20 years post-Moneymaker, where does the WSOP stand?

The 2023 World Series of Poker is wrapping up and all of the poker media has been reporting on the Main Event ‘smashing’ the record for most entries. Well now that the easy poker media talking point and all of its related low-hanging fruit has thoroughly been run into the ground, this will be a little different.

To start, it would only be fitting to go back to 2003 – the year Chris Moneymaker bested a field of 838 others to become the WSOP Main Event champion. His victory was broadcast on ESPN and ignited a poker boom, which would later come to be known as the Moneymaker Effect. The following year, the entries to the WSOP Main Event had more than tripled to over 2500. Another shining testament to the sheer power of television, right?

Well, things were not quite that simple in reality and most of the actual long-time poker regulars will attest to that. There had been WSOP broadcasts in some form or another for over two decades by that point, which had amounted to steady but very slow growth over the years. Those of you familiar with this historic and formative time in poker already know the key factor in all of this, and the recurring theme repeated throughout the broadcast, that Moneymaker won his entry through an online tournament. Poker, especially in a tournament format, was still quite a niche interest – and vastly more so for online poker. Many were at least a bit surprised that the sites even paid out winners, let alone gave out WSOP entries directly. Then the ESPN reruns of that historic WSOP event on slow sports nights would continue to spread and solidify the message even further.

To get right to the point, the 24/7 global availability of online poker was the true catalyst for the poker boom. While seeing the WSOP action on television may have had many people thinking “Hey that looks fun and exciting, I’d like to play some poker sometime”, having it easily and near-instantly available online turned it from a “maybe sometime” into getting that gratification before it could be forgotten in the course of daily life. And the fact that Moneymaker won his entry through an online satellite created a great deal of much-needed legitimacy and trust in online poker, plus highlighted the fact that it could be a great way to practice and hone your poker skills. So it was mutually beneficial all around.

Also not to mention that online poker quickly became recognized as an unrivaled method of not just getting comfortable with playing poker, but quickly gaining an edge in all of the local or home games across the country. Multi-tabling, lightning-fast shuffles and deals, combined with higher quality of play at much lower stakes meant that live-only players quickly found themselves at a serious disadvantage to young guns forged in the digital crucible. Any slight advantage the live players had from physical reads, which are highly overrated to the point of being mere theater, was woefully inadequate when compared to online guys with the experience of 20/50/100x as many hands in that year. Plus live tournaments were not so common – so online players had immensely more experience in crucial bubble situations, shorthanded tournament play, and at final tables…where the real money is made. It’s very telling that concepts like ICM didn’t really catch on much until the online boom.

So before I get sidetracked too much, as I could do an entire series on ICM and how it applies to winning more money in the Omaha Hi-Lo variant alone (maybe someday?), back to the WSOP Main Event – with the boom in online poker and increased television presence leading to triple the 2003 number of entries in 2004, the entries more than doubled again in 2005. So to recap we have 839 in 2003, 2576 in 2004, and 5619 in 2005. Then in 2006, the growth continued with a greater than 50% increase to a whopping 8773 entries. This number would not be surpassed until this year.

Just a few months later in October of 2006, UIGEA legislation would have a severely chilling impact on practically the entire online gambling world. Aside from the US shooting itself in the foot in regards to online gambling and making itself look (even more) foolish and overly controlling to the rest of the world, it allows us some unique insight into the extent that online poker contributed to the growth of the WSOP and live poker as a whole. Because for the first time, the main event entries dropped. And it was quite a drop, with nearly 2500 less entries than the year before. For some scale, that’s nearly as much as the total entries only just a few years before in 2004. So even the massive television coverage by that time clearly couldn’t carry the WSOP along on its own.

At this time we still had PokerStars, FullTilt, and a whole host of other online poker sites still trying to salvage the whole mess and maintain a global pool for poker players. It was a rather uncertain time for both poker players and operators, with the dark clouds of UIGEA hanging over the industry. This was reflected in the entries and numbers hardly budged for the next few years with practically no progress until 2010, when it finally broke the 7k mark again.

If the post-UIGEA climate was a dark cloud over the industry, then 2011 marked the arrival of the storm with Black Friday. Poker players woke up to offline poker apps and an ominous-looking DoJ domain seizure page when they visited the major poker websites. It’s difficult to fully convey the collective shock and panic at that moment, as many of us kept significant funds across the major sites and there was no messaging as to what would happen to it…or even what exactly was going on. The poorly-worded seizure notice was little help either, and worded in such a way that many players were left wondering if there could even be legal action against them.

