How Concerning Is The Lack Of Young Players At The WSOP?

Steve Ruddock July 18, 2017 4587 Reads
WSOP Millennials

Doug Polk posted some food for thought on Twitter, noting the lack of participation in the World Series of Poker Main Event by the 21-25 year old demographic. In 2017 21-25-year-olds were the smallest demographic by far in this year’s WSOP main event, accounting for less than five percent of the total field.

A little research shows Polk might be on to something, as the average age of a WSOP Main Event player has been steadily rising since at least 2012. I couldn’t find average age data prior to 2010, but thanks to the WSOP who provided me with what information they did have.

 Year Average Age
2010 WSOP 37.33
2011 WSOP 37.2
2012 WSOP 37.74
2013 WSOP 38.1
2014 WSOP 39.28
2015 WSOP 39.62
2016 WSOP 40.08
2017 WSOP 40.59

A deeper dive into the numbers

Looking at specific age demographics really emphasizes Polk’s point.

Unfortunately, the WSOP only began making tracking information for specific demographics available in 2015. What the limited data we have access to shows is, as Polk alluded to, a growing deficit in the number of players in the 21-25 age demographic. A 31 percent decline from 2015 to 2017 to be precise.

In 2015 only eight percent of the field was between 21-25 years old. That number dipped to just five percent in 2017.

21-25 26-30 31-35 36-40 41-45 46-50 51-56 56+
2015 501 1,509 1,090 749 720 642 499 710
2016 374 1,600 1,215 798 744 688 517 801
2017 347 1,520 1,478 895 731 753 613 884

As seen in the table above, every other demographic has seen an overall increase in the number of players over the same time period. That doesn’t always correlate to higher percentages, as the field size went from 6,420 in 2015 to 7,221 in 2017.

The decline would be more worrying if the WSOP relied on the 21-25 demographic, but it’s never been the WSOP’s bread and butter. We don’t have data before 2015, but even if 21-25-year-olds accounted for somewhere between 10 percent to 12 percent of the field during the poker boom, that amounts to about 1,000 of the 8,773 players in 2006. Remove them all and the 2006 WSOP would still be the best-attended in history.

Interestingly, players in the 26-30 demographic have been relatively steady, and the biggest growth occurs in the next demographic, which also happens to be one of the demographics that produces among the most WSOP Main Event entries.

Since 2015, the number of 31-35-year-olds playing the Main Event has increased by over 26 percent over the last three WSOP Main Events.

In 2015, 21-35-year-olds accounted for 3,100 entries or roughly 48 percent of the field. In 2017 the number of 21-35-year-olds grew to 3,345, but the percentage of Main Event players 35 and under shrunk to 46 percent.

Just to round out the numbers, there were 3,320 WSOP players over the age of 35 in 2015, making up 52 percent of the field.  That number rose to 3,876 entries in 2017, or 54 percent of the field.

So we’re talking about changes of just a few percentage points.

Upshot

The average age might be ticking up, and the number of WSOP Main Event players in the youngest demographic is clearly decreasing, but there are more players 35 and under playing the Main Event in 2017 than in 2015.

What’s causing the average age to rise?

The diminishing number of young players (21-25) would be alarming if it weren’t the smallest demographic by a country mile, or if it couldn’t be explained.

There are likely several reasons for this.

  • Products of the poker boom are aging.
  • An improving economy that has put more disposable income in the pockets of Gen X’ers and Baby Boomers.
  • Less opportunity for young players.

It’s the last point that warrants a deeper explanation and gets to the heart of Polk’s concerns.

Where have all the young players gone?

The opportunities for young players have shrunk since the poker boom, but it’s important to realize that the poker boom was the outlier. There aren’t supposed to be thousands of wunderkinds invading poker year after year.

The poker boom is not, as many people think, indicative of what poker is capable of, it was a perfect storm of events that ballooned the number of young players. The current numbers are more likely the norm.

The poker boom was a narrow window in the long history of poker where young players were better equipped than established players.

Poker strategy was stagnant and online poker was brand new. These two things combined to give young players adept at using computers an edge.

A good analogy can be found in baseball. It was as if the teenagers and early 20-somethings that came into poker during the five-year window of 2004 – 2008 were playing with aluminum bats, while the existing players were using wooden ones. There was a skill gap, as the young players were experimenting with new concepts and ideas, and using online poker and computer software to put them to the test.

That imbalance is over. Everyone is using aluminum bats now.

So if you want to know why the 21-25 year old demographic is shrinking, it’s because the existing players in the game aren’t ill-equipped to deal with the next generation of players like they were in 2005.

21-year-olds getting into poker aren’t up against old school players who dismiss online poker and software, they’re up against the people who grew up with online poker and software and saw firsthand what happened to players who were unwilling to adapt.

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