View: Poker Isn’t Dead Or Dying, It’s Just Different

January 30, 2018
View: Poker Isn’t Dead Or Dying, It’s Just Different


Poker is a bit bipolar these days. Like the price of cryptocurrencies, the mood of the community tends to change week-to-week and sometimes even day-to-day or hour-to-hour.

Today, poker is alive and well.

Yesterday, poker’s prognosis was terminal.

The truth is, the game is just fundamentally changing, just as it has countless times before. Whether it was going from the days of unregulated poker in the wild west or on riverboats to prohibitions by most states, or from backroom games to casino poker, the game has gone through periods of booms and busts.

In order to survive these periods of tumult, players will need to adapt. Those that don’t will get left behind.

He who rejects change…

A confluence of events brought about a sudden and radical change in the early 2000’s, culminating with ESPN’s coverage of Chris Moneymaker’s improbable victory in the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event.

Moneymaker is often credited with the poker boom, but his victory was less of a starting point for the boom and more of a tipping point.

The seeds of the poker boom were planted with the birth of online poker in 1998, and that wasn’t the only factor.

In the buildup to the 2003 WSOP Main Event the poker world was already changing thanks to:

  • The release of Rounders in the fall of 1998 (the movie was a box office flop but became a cult classic when it was released on video).
  • The usage of the hole card camera, starting with Late Night Poker in 1999.
  • The launch of much improved second and third generation online poker sites in 2001.
  • The launch of the World Poker Tour in 2002 (the first episodes aired in the Spring of 2003).
  • Positively Fifth Street becoming a New York Times bestseller (the book was published in early 2003).

During the 1998-2003 period, the changes were slight and somewhat imperceptible. In the fall of 2003 the shift became sudden and radical.

Within a year the game of poker was turned on its head, and by 2006 it was almost unrecognizable.

The once simple formula for beating poker (tight-aggressive) turned into ever-evolving complex strategies, with young guns getting a lifetime’s worth of experience in six months by multi-tabling online and running computer sims.

Suffice it to say, some of the best players in the game pre-poker boom got left behind.

Unwilling or unable to face the new reality, they refused to change to a changing environment. They looked at the evolving landscape as a fad that would pass, and the young players running circles around them were just on the good side of variance.

All they did was dig in their heels, while the new players snickered and mocked their stubbornness and inability to evolve.

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Those who don’t know history…

The second shift followed a similar trajectory; a slow buildup (beginning in 2006) to a major event. Only this time the event wasn’t opportune, it was cataclysmic.

That event was Black Friday.

But leading up to Black Friday, poker was harmed by:

  • The passage of UIGEA in 2006.
  • Scandals and shady operators stealing millions from online poker players.
  • Legalization efforts around the globe that balkanized the global online poker market.
  • The games strategies and information being widely disseminated and the games becoming increasingly harder.
  • Poker falling out of favor with a mainstream audience.
  • The consolidation of poker sites with online gaming companies, which pushed online poker to the backburner.

All of that led up to the events of April 15, 2011.

And as was the case a decade before, a lot of professional poker players have failed to change with the times.

Most of the professionals who came up during the poker boom will tell you that opportunities in poker are drying up, and a career in poker is no longer tenable.

But these same players who laughed at the old guard’s failure to evolve, are now repeating their mistakes. They haven’t adjusted to the new landscape.

Fewer opportunities exist

One person not repeating the mistakes of her predecessors is Vanessa Selbst.

In her retirement announcement and departure from Team PokerStars Pro, Selbst made her feelings about this topic crystal clear:

“… I don’t feel good about promoting poker as an ambassador anymore (I can’t tell amateurs they should come play online and it’s beatable for them when I don’t feel like it’s true).

This is a common refrain in poker, but the more telling part of Selbst’s farewell note was the next passage:

“Lastly, whether because poker got more competitive or because we got older (or likely some combination of the two), poker recently turned into a real job, requiring hard work and discipline to succeed. I had never treated the game that way–I always kept a very light poker schedule–I showed up and played for fun and did other projects back home as my “real work.” The shift in the nature of poker and what it requires put me at a crossroads and asked the question of me whether I would rather change my relationship to the game or move on. To me, the opportunity to work hard and learn something totally new and get to keep poker in my arsenal of fun go-to hobbies feels like the right approach.”

Basically, Selbst is saying she doesn’t want to (or can’t) evolve to the new era of poker. The payoff no longer justifies the effort required to be a top-level poker pro.

This is something Daniel Negreanu wrote about some time ago:

“It’s not to say that guys like Isaac Haxton, Olivier Busquet, and Dani Stern wouldn’t have been smart enough to beat the games in the 90’s, it’s to say that there is very little chance that they would have even bothered to put in the effort required to do so.  


“I don’t think any of the three guys I mentioned would have been professional poker players in the 90’s! Again, not because they weren’t capable, but mostly because it would have been a bad decision.”

Negreanu’s point is this: the money that can be made as a professional poker player was inflated during the poker boom, and that pulled in some of the best young thinkers.

Now that “a living” playing poker no longer means a guaranteed income well into the six figures, a lot of these critical thinkers will be leaving poker for other fields, or never getting involved with the game.

There are still opportunities to become a poker millionaire, but the plateau that appeared during the boom has been eroded and can only support a fraction of the people it once could. But there are still plenty of opportunities to make a pre-boom income from poker. The game is still widely available and as long as your expectations comport to the current reality, you can make a living playing poker.

Some professional players are coming to the realization that the poker gravy train is coming to an end.

Others are adapting to the changing conditions, and tamping down their expectations.

And still others are hung up on and blaming factors beyond their control for their loss of income.

The very attitude that got so many pre-poker boom era players into trouble a decade ago.

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