The Online Poker Boom Uncovered: What Gave the Historic Card Game Global Appeal?

Written by Chris Baxter
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Poker is a traditional card game with almost two centuries of heritage. The earliest versions of poker date back to the late 1820s, when Joseph Crowell, an American writer and politician, discussed the game in some of his memoirs.

The game was taken to another level by the raft of Riverboat gamblers that were some of the earliest settlers in America in the mid-19th century. As for the most popular form of poker played today, Texas Hold’em, that wasn’t invented until the early 20th century when a large group of Texas-based ranchers grew frustrated at not being able to play Stud Poker together.

Nevertheless, Hold’em poker did not become a global phenomenon overnight. Instead, for many decades it remained a game for seasoned card veterans and fly-by-nights and maintained its reputation for being played in smokey back rooms. That reputation would only change once poker seeped its way into modern day popular culture.

Sewing the seeds of the poker ‘boom’

Poker developed something of a cult following due to the release of the 1998 movie Rounders, featuring Hollywood stars Matt Damon and Ed Norton. It was by no means a big budget movie, with around £10m to spend, grossing just under £20m at the box office. But there was something about Rounders which resonated hugely among a new wave of people interested in playing cards. It was a film that, despite showcasing the seedy underbelly of society, demonstrated that Texas Hold’em was a game of skill and not a crapshoot like roulette or baccarat. The plotline doesn’t glamorise poker either. It demonstrates to viewers that poker players don’t always leave the table smelling of roses and that honesty and integrity was refreshing and appeared to prick the ears of a new generation of card players
Interestingly, online poker was born just a matter of months before the launch of Rounders. Planet Poker dealt its first hands on New Year’s Day 1998. Looking back now, the software seems somewhat rudimentary, but very few players of the inaugural online poker client would have predicted the surge of interest and competition for online poker in the years to come.

Inaugural TV coverage

WPT: The world's first organisation for live broadcast tournament poker

Although television coverage of poker dates back to the 1970s, when CBS began coverage of the final table of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event in an hour-long programme, it wasn’t until the turn of the Millennium that things started to hot up. The first £1m poker game on live television, the inaugural Poker Million, well and truly captured the imagination. So much so that film producer, Steven Lipscomb successfully sought backing from casino magnate Lyle Berman to tap into the poker buzz by creating the world’s first World Poker Tour (WPT) – a selection of organised and televised poker tournaments held in all four corners of the world.

The inclusion of exciting features such as hole card cams helped to ramp up the excitement of live televised poker games. It was an opportunity for poker enthusiasts and beginners to tap into the minds of some of the world’s greatest poker professionals and learn from the best

Chris Moneymaker and the 2003 WSOP Main Event

The real tipping point for online poker was 2003. Broadband connectivity was becoming commonplace in Western households, which was a perfect storm for the moment that lit the blue touch paper of Texas Hold’em. Television and online interest in the 2003 WSOP Main Event had reached new levels. The online poker rooms of the time were running satellite events to give their customers a chance to qualify for a seat in Las Vegas. One successful man to satellite through to the Main Event was Chris Moneymaker.

After spending $39 on a satellite ticket, the man with a very apt surname eventually took the gold bracelet against all the odds and become the 2003 WSOP Main Event champion. With a first prize of more than £2m it was a handsome return on Moneymaker’s initial investment. His success brought about even greater returns for online poker networks who fielded a surge of poker amateurs attempting to replicate Moneymaker’s achievements.

Amazingly, non-professional poker player managed to scoop the first prize in 2004, with Greg Raymer winning the £3.5m jackpot ahead of a monster entry field of more than 2,500 players. According to the American Gaming Association, online poker revenues soared from £58m in 2000 to £1.4bn in 2005.

Black Friday

Unfortunately, with most booms comes a bust. Online poker didn’t quite reach such a low, but Black Friday was certainly as close as possible. On the 15th of April 2011, the face of online poker would change forever. A string of leading online poker networks were implicated in money laundering and fraudulent activity, as well as violating the U.S. government’s Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA). The outcome was disastrous for American poker players, which made up a huge percentage of the global playing population. Overnight, American customers were prohibited from playing poker online. It took more than two years for legal, regulated online poker to return to the United States, with many networks securing licenses in Nevada to launch online poker rooms.

Predictions for online poker in 2018

Fast forward to the present day and online poker remains as strong as ever. There are many reasons to be positive for online poker in 2018. Not least the fact that more U.S. states are on the verge of formally legalising real-money online poker once again. Pennsylvania joined Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey in legalising online poker late last year and it’s hoped that the likes of New York, Massachusetts and Michigan will follow suit in 2018.

Today’s online poker networks are trying hard to evolve with the times, improving engagement with initiatives such as fast-fold poker that keeps impatient players active on another table the moment they fold a hand. The introduction of webcam poker tables on sites such as 888poker has also allowed players to visually see their opponents for the first time; ramping up the tension. All of these features has seen the biggest online poker brands grow their registered membership to more than 10 million around the world.

Alongside the undoubted potential of the returning online poker market in the States, a prospective pan-European market – involving collaboration between Spain, France and Italy – would also increase prize money for online poker tournaments throughout Europe. There is still a big margin out there for online poker to innovate and create something new for players young and old.

Read 4993 times Last modified on Monday, 09 November 2020 20:02
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Chris Baxter

Chris Baxter

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