The Future of the Poker Boom
Dec 28, 2005  
© 2005 Jason Kirk  

The personality of the poker boom has shifted wildly throughout recent history. In 2001 it was characterized by steady growth in both the World Series of Poker as a whole and more specifically the $10,000 no-limit hold’em main event. 2003 saw an increase in the number of high buy-in tournaments per calendar year thanks to the World Poker Tour, and online poker rooms began to grow in popularity after Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP main event. This year, the poker boom saw record amounts of money being up for grabs in the prize pools of a jam-packed tournament schedule, thanks to the WPT expanding its number of stops and Harrah’s introducing the WSOP Circuit. After the biggest year in the history of poker it’s worth trying to look into the future to see what’s next, but the signals right now are mixed.

Some people think the boom is going to go bust sooner rather than later. Some doubters cite television as a big factor. TV has been a major catalyst behind the boom, and the honeymoon between it and poker appears to be nearing its end. One recent report, “Poker’s lucky streak seen fading”, mentions that ratings for televised poker tournaments are no longer rising at the rate of recent years. The numbers haven’t actually gone down, however - they just aren’t growing by leaps and bounds the way they did before. Steven Lipscomb, the head of WPT Enterprises, says in the article that televised poker is in the “early stages of a very long growth curve.” It seems likely that the number of poker shows will probably plateau very soon, but the number of people watching those shows that already have a following will hold steady.

Other people, including several prominent professional players, worry that the boom will soon wear out its player base by force-feeding it no-limit Texas Hold’em. The only event on the WPT that isn’t a no-limit hold’em tourney is the Party Poker Million, which features limit hold’em. Then there’s this year’s WSOP schedule, featuring more no-limit hold’em tournaments over its 6 weeks than any in recent memory. That’s the calling card of Harrah’s, whose management makes decisions based on what’s increased their bottom line in recent history. If more casual players grow bored (or go broke) because they think no-limit hold’em is poker, it’s not a big stretch to envision most of the new land-based poker rooms in the U.S. replaced with the slot machines that once stood in their place.

If Lipscomb is right, and the customer base can replace those players who drop out, there may be good reason to be optimistic about the future of the game. The landscape of online poker changed this year when three online casinos (Party Gaming chief among them) went public on the London Stock Exchange. As reported in “Wall Street Is Betting On Online Gaming”, several large Wall Street investment firms- names like Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch - now hold stock in these online gaming businesses. That’s a strong signal that the political climate in the United States has shifted enough that the threat of shutting down online poker’s biggest market is now remote at best. The only ceiling to the business of poker is how much of it the public wants.

If TV audiences for poker shows and the number of players in both online and land-based card rooms can do so much as hold steady in 2006, the future of poker should be bright. But even in the event that poker is enjoying the height of its popularity right now, it’s hard to imagine that the game will be heading anywhere near extinction levels. Online card rooms have proven themselves to be just as much a catalyst during the boom as TV, which speaks volumes about how much convenience has to do with maintaining a certain level of interest in the game. Technology will only continue to improve, leading to a better experience for players. The marketplace of online poker will also mature, with the surviving companies being the ones who catered to what poker players want. Finally, young poker enthusiasts who have been weaned on the poker boom will continue to come of age and feed the industry.

Poker might not be the game of the moment for very much longer, but people the chances are good that over the course of the near future people around the world will continue to enjoy it in larger numbers than at any time in the past.

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