|If you are not playing poker, you may soon be in the minority. The game has come a long way from the dangerous days of the road gamblers and prohibited backroom games. It is true that those two things still exist in some places, but the game itself has been propelled into limelight and into legitimate status, due in large part to shows such as the World Poker Tour (Travel Channel) and the World Series of Poker (ESPN). |
According to America's Poker Face, an article by Betsy Streisand (USNews.com, 2004), the number of poker players in America has increased to about 80 million, a 30 million increase over the estimated 50 million players just a few years ago. Most of these players still play brick-and-mortar poker (in home games and casinos), but the number of players now taking advantage of the convenience of online poker games is rapidly growing. It is estimated that there are over one million players playing online at well over 1,500 sites. The lobby area of two major sites, PartyPoker.com and PokerStars.com, regularly show over 60,000 and 40,000 players online, respectively. These types of numbers are only expected to explode over the next few years.
In poker terms, both the railbirds (those watching) and the raisers (those playing) are increasing in size. As a poker insider, I am often asked if I see the rise of poker as a simple fad that will wane in a few short years. I really believe that poker has yet to reach the point that will be considered a baseline in future years. I would estimate that the growth may slow down in about three to five years, and the number of players may be holding steady at around 100 million at that time.
This rise in popularity is illustrated by an example of a local tournament in which I regularly participate. I started playing in a neighborhood tournament toward the beginning of 2004, which was hosted in two adjoining living rooms in a duplex. The game had a $20 buy-in with no rake (the rake is the amount reserved as payment for those who host or manage the gameand it is what makes poker illegal in most places). At that time, twenty-four people came to play in the game and take their chances at finishing in the top five places to win a couple hundred dollars. The game is held about once each month and new faces arrived each and every month. One year later, in January of 2005, this group of friends had to use the multi-purpose room of a local business to host 114 players that arrived to play in the same level of game ($20 buy-in, no rake). Over four times the number of players in just one year of growth.
Holdem was mainly covered only on ESPN until just a few years ago, and during those early years the game received only infrequent airtime for one hour episodes of the World Series of Poker main event. Early into 2005, it already appears that at least five different networks will host holdem shows sometime this year. Examples include: the Travel Channel (World Poker Tour), ESPN (World Series of Poker), FOX Sports (the Poker Superstars Invitational), NBC (National Heads-up Championship), E! (E! Hollywood Home Game), and Bravo (Celebrity Poker Showdown). The vast majority of these shows consist of many weekly episodes; several, in fact, have more than ten new episodes planned for 2005. As the above examples illustrate, most of the major media conglomerates have adopted some form of show about the most popular game, Texas Holdem. And believe me, they are looking for more opportunities.
It appears that the sport has established itself as a contender for regular airtime on national networks going forward. Its rise into the public eye rivals the television rise of other professional sports. An appropriate comparison, in my opinion, would be the climb in popularity and the resultant paychecks on the PGA Tour over the last decade, particularly the heavy increases in popularity following the appearance of a young superstar by the name of Tiger Woods. The baseline of the PGA audience and prize pools has been re-established during this time. Holdem should see similar results.
So, while the incredible growth rate cannot be expected to continue indefinitely, it appears that the new plateau has not been reached. Just look at the sports most popular event for an illustration. The main event ($10,000 entry) at the 2003 WSOP had 839 entrants when Chris Moneymaker took home $2.5 million for first place. Just one year later, the main event of the 2004 WSOP boasted well over 2,500 players (Greg Raymer won first place and $5 million). Most of the people who follow poker on a regular basis expect that there will be at least 6,000 entrants in the main event of the 2005 WSOP.
All signs seem to point to a continued increase in the game until it becomes big enough to be considered a part of our daily lexicon. While there may be a component of the population that has adopted or viewed this as a fad, it does not appear to be the perspective of the millions of railbirds and raisers that enjoy the skill and competition of the game itself.
About the Author
Trent Gresh began playing poker seriously in 2001 and became a full-time player in 2004. Mr. Gresh focuses mainly on Texas and Omaha Holdem. You can find out more about Mr. Gresh through his poker blog at Case Ace Poker.
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