22 June 2006

Catalysts of the Poker Explosion

The Poker Explosion. Normally, explosions aren't a very good thing: they are destructive, they consumer mass, they generate energy. It is hard to argue that poker hasn't seen a significant increase in almost any metric over the last five years, number of players, amount wagered, television shows, etc. I'll defer the question of where are we on the growth arc and address the question of what are the most important catalysts that started or accelerated this growth in the last ten years from yesterday's post.

Thanks to all the comments from yesterday. Several folks grouped the items I'd listed, but I want to keep them as specific as possible. Catalysts are specific compounds, not broad chemical classes. If the compound isn't exact or their are changes to the chemicals involved in the change, then they don't work. First, let me look at some important things that I don't think are in the Top Ten Catalysts:
  • Scandanavian poker players: poker growth has been especially vibrant in pockets like Sweden, Finland, and Norway. Poker is now a global phenomenon and in fact brings the world together. What other activity can you sit with nine other people from Oslo, Gateshead, San Jose, Santiago, Thailand, O'Hare airport, Southaven MS, ZeeJustin (twice)? Let me give you the answer: there is none. Poker is one of the very few global activities around.
  • Asian influence: In the US (where literally the majority of poker players live), the Asian influence on poker is significant. In some ways, poker is analagous to boxing or professional sports. It is not only a passion but truly a way for individuals to escape challenging circumstances and build a better life. Especialy in live play, poker is an embracing community where ethnicities mix readily and freely.
  • Poker blogs: blogging is a form of social networking. As poker has significant analytical components to it, many successful players are introverts and quant-types. Add the fringe element (read weirdos that you'd let babysit your kids before you'd let them feed your pet Great Dane and prize sheep for the weekend) and you have a group of folks often apart from others. Poker blogs are a bunch of words that make sense or are insightful, but really they are other people to invest in, to be there, to learn about you and be ready for a harsh rebuke or encouragement.
  • Poker books: titles have increased significantly in the last five years. They play a part in the poker boom, but I see them more as a result of the boom and less as a catalyst. Obviously, Super System is the single work that brought strategy out in the open. Sklansky, Harrington, Caro, and others have given us more information, but all of that has simply improved play. Success begets success? Sure, but not in the Top Ten.
  • China manufacturing: poker chip costs have plummeted due to the flood from Chinese manufacturers. Home games are now the real deal, with dealer buttons, even custom chips like a casino would have.
  • RGP and 2+2: their impact on poker cannot be overstated. These havens of strategy, hand analysis, and networking pre-dated blogs and laid the groundwork for many books.
  • Mega-rooms: These don't make the top ten as I see them more as a result of the boom vs. causal. They have had an impact, no doubt about, so I may be understating their role too much. Bellagio, Foxwoods, Commerce, Casino Arizona, Bicycle, Taj, Borgata, Mirage, and the Tunica rooms did a few things. First, they brought in large numbers of players. More importantly, they nurtured excellent players with ever escalating stakes. Not in the top ten, though. Several of these have had massive rooms for quite a while (Bellagio, Foxwoods, Casino Arizona as an example), and there has been an absolute rush to add rooms in the last eighteen months literally everywhere. Casinos understand that they really can't ignore this poor use of their real estate, especially as more and more of their revenue is tied to support and services (e.g., lodging, food, entertainment).
  • Dutch Boyd and PokerSpot: Up for Anything has a post from January 2004 that speaks more clearly to the events that transpired (along with other links). Dutch hit most of our radar during the 2003 WSOP on ESPN, but in 2000 he launched PokerSpot at quite a young age. The long and short of it is that players lost their funds deposited at the sites. It had the potential of setting online poker back a decade, but we pushed through. One of the Top Five Poker Scandals, but not in our list of catalysts.
  • Poker Celebrities: I had this in the Top Ten then pulled it (although if you like, have it as #10). Professional poker player used to be a term that was either an oxymoron or an indication that you were in denial and had a serious problem. Poker players were smoky, shunned, robbed, killed, cheated, people to be avoided. Amarillo Slim was a character and brought poker into the open in the 70's. Doyle Brunson was a legendary figure. Stu Ungar was a flaming comet. Johnny Chan was the first rock star, but the WPT really created celebrities. Lederer, Layne Flack, Gus Hansen, Devilfish, E-Dog all hit our consciousness in Season 1. Negreanu, Ivey, Harmon, Greenstein all would join them later. Most of these players were around, but especially the U-30 crowd could become poker rock stars literally overnight. I remember walking by Negreanu, Hansen, others at the Bellagio in the fall of 2004 with no stalkers or photo hounds. Ask them what's it like to go to the bathroom now.
These didn't make the cut, but here are my Top Ten in decending order

#10 Harrah's buys Binion's Horsehoe and the WSOP: I didn't have this in yesterday's list, but I've added it today. This gets in for two reasons: it's all about the brand and Harrah's owns casinos. Harrah's has brought contemporary management practices into the gaming industry, from portfolio management to customer loyalty/segmentation to brand management. When they bought out the bankrupt Binion's, they really bought the WSOP brand along with the Horseshoe brand. They've done a ton with the WSOP brand, creating a competitor to the WPT that builds excitement and traffic to their casinos all over the US. No offense intended, but how could you get Vinny Vinh to beat Men the Master to even find Elizabeth, Indiana? Have them get heads-up at the final table of a WSOP Circuit event at the Harrah's Casino located there. The second point is Harrah's owns casinos. This means that you have executives of one of the largest gaming companies in the world now stewarding the gem of poker, the WSOP. The interests of their shareholders will ensure that they continue to drive poker and the WSOP.