An entire series of articles could be written on the events around Black Friday, and many have been written, but I’ll try to bring it back to just the impact on the WSOP before I get too sidetracked (again). Setting aside the huge mass of negative feelings for the moment, one of the more fortunate aspects was the timing. It was just a few months before the WSOP – soon enough that many had already committed to going that year, and late enough that most of the initial shock had worn off by then, but not too late as to fully suffer the long-term chilling effects on the industry that were to come. The entries would not break 7k again until 2017 and the record number of entries set in 2006 would not be broken until this year. I repeat it because it is likely the single largest piece of supporting evidence, at least that which is specific to the WSOP.

Going by the Main Event entries as a very basic metric for the overall industry, the one-two punch of UIGEA and Black Friday has set things back by nearly two decades. It’s quite notable that the WSOP as an organization was relatively muted and extremely cautious when speaking out on such highly impactful events. Especially when considering the drastic effects it so directly had on the growth of their brand. While it is debatable whether or not the WSOP was looking to launch their own online poker solution post-UIGEA, their launch in 2013 makes it rather plain to see that they saw Black Friday more as an opportunity and seized it.

Furthermore, it’s somewhat of a confirmation and also a bit interesting that on their website they describe themselves as “uniquely positioned to offer players the best online and offline poker experiences”. Then they go on to claim that “It didn’t take WSOP.com to become the market leader, and it has remained there every year since”. With the obvious typo aside, I suppose they’re technically correct on the market leader part. It’s a lot like the largest fish in a lake bragging to all of the ocean creatures though, but we humor the WSOP mainly because they truly do have an amazing history and deserve a great deal of genuine respect for it.

As with the few major sportsbooks in the US, the WSOP is going the state-by-state route. The cost to set up in each state makes it prohibitively expensive for nearly all would-be operators, which is largely why they (technically speaking) have so little real competition for their status as market leader. In reality though, most players hardly even bother with it – aside from perhaps chasing a bit of status and fame in the online WSOP events. The real action though is going on at gray-area networks and online “poker clubs”, along with many pros just moving to countries with the most access to sites like PokerStars and others. Much more unfortunately for online poker as a whole however, having the US excluded from sites like PokerStars and then further separating player pools for each state is an absolutely massive disadvantage to the growth and health of the overall poker ecosystem.

Without a global pool, it is extremely difficult to reach and maintain the critical mass of players required for games to fill and run smoothly throughout the day (and night!). For the most part it is just smaller-stakes action, with the occasional larger scheduled tournament events or higher-stake cash games. The action doesn’t just scale up with the number of players in a linear fashion, but more of a growth curve as players find more and more tables that meet their criteria. This makes the whole system much more efficient and profitable for the operator, and greatly scales up their potential value for (and how much they can spend to acquire) each future user. Positive feedback loops can be a beautiful thing.

There are many other issues holding the US online poker industry back too. Geo-location problems have been a source of constant misery for both users and operators. Just determining a country accurately, while keeping the friction as low as possible, is still quite difficult in the face of a technological arms race between operators and users trying to fool the system. State lines are much smaller and less defined, pushing the difficulty up far higher. Then there are rapidly increasing concerns with botting and players using tools for real-time assistance, which even the largest and most sophisticated networks in the world have struggled immensely with.

It’s not all bad news though. The potential is still there, as it has always been. Poker streaming has been a massive boost globally – providing new ways to enjoy the game, introducing a whole new generation to poker, and giving everyone a much more accurate view of what it is really like…both the good and the bad. As mentioned earlier, access to a global pool can allow multiple networks to reach that critical mass of users. Competition between these networks would be the absolute best thing for poker players, both for bringing rake down and developing new features that the players actually enjoy. With such a large and highly engaged audience, combined with funds on-site, operators could explore all manner of new revenue streams to boost their profits. Also recent developments such as the poker club model or crypto functionality could be adapted, reworked, or combined with various other developments to bring about a vast range of potential improvements.

The WSOP brand certainly has the history, and as they say, a unique position in the industry. Their growth to an industry-defining powerhouse from just a casual fun event among a few regulars…well it’s nothing short of miraculous. The industry found itself at a crossroads with the arrival of online poker, and has stalled there due to multiple severe regulatory actions. This has given the WSOP multiple chances to take the right path and embrace the online element, when most other industries have only gotten one. These actions have come at great cost to the players and the game itself however, and the WSOP organization should look back reverently and honor its roots by finally stepping up in full support of all of its players and the inherent global nature of the game.

Given that this is all built on the collaborative effort of the players, going back several decades now, what would those earliest players say and do about the current situation – and what would they honestly say about the actions, decisions, and overall direction of the WSOP organization in recent years?

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