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What Happened To Online Poker? Boom, Bust, Sharks and Bots

Online poker was the most popular forms of betting when it first hit the internet, seeing pros line up alongside students and general players to hit the virtual tables. Texas Hold’em was the game that saw its popularity soar the highest, thanks to the likes of the World Poker Tour being shown on television and giving people an ‘in’ to understanding how the game worked. It created household names out of poker players and made more than a few of them rich beyond imagining.

While you won’t have to try that hard to find online poker sites where you can play the game to your heart’s content, it’s certainly true that it has lost the sense of popularity that it once boasted. Numerous poker networks, that were once booming with players, have now shut down altogether and countless betting sites don’t even have a poker section. What happened to the world of online poker and are we likely to see a renaissance in the future?

Where It All Begin

poker wild west
Poker is one of the oldest card games in America, with names such as Buffalo Bill flagging up imagines of stud poker being played in floating casinos on the Mississippi River during the days of the Wild West. The game’s spread was due largely thanks to the mixing of various cultures that came about in the wake of the American Civil War, with Texas inventing the ‘Hold’em’ variation that became so popular at the turn of the twentieth century.

Created in Robstown, the game of Texas Hold’em remained in its original state for decades, not really making it beyond the borders of the Lone Star state until it mysteriously appeared at Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget Casino in 1967. Two years later and a tournament of the game was hosted by Dune Casino, meaning that high rollers began to play the game for the first time and its popularity truly began to spread around the gambling Mecca that is Las Vegas.

The Gambling Fraternity Convention, as the tournament in Dune Casino was known, failed to take off and was all but on the scrap heap when a father and son team decided to buy the rights to it and give it a rebrand. It was arguably the most important moment in the history of the game, with Benny and Jack Binion rebranding the tournament as the World Series Of Poker, hosting the tournament at the Binion’s Horseshoe Casino.

Poker & The Internet

wsop europe event signIt was the World Series Of Poker that saw Texas Hold’em hit the big time, slowly but surely becoming the biggest such tournament anywhere on the planet. That being said, there were other forms of the game of poker that remained just as popular, meaning that a cultural shift was needed for Texas Hold’em to become the de facto poker game that the most serious players took part in. Two things happened at around the same time to ensure exactly that.

The first was the release of a film called Rounders, starring Matt Damon on the back of his Oscar nomination for his performance in Good Will Hunting. The film threw Texas Hold’em into the limelight and introduced it to a whole new section of poker players, keen to try their hand at it. Planet Poker was there to seize on the new-found desire to play poker, launching the first internet poker room and paving the way for other sites to follow suit.

Soon the likes of PartyPoker, Paradise Poker and PokerStars had launched, giving poker players a wealth of options online. The rush to play the game was boosted further by televised coverage of World Series Of Poker events, giving people the chance to learn how the game worked. When Chris Moneymaker won $2.5 million thanks to his victory in the WSOP Main Event after gaining entry to it by winning a PokerStars tournament that cost $39 to enter, online poker became stratospheric.

Online Poker’s Boom

online pokerSuch was the extent to which Chris Moneymaker’s win at the 2003 World Series Of Poker Main Event transformed the game, it was given its own name: the Moneymaker Effect. Online tournaments began to see hundreds and thousands of people sign up to play in them, with more than 2,500 people joining the PokerStars tournament in 2004 when only around 800 had done so the year before.

Poker was the online card game to play for those that wanted to win money, seeing all manner of people joining whatever tournaments were available. It sent the game sky high, with the timing of everything being perfect. Online poker sites had launched at exactly the moment that the internet began to be a big thing, meaning that the desire to play poker matched the chance to do so. It seemed as if nothing would be able to slow the game of poker down.

Then Quick Bust

us department of justiceThe dream of online poker becoming the most popular game in the world didn’t last all that long. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 saw huge regulation introduced to online gambling for the first time in the United States of America, resulting in numerous big online poker companies choosing to leave the country altogether. The Act basically meant the end of online gambling in the country, making it unlawful for companies to accept payments for it.

The likes of PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker soon followed other big hitting poker sites in withdrawing from the US market. Those that remained needed to find a way around the block to online poker payments, using ‘middlemen companies’ like Intabill to take payments for them. Sites such as Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet used the company’s services, but within a few years its founded was arrested and threatened with 75 years in prison.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for Daniel Tzvetkoff to turn government informant at the FBI’s request. On the 5th of April 2011, the bank accounts of Full Tilt Poker, Absolute Poker and PokerStars were frozen, with the sites themselves shutdown. Known as ‘Black Friday’ in poker circles, that was the moment at which online poker began to die a slow death. Though companies could continue operating in other markets, the mass one that was the US was off limits.

