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Kevin Smith

Like It or Not, Online Poker Is a Force

7 June 2004

No one knows exactly why poker has seen a tremendous boom over the last 12 months, but most agree that online poker rooms are a major factor.

"Sure luck becomes more of a factor when you have this many people playing (in the World Series of Poker), but in the long run this is only going to help grow our sport."
- Mike Sexton
World Poker Tour

This was quite evident last month at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, where more than 40 percent of the record field of 2,576 players in the 2004 final event got their seat in the final by winning a qualifying tournament online.

Then there's the World Poker Tour and its weekly telecasts on the Travel Channel. The shows, which bring some of the best poker tournaments every week to viewer's homes, brought record ratings for the network during its first two seasons; season three is scheduled to start up later this summer.

Some say ESPN's weekly coverage of the 2003 WSOP was a big factor as well. The reruns brought in record ratings from their timeslot.

Others point to Hollywood's fascination with poker. Even at the WSOP, stars of TV and the big screen were seen among the competitors, and Bravo had successful broadcasts of a celebrity poker tournament last year. Over the last five to seven years a handful of hit movies--including Rounders and Casino–had poker as their central theme.

Perhaps poker's meteoric rise can be attributed to a kind of perfect storm with a combination of TV coverage, movies and, of course, the increasing number of online poker rooms.

Regardless of how poker got to the point it has, there's no denying its place as the hottest online gambling sector. Nevertheless, not everyone is so sure the online factor is a good thing.

The last two winners of the WSOP final event, No Limit Texas Hold 'Em, don't think the increasing number of online sites is such a bad thing for land-based tournaments--they took home record amounts of prize money ($2.5 million and $5 million respectively). But others take issue with the online presence.

Consider the following:

  • With more than 2,500 players in the final event, the "luck" factor becomes even more important for the eventual winner. Howard Lederer, one of the most well respected players among the professional ranks, pointed out that even as the favorite in the event he would only be "200-1 favorite" to win.

  • With such a huge field, the full-time professional players are often knocked out early in the tournament by players with far less "poker skill."

  • Events like the WSOP no longer pit the best, or best known, poker players at a final table with a few "wild-car" players advancing deep into the field.

  • Many land-based casino operators are leery of any relationship with online operators, even an indirect one in which players qualify online for a tournament like the WSOP.

Officials with Harrah's Entertainment, the new operator of Binion's Horseshoe Casino and now producer of the WSOP, prohibited wearing clothing with online casino brands during the final table. The decision came after five days of play had gone by the boards with nearly 40 percent of the field wearing hats or shirts supporting the sites they had qualified on.

Mike Sexton, a 15-year professional poker player who now spends most of his time as the TV host for the WPT coverage and as spokesperson for Party, said any player who begrudges the introduction of online players at major tournaments is failing to see the bigger picture.

"You have to be able to step back and see what this is doing for our game," Sexton said. "Sure luck becomes more of a factor when you have this many people playing, but in the long run this is only going to help grow our sport."

Greg Raymer, the 2004 WSOP champion, admitted after his win that it took more luck than ever for him to win the main event, but with prize money going through the roof, a player would be crazy to be upset over the increased number of "amateurs" or online players entering events.

"The brick-and-mortar world realizes the online sector cultivates a new generation of poker players and then drives them to the land-based casino."
- Rich Korbin

"I am one of those people who think luck is something you see in the review mirror," Raymer said. "You can't count on luck to win you a hand, but I sure got lucky a couple of times this week. There are probably 1,000 poker players who were in this tournament who are still better players than me. I won't say I beat 2,500 people this week, I just was lucky enough to be the last guy standing."

Although Raymer is an experienced poker player, having played in "hundreds" of tourneys and finishing in third in a major one in 2001 at Foxwoods Casino, he still qualified for the WSOP through an online poker site, was the same route 2003 champion Chris Moneymaker took to win the title; the only difference was that he had never played in a land-based poker tournament prior to winning the biggest one in the world.

In addition to the qualifying events that nearly every major online poker room holds, some of the bigger sites also conduct their own major tournaments.

Party sent 600 people on a cruise last year as part of its Party Million III tournament. The final event was part of the WPT.

This year will host the World Championships of Online Poker, July 28 - Aug. 8. The event will be entirely online, with $4 million in total prize money guaranteed. The site's marketing director, Rich Korbin, said it will be the largest online poker tournament in the world. There are 12 events scheduled, and he's hoping for 600 to 1,000 players in each event.

No one is sure exactly how big the online poker market is, but figures from are staggering. The site, which tracks the industry, estimates that in the last 24 hours alone over $92 million was wagered in ring games online. That figure doesn't represent tournament play, which is one of the most popular forms of play at online poker rooms.

The site estimates that more than $20 million will be at stake in upcoming "major" tournaments online. "Major" tournaments are classified as those with a total prize pool of at least $100,000.

Those numbers make land-based poker action look like a penny ante action. According to figures released by the American Gaming Association, $105 million was spent on organized poker in 2003; that figure was up from $90 million in 2002.

Considering those numbers--that the online world in one day can bring in close to what the land-based U.S. market brings in during a year--Korbin feels that online poker players have to be dealt with, whether the land-based operators like it or not.

"A relationship has been cemented," Korbin said. "The brick-and-mortar world realizes the online sector cultivates a new generation of poker players and then drives them to the land-based casino."

Like It or Not, Online Poker Is a Force is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith