So, the hand wringing has begun. Television ratings have cratered. Tournament entries are down. There are actually seats available at Hold’em tables in casino card rooms. So out come the proclamations that poker is dead. And in rebuttal, the articles predicting that the loosening of governmental prohibitions against online gambling will resurrect the game. The boom will be back.
Before any more ink is spilled on the future prospects of poker let us pause a moment for a scoop of perspective. Poker is a niche activity in society, nothing more and nothing less. It is not going to die and it is likely not going to boom again, either. What happened in the past twenty years with the convergences of the hole cam that made poker a television product, the coming of the Internet and the near-magical appearance of an accountant with a too-good-to-not-be-true name of Chris Moneymaker to turn a $39 entry fee into a $2.5 million championship in the World Series of Poker, is that the game of poker experienced a moment.
Many other sports have experienced similar moments. Then the moment ends and people think the sport has died. But the millions who enjoyed the game before the burst of media attention continue on as they always did before the glare of the spotlight found their sport. It is only the rest of the world that has moved on to the next “new” thing. Let’s look at other sports surviving in their niches.
Horse racing was once the only gambling game in town. When American legislators set out to tear down online gambling the statute they used was from a half-century before aimed at stopping horse racing results from being transmitted on the radio. Yes, horse racing not so long ago was so popular people turned in to listen to races on the radio. Since then there have been more obituaries written about the sport than Elvis sightings.
But every so often a Smarty Jones or a Barbaro or a California Chrome comes along to grab Triple Crown headlines, everyone pays attention, and articles are written about “saving” horse racing. Then the moment passes and everybody goes back about their business. Horse racing fans continue to follow the sport through Saratoga and the Breeders Cup in relative seclusion. The world where people listen to horse racing on the radio has long since passed but the horses are still in the starting gate.
Or consider poker’s close kin, bridge. While poker was the denizen of the gambling den, bridge was card playing royalty. In post World War II America bridge was a suburban status symbol. Sports Illustrated used to have regular weekly columns on bridge. If the hole cam and ESPN would have been around in the 1950s it would have been bridge on television and not poker.
Bridge was definitely enjoying its moment. You don’t hear about contract bridge anymore. That was the game of “our grandparent’s generation.” But the game did not die when it fell out of favor. The American Contract Bridge League is still out there. Fans can still play contract bridge online, it is simply back in its niche. Poker players, take note.
Tennis, golf, stock car racing. All have had their moments when the particular sport caught the public fancy and moved from being a niche diversion into the public conversation. In tennis it was during the 1970s with the introduction of metal rackets. You could not get on a tennis court in those days; today, if it was not for skateboarders and roller hockey players all those chain link cages would get no use.
Golf boomed at the same time poker did, thanks to the arrival of Tiger Woods. In the 1990s on average a new golf course opened every day in the United States. These days many of those courses have gone back to seed. The poobahs of the golf world are desperate to anoint the next coming of Woods but the golf moment has passed. Society has changed, golf takes too long to play and there are never going to be enough players for all those courses. Golf is a niche sport, as it always has been. The movers and the shakers are coming to grips with that reality, just as poker will.
Poker officials scan the same landscape as golf apologists for signs of an unlikely revival of the glory days. The great talisman is the restoration of online poker to American computers. Slowly Internet gambling is getting the legal green light in states like New Jersey and Nevada and Delaware and as the trend inexorably progresses surely poker chips will fly again, right?
Perhaps, but when Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker were all shuttered on Black Friday in 2011 displaced online poker players did not flock to land-based casinos as real estate developers holding deeds to multi-billion dollar white elephant casinos discovered. They moved on to something else. To try and staunch the hemorrhage of players, tournaments with bigger and bigger purses and buy-ins were staged to little avail.
Believers in the power of online poker may be looking at a future that is not going to exist. Poker was one of the first wonders that could be experienced on the Internet and even though that was less than twenty years ago it is an exponential number of technology generations past. The core player then was white and male between the ages of 20 and 40. That is not a demographic that looks to be expanding as we march deeper into the 21st century.
Poker is a great game. Absolutely. An estimated 150 million people play poker around the world. But that is out of a world population of seven billion. That is the definition of a niche. And that is what poker is – a niche activity. It is not dying and it is not booming. There is no need to issue proclamations on the state of the game. Just relax and play it with your fellow poker fans.