Are Poker Booms Just a Cycle?

While profits in online casino games continues to grow in New Jersey, revenue in online poker continues to decline.


Chris Moneymaker helps set off another poker boom in the early 2000’s.

There’s no question that the Party Poker and 888 Network had hoped that the World Series of Poker would have generated some interest in online poker stateside but the results show that isn’t the case. Online casino revenue was up 9.4% over the same period last year while online poker saw a 24% drop from just over 18 million in 2014 to just 14 million in 2015. No doubt Golden Nugget and Tropicana are pleased they never got into the online poker market in the state.

Florida and California, the 2 states that have the most poker players are seeing a decline in interest and consequently poker rooms are shutting down regularly. Most casinos in Las Vegas have turned their poker rooms into slot parlors because the interest in poker just isn’t there. When the Tropicana closed their poker room in Las Vegas in favor of slots they stated that poker was never a huge profit generator for the casino but they offered it because they believed they had to in order to entice bettors through the doors. But the huge decline in interest gave them a reason to discontinue the poker room.

Poker pundits will claim that poker still generates a lot of interest and will point out that the World Series of Poker main event attracted over 6,000 players again this year (down only slightly from last year) and when all WSOP events are taken into account the numbers are actually up. However what they fail to acknowledge is that a large portion of the players in the WSOP events this year are poker professionals while other players are from the general public who won their way in via a satellite and do not play poker for a living. The Colossus event broke records as it offered a $5 million prize pool for just a $545 buy-in. This event most likely had the most amateurs in the field.

This is in contrast to the days of Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer or Joe Hachem who were not professionals and won their way with only a small outlay. They represented the American dream of turning a very small fee into millions. Recent winners like Greg Merson and last year’s winner Martin Jacobson had been playing in tournaments for years.

But even if one does accept that the WSOP has been successful, you can’t judge the overall success of poker on the WSOP alone. Las Vegas doesn’t judge the success of sports betting in the city by the amount bet on the Super Bowl, and the Indy Racing League doesn’t judge the success of the series in a given year by how many people attended the Indianapolis 500. In all cases the entire year has to be looked at and if sports betting is down by 25% in Las Vegas, sportsbooks there won’t be celebrating because Super Bowl action was up. So if one concedes that the WSOP is still popular, it doesn’t change the fact that overall poker interest is down.

What exactly has caused this huge drop off in interest?

Without question the biggest culprit was Black Friday, which saw the closure of the 3 biggest poker sites – PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker to the U.S. public. The sites currently available to Americans are quite small with the largest being Bovada Poker, formerly Bodog. Other sites such as the Winning Poker Network (America’s Cardroom) and the Merge Network (Carbon Poker) are still around to U.S. players as well. WPN is going as far as to offer several $1 million guaranteed tournaments in the Fall.

The UIGEA and the constant barrage of attacks against offshore gamblers by the FBI just deflated the balloon . . . but the ramifications of Black Friday went beyond the ability to bet at choice sites. When PokerStars and Full Tilt

NBC's Poker After Dark

NBC’s Poker After Dark

closed to Americans the owners of those sites (The Rational Group) decided to cut way back on the number of poker professionals it sponsored (particularly U.S. born players) and also shut down the popular TV programs such as Poker after Dark, The Big Game and High Stakes Poker. After all what was the point in paying ambassadors that couldn’t draw new customers and what was the point of paying for TV poker programs that couldn’t help in generating new accounts? And contrary to what many believed the .net sites were strictly set up to draw interest to the real money .com sites.

But without the constant daily reminders about poker from those TV programs and commercials naturally interest faded. As the owners of any product will attest, without any real marketing a product will inevitably fail. And unfortunately for the legal land based casinos and poker rooms they became a casualty of those decisions. There is no question that the popularity of poker on TV helped spur interest at all poker rooms as any casino or poker room operator will attest, but unfortunately none of those companies have the funds or will that PokerStars did to continue offering those shows on television.

Still other people state that waning interest in poker preceded Black Friday and contend that the start of the poker decline stateside was with the passing of the UIGEA. Not only did Americans suddenly find it too difficult to get money to their favorite site, but many U.S. players said that’s when “the fun went out of it.” They claim that when they started to be treated as criminals by their government and when the banks treated them as pariahs they just didn’t have the interest any more.

Experts say that the lack of interest now is just the normal cyclical patterns of poker.

In the early days the game to play was poker. Then it went away. Then it gained interest again around the time of Stu Unger. Then it dropped off and then it picked up again with Chris Moneymaker until about 2008.

But now the interest that was there is gone because this new generation prefers other forms of gambling to poker. Traditional casino games like blackjack and particularly slots seems to be the game of choice of the new generation.

I have no doubt that poker will be in a lull for about 10 years or so but by around 2025 the next generation will pick it up again. For whatever reason poker just happens to be a very cyclical game in terms of interest and right now it’s in a lull. There will always be poker players and major events like the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour and the PokerStars tours that will continue to draw entrants, but I doubt there’s anything anyone can do to spark new interest until this generation is replaced or if a Federal bill is ever passed so we can see bigger online tournaments and more satellites to live events. Regardless of the reason why poker interest is down no one can deny that the heyday of poker is behind us. Can that be changed?

Amaya is certainly banking on it, but they may be disappointed.