#9 ZeeJustin Busted: This may seem a bit wrong, especially as it is less than a year old. I firmly believe that this is one of the most important events for the long-term health of online poker. Justin Bonomo was and is a successful online player. Bill Rini has one of many responses to his apology and defense of playing two separate accounts in the same MTT. He was outed by a friend of his then started a firestorm when said friend posted Party's response on 2+2. Online poker is rigged, cheating is rampant, and now here was a bigtime smoking gun. At the time, I was more disturbed that these offshore sites had such obvious holes in their anti-collusion and cheating efforts. ZeeJustin had played two accounts from the same computer with the same IP address. This wasn't even seemingly advanced cheating; this was walking in a bank without a mask or something. ZeeJustin is really a symbol of what is out there. Sites have stepped up their efforts substantially, but long-term it is one of the big challenges confronting the industry.

#8 ESPN Expands WSOP Coverage: Every junkie here has watched ESPN Classic and their inventory of early WSOP coverage, with Dick Van Patten guessing that everyone must have flopped either a straight or a set. ESPN in 2003 decided to turn the Main Event into a new series for lack of a better term, complete with player profiles, background music, graphics, and cards. ESPN found something that no one could have predicted: for and event with minimal rights fees and tiny production costs (try saying that NHL or MLB), here was a product that not only people would watch but people would watch again. And again. And again. And again. Re-run ratings are almost the same the second time they are aired vs. the twentieth time. We know how it will turn out, but we keep watching it again anyways. ESPN and Harrah's have an agreement through 2010 now, and final table pay-per-view has been added this year.

#7 Harry Orenstein Invents the Hole Camera (1997): The inventor of Transformers transformed forever the viewing of poker, creating a subtle way of identifying the cards that were held by each player and allowing the viewer to see everything at the table.

#6 Late Night Poker on Channel 4: I've only seen this a few times, but this UK show launched in 1999 demonstrated that poker could build an audience, could create stars and villains, could be sustained. This became more American Idol than Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? as it has continued to thrive and generate knock-off's the world over.

#5 The Travel Channel Launches the WPT: Mike Sexton has an odd country twang. Vince Van Patten was the son of the original WSOP announcer for ESPN, former tennis player, former Bionic Boy. Shana Hiatt had been in Playboy in 1995 but had limited experience. Oh, and no one had ever watched the Travel Channel before. The WPT became the highest rated series in the history of the channel, re-runs initially had greater viewership than their original airings. Poker came front and center into our homes, and we watched for two hours each riveting hand. There is alot wrong with the shows, and the rapidly escalating blind structure at the TV table is a travesty, but WTP belongs in the Top Five.

#4 iGM-Pay and Neteller: Credit card authorization denied. We couldn't deposit money to save our lives, so electronic fund transfer option filled the void. Wives who were responsible for Quicken quickly sniffed out the fact that these line items weren't office supplies, restaurant checks, or gifts. Or at least I was too stupid not to make the deposits for $237.38 instead of nice round numbers. When you're a degenerate, typing the 37.38 just takes too long.

#3 PlanetPoker: This should probably be #2 or #1, but online poker has been the engine that has powered poker growth. PlanetPoker was the first truly successful venture, quickly followed by Paradise Poker. Party truly brought it to the masses and became the powerhouse, but PlanetPoker launched the armada.

#2 A Man Named Moneymaker: Few times are you able to truly witness an event that launches an industry or get to know a person who changes the world. Chris Moneymaker changed the world. A self-described gambling degenerate, he wasn't truly the perfect guy from the casting call to become the poker king. He had the perfect name, sure, but he was folksy without the warmth of Danneman, he lacked the self assurance of Raymer. He wasn't a hottie like Patrik Antonius or Liz Lieu. He didn't have the game of Ted Forrest or Barry Greenstein. The better choice to win? Phil Ivey. The perfect choice to win? Chris Moneymaker. Because if he can win the WSOP, then surely I can play poker.

#1 Rounders: Julia Roberts first movie role (OK second putting aside Satisfaction with Justine Bateman) was in Mystic Pizza. The younger brother of the snotty Porsche driving rich kid in Mystic? Matt Damon. Fresh off of his Oscar for Good Will Hunting and his role as the only surviving Ryan brother in WWII, Damon dove into the world of underground New York poker. He would get knocked out of the 1998 WSOP when his kings ran into Doyle's pocket rockets. The poker play isn't the best, the Johnny Chan scene is fairly ludicrous today (great, I took one pot off of Chan then left), but I think it was the spark, online poker the tinder, and Moneymaker the fuel that launched it all. It was filled with great actors playing great characters. The Knish. Worm. Professor Petrovsky. Petra. Grama. And Teddy KGB. As with any cult flick, the lines only have to be whispered. "I feel like Buckner walking back into Shea." "Check-raising stupid tourists." "...women are the rake..." "Are you satisfied Teddy? Because I can keep busting you up all night if you like."

There you have it, my Top Ten Catalysts for the Poker Explosion. What do you think?


Blogger TenMile said...

I really like the Planet Poker credits. They and Poker School On-line and about everything those folks touched seem to be FOR poker. They deserve credit.

12:07 PM  
Blogger JvilleWhip said...

I'll keep today's response short...
I love it! Wonderfully thought out.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Raveen said...

i think i spent like a 1/2 hour on liz leu's site cause she is so freaking beautiful...question why the dude u think he's cute too???? considering u are the "closet" player.....just playing man a great introspective post and u hit everything right on the head....ps can u teach me to write well i really like your style

2:55 PM  
Blogger littleacornman said...

Ch4's late night poker was what caught my eye and got me hooked on poker.
Good shout.

6:04 PM  

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