What Happened Next

poker sharkWhilst American poker players were unable to play the game online legally in the vast majority of states, those in the likes of the United Kingdom were still keen to do so. When the 2011 World Series Of Poker Main Event came around there were still more than 6,500 entrants, which was about the same as after the introduction of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. Indeed, it was still more popular than it was before the Moneymaker Effect.

Soon a second wave of poker players began to get involved with the game, mainly thanks to Millennials and women realising how fun it was to play poker online. It was helped by the fact that online poker the second time around needed to find a new way to appeal to audiences than it had achieved before. Millennials wanted to game to be more social, which also helped it to appeal to the female demographic more than it had during the first wave.

The problem was that casual players were soon being preyed on by professionals, meaning that the market almost immediately began to dwindle again. Players that wanted to take part in online poker matches for fun were finding themselves targeted by sharks that were only in it for the money, resulting in poker sites having to strike a balance between welcoming new players and keeping hold of the older ones. The new ones were more important as they were bringing the money.

Soon the biggest online poker sites began to make it tricky for professional players to maintain the same level of play as they had done when the game first hit the internet. Rakes were increased and zoom poker, which sees players shifted around tables quickly and therefore unable to get a reading on fellow players, became more popular.

Bots have also become a blight of the poker industry with many software programs that now exist that can play poker online and dominate rooms to ensure that they can clean out the few real people in there.  Poker providers have done and are doing a lot to combat these bots but often as they overcome one angle a new one is developed.  Trust is critical in bringing people back to poker and while customers feel they may be preyed upon by sharks or software they are unlikely to invest in playing again.

What The Future Holds

poker botsThe question that is fun to ask but almost impossible to answer is, what does the future hold for online poker? The truth is that poker is a game that constantly reinvents itself. As we’ve already learned, it was around for a long time before Texas Hold’em was even invented, having to wait for more than half a century before that game became popular. It’s not entirely out of the realm of the possible for another version of power to be created and take the world by storm.

It’s also not true that we need to see a new version of poker for the online form of the game to see a true resurgence. Between 2017 and 2018, for example, online operated reported a large uptake in revenue from online poker that spelt good news both for them and for players. The 2020 corona virus pandemic also resulted in a temporary boom for poker with more people at home to play. The more money is spent on poker the better the experience will be for the players, plus the more attractive online tournaments will become to all involved.

That being said, there are definitely attempts being made by online poker platforms to freshen things up where possible. The likes of Blast Poker and Unfold Hold’em are twists on the classic game, keeping things interesting for long-term players. Those sorts of new-fangled takes on poker will continue to be explored, with each site hoping that they’re able to hit on the formula to once again see poker hit the big time.

Yet it’s likely that the most important changes won’t be anywhere near as dramatic. Things like altering the pace of play or changing how the finances of games are handled might be the biggest difference makers. Tournaments will almost certainly begin to play second-fiddle to quicker and more convenient ways of playing, given the fact that most people now look to play games on their mobile phones wherever possible.

There’s also an interesting question around how much emerging hardware will play a part in people’s enjoyment of online poker. It is a game that has always been quick to adopt such technology, but might something like Virtual Reality’s inevitable explosion also have an impact in the world of poker? Poker VR on the Oculus Rift is already beginning to make waves and, more importantly, a lot of money for its creators.

Arguably the biggest change that could happen to see online poker once more hitting the big time is a change of law in the United States of America. Playing poker online is legal in a few states, but if it becomes legal in more and more of them in the coming years then the market will once again be tapped in an impressive way. The desire for people to watch other poker players play, which is prevalent on sites such as Twitch, will also continue to have an impact.

For evidence of the fact that online poker isn’t dead yet, you only need to look to the news during the global health crisis from PokerStars that their online tournaments witnessed record participation. The realisation that online poker can be played regardless of what’s going on in the outside world is one that has seen hundreds of thousands of people either turn to the game for the first time or else turn back to it after a sabbatical from the game.

Regardless of the specifics, the reality is that online poker’s resurgence is good for the gambling industry in general. If people enjoy playing the Virtual Reality version of the game, for example, then maybe they’ll want to have a wonder around a Virtual Reality casino and see what other games tickle their fancy. The leap from poker to blackjack isn’t exactly a huge one to make, whilst the noise from a Virtual Reality roulette table is likely to be just as appealing as one in real life. Technology might be the key to online poker’s burgeoning future.

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