Is Poker Dying?February 7th, 2014
Joe Hachem recently stated in an interview with Bluff magazine that he felt poker was dying; naturally everyone involved in poker has started to question the validity of this statement.
First of all, it’s no use letting your own views on Joe Hachem cloud any judgement you make here. Regardless of what you think of Joe, in the years after becoming the WSOP ME champion he was a very willing ambassador for the game, and remains a willing ambassador even since his deal with PokerStars ended. He has a fairly unique perspective and is mainly concerned with his own corner of the poker world (in particular live play, and even more in particular, the WSOP), but regardless of where you currently fit in the poker landscape, you are sure to have an opinion on this matter. Here I will outline my own view and some history on my own journey, which undoubtedly helped shape these opinions.I first started playing poker with friends 15 years ago (as a 15 year-old), after seeing an episode of Late Night Poker on TV here in the UK. There was no form of advertising which could draw me into poker; obviously a TV show like Late Night Poker is a form of advertising in itself, but something like a 30 second TV ad wouldn’t in itself catch my attention. What drew my friends and I to the game was a number of things. Firstly, Late Night Poker had some really interesting characters. I distinctly remember Phil Helmuth appearing in one episode as this brash, confident young American player who was coming over to take on the British players. He obviously was and has always remained a very interesting character, but a sub-plot always existed, whether it was between Helmuth and the Brits who regularly appeared on the show, or between the regular players themselves. Even amongst the regular (mostly British) players there were some really interesting characters. Devilfish is a prime example, but for all the players it seemed that their lives away from the table were exciting because of the fact that they made their living playing cards. If you ever happened to meet these players then you may have had your illusions shattered (as I did upon witnessing Devilfish in a Vegas nightclub once, but that’s a story for another time). Each player seemed to have a different way of approaching the game; Simon Trumper was a very tight, calculating player, and seeing him come up against the opposite style of someone like Devilfish was very engaging for me personally. The characters captured our imagination in such a way that we even developed poker nicknames for ourselves for whenever we played home games at my house (sad but true). For some of my friends poker became a hobby and then faded away, but for me it became something much bigger. I was an extremely competitive teenager, and had also been exposed to some soft forms of gambling thanks to some family members who like to bet on sports occasionally. If these players on Late Night Poker could make a living from playing a card game, why couldn’t I? Their life seemed so much more exciting than the standard 9-5 existence.Training material didn’t exist in anything like it’s current form, so I scoured the internet for whatever I could (usually reading poker forums whilst studying). I bought Super System and a few other poker books that were popular at the time and began to develop what I felt was my own unique poker style. I purchased every season of the WPT on DVD and would study the players I could relate to most (Gus Hansen quickly became my favourite player). By the time I turned 18 I felt I had some poker education behind me, although my only opportunity to put what I had learnt into practise had been in home games against opposition that wasn’t taking the game anywhere near as seriously as me. Around my 18th birthday I created a Party Poker account and proceeded to lose steadily (what I could afford) for 6 months playing low stakes 9 handed limit hold’em. Being as competitive as I am, I stepped up my efforts to improve and eventually found SNGs. By my 19th birthday I had ventured into 6 handed NL hold’em cash games and was making a side income playing $.50/$1. I was posting regularly on poker forums and felt that my progress as a poker player was coming along pretty rapidly. I moved through the levels until I was playing $2.50/$5 NL; I worked a very mundane office job at the time and after feeling confident that my regular earnings from poker had overtaken my normal salary, I took the plunge and left my job. I was very fortunate in that I think I ran well for the first year as a “pro”, and also that the games were obviously very soft back then compared to the games now. If I were to picture myself as a 19 year-old in 2014 trying to turn pro, I know that the learning curve would be immensely steeper.
So why have I just written that mini-essay? The main reason, and something which I feel should be printed on the office walls of every poker company in existence, is that a lot of new players are drawn to the game because of the perceived fun and exciting lifestyle, especially in comparison to the usual career choices. When I compare poker pros in 2014 to poker pros in 1999, there are some stark differences:
1) The characters at least seemed more interesting back then. It’s nobody’s fault, but the rise of poker as a game played primarily over the internet has meant that a lot of newcomers unfortunately fit the stereotypical picture of “kid in mom’s basement”. This is not really a guy who people are interested in, and certainly not one who they want to emulate.
