it is safe to say that poker games can only get tougher. However, I doubt they will get much tougher; it will be a slight difference since much of this effect has already taken place. At the US sites, there is the potential for games to get significantly tougher if the Department of Justice (DOJ) or Treasury Department makes it even harder for Americans to deposit (or if the DOJ arrests the executives of one of the US-facing poker sites).
Player rewards programs will become more sophisticated. Since it will be more difficult for online sites to get new players, they will make a better effort to retain their existing player base. They will devote more time and resources to their rewards programs and other strategies that help them retain existing players.
No new poker network will develop that has an average of 1000 real-money players or more. By new poker network, I mean a brand new one, not a merger of two small networks or a poker room breaking off of a network to become a stand-alone site. Lack of growth will deter new entrants in the industry, so I do not expect to see any new, significant poker networks.
Few, if any poker pros will become mainstream celebrities. Poker pros are already a dime a dozen, and many of the famous ones are not even that good compared to many of the relatively unknown, solid young players (such as Brian Townsend, Sorel Mizzi, Ari Engel, and Jeff Garza). The only way for someone to become a mainstream celebrity due to poker now is to win the WSOP Main Event and have a dynamic personality.
There will be fewer poker sponsorships . During the height of the poker boom, some speculated that there would be money added to large buy-in tournaments (or at least they would be vig free) due to advertisers sponsoring the tournament. Since this has not happened yet, it certainly will not occur in the future now that poker's growth has slowed.
Furthermore, many poker pros were hoping to get sponsored by online sites, who would at least partially pay for their tournament entries. I think online sites will cut back on these deals. There are so many poker pros out there now that the "price" of sponsoring a pro will come down. Furthermore, with less TV coverage and a declining amount of potential new players, it will make less economic sense for the poker rooms to sponsor players.
There will be fewer $10k buy-in tournaments and more $20k-$50k buy-in tournaments with flatter structures. No longer does a $10k buy-in wow TV viewers and high-stakes poker players. I expect casinos to begin promoting very high buy-in tournaments to attract both television crews as well as famous pros. In order to keep the poker players happy, they will likely offer a flat payout structure, as few people can handle busting out of many $20k+ buy-in tournaments.
The World Poker Tour will be off the air by 2011. Already relegated to the Game Show Network in the US, the World Poker Tour will likely lose more and more viewers over the course of the next few years. I expect the WPT will soon go the way of Celebrity Poker Showdown.