2) In 1999, a lot of what you knew about the players daily and yearly swings was left to your own imagination. I had no idea if Ram Vaswani had millions in the bank, was almost broke, or what smoky back-room games he might be playing in. Today, I can go to HighStakesDB and see exactly what Victor Blom has won or lost over the past 3 years, and where. When I do see that he plays every day (and seemingly every waking hour), I start to get a picture of some guy sitting at home in his pants all day clicking buttons; not that glamorous and mysterious.
3) However, when I see that some of these pros are making millions of dollars sitting at home in their pants, it’s certainly appealing when compared to working a mundane 9-5 (or most things for that matter).
Apologies if you are reading this from your mom’s basement (and I hope that you can see my tongue firmly in my cheek), but one thing seems undoubtedly true to me; right now poker is attractive to young adults who are tech-savvy and who are able to focus on learning the ins and outs of a game to an almost obsessive level in order to succeed. The “kid in mom’s basement winning millions of dollars” appeals mainly to someone who is already sitting in their mom’s basement. What you are left with after this is a poker world made up of a lot of guys who aren’t that marketable, especially not to players who we would consider recreational players. Joe Hachem doesn’t like these kinds of players; well, here is the reason they appear so much in poker nowadays.
So who is doing anything about this? Certainly not the poker sites themselves. The capitalist system that dominates the world we live in doesn’t encourage many businesses to take 1 step back in order to take 2 more forwards. Poker sites are mainly interested in the here and now and their own immediate bottom line. Networks such as iPoker have seen cannibalisation on a ridiculous scale, where skins cut each other’s throats in order to get an immediate share of the competitor’s players. A lot of these poker sites (William Hill etc.) exist as an arm of a business which specialises in something else other than poker. Poker for them is simply something they feel they have to offer, not something they are keen to spend marketing dollars on in order to attract new players. As for the sites which we would consider specialists in poker, the picture isn’t much rosier. Full Tilt Poker and Party Poker are stil falling behind and don’t show any signs of finding their way out of the trees. PokerStars is obviously the main hope, but I personally don’t see many signs that they are doing everything right when it comes to safeguarding the future of poker as we know it (and although it’s in their interest to, it would probably slightly unfair to burden them solely with this task).
I would love to see at least one of the major sites take active measures in the right direction over the coming year. Firstly, as many have said before, the playing field needs to be levelled in some way. The skill gap between the pros and the recreational players is growing constantly, and something needs to be done to address that. I don’t know whether that needs to be in the form of banning HUDs, providing free/easy-to-access training for recreational players or something else. If something can be done that also improves the enjoyment people experience at the tables, even better. And Party Poker, if you are reading, this doesn’t mean token achievement badges which exist merely to encourage players to deposit more, rake more and fill the games you are seeing low traffic in. Etiquette at the tables (both live and online) is a bit of a mess at the moment, but I would imagine that’s merely a by-product of all that we see wrong with poker right now. I would also hope that when a site like PokerStars works out how to spend their marketing budget for 2014, they aren’t just looking at the predominant age range of their current player base, but are looking for ways to encourage people from all walks of society to join in the game. I can’t remember the last time I saw a site pimping out a sponsored player who wasn’t in his twenties, unless he happened to win the WSOP. I’m 30 years old so couldn’t tell you yet what a guy in his 40’s wants from a poker site, but if you work in marketing for PokerStars, Full Tilt or Party, get out there and ask him!
There are undoubtedly numerous other reasons why poker is suffering at the moment (world economy, regulation, segregation, scandals, etc.). While I don’t think it’s dying, I think the boom years are definitely over and that could certainly make it seem to some like it is dying. Some people are clinging onto the hope that US regulation will see a significant surge in numbers; I think we need some fundamental changes across the board before there is cause for real hope. At least the players themselves are willing to talk about.