The 2018 World Series of Poker was a rousing success. Not only did WSOP Main Event attendance rise for the third consecutive year, the 2018 WSOP Main Event produced the second largest field in the event’s long history.
Among the 17 records that fell by the wayside at the 2018 WSOP were:
- Most Entrants (across the entire series): 123,865
- Largest total prizepool: $266,889,193
- Largest Starting Flight in Main Event History: Event #65, Flight C: 4,571 entries
Despite the positive numbers, there is a growing concern within the poker community that a troubling trend is emerging. That trend? The average age of WSOP participants is going up, and young players are all but disappearing from the game.
The trend dates back to 2011, and since that time the average age of a WSOP Main Event player has risen by more than four years.
|Year||Average Age of Main Event Participants||Average Age of WSOP Participants Overall|
|2010||37.33||No data available|
|2011||37.2||No data available|
|2012||37.74||No data available|
|2013||38.1||No data available|
In this column I’ll attempt to explain why the average age of WSOP participants is on the rise, and what it means for poker going forward.
Where have all the young players gone?
WSOP Main Event attendance has risen 23 percent since 2015, and as the table below shows, the only age brackets not keeping up with overall growth are 21-to-25-year-olds and 26-to-30-year-olds.
The number of 21-to-25-year-olds participating in the Main Event is down 38 percent since 2015 (the first year the WSOP provided demographic breakdowns).
The next age bracket, 26-to-30-year-olds, has held relatively steady.
Every other five year age bracket is up at least 20 percent.
As seen in the chart below, in 2015 and 2016 there were about 2,000 participants aged 30 and under. By 2018 that number fell to 1,749.
The 38 percent decline amongst 21-to-25-year-olds is a bit misleading since there were only 501 players in the 21-to-25-year-old bracket in 2015. As such the 38 percent drop amounts to 191 total players, less than 2.5 percent of the total field in 2018.
Even if we include 191 extra 21-year-olds in the 2018 WSOP Main Event, the average age only drops to 40.75.
What does that mean?
It means that the reason the average age of the WSOP player is increasing has more to do with who is playing than who isn’t.
Poker is (once again) an old man’s game
Three age brackets are growing significantly faster than attendance as a whole:
- 31-35-year-olds: +55%
- 36-40-year-olds: +40%
- 56+ year olds: +51%
So where are these older players coming from?
First, the 2018 iteration was the largest Seniors Event (minimum age of 50) in WSOP History, with a record 5,918 players showing up for this year’s WSOP Seniors Championship.
That was up from the previous record of 5,389 in 2017.
Further, the Super Seniors event (minimum age of 60) is in its fourth year and also set a new attendance record:
- 2015: 1533
- 2016: 1476
- 2017: 1720
- 2018: 2191
A little bit of basic math helps explain this influx of older players.
2018 was the 15th Anniversary of Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP victory. Yes, it’s been that long. So what you’re seeing is an influx of a lot of people who were in their 30s during the poker boom, and maybe couldn’t play in the WSOP Main Event (family, job, whatever), but were playing recreationally with friends, at local casinos, and even online.
Now that they’re empty nesters, a Las Vegas vacation to play in the WSOP Main Event isn’t out of reach.
The regulated market difference
Regulated markets have put an end to the teenage wizards that took the poker world by storm during the boom years.
Online poker was a self-regulated industry during the poker boom, and the extent of age verification at the time was effectively clicking a box that said you were over 18.
That made it easy for a 15- or 16-year-old to open an online poker account and learn the game. By the time these players were 21 (old enough to play in the WSOP) they already had several years of experience under their belts, and the bankroll to enter a $10,000 buy-in tournament.
In the new, regulated online poker universe, age verification is taken very seriously, and in a lot of jurisdictions you not only have to be 18, you have to be 21.
That is resulting in a higher average starting age.
It’s not easy anymore
As I said in a column last year, “The poker boom was a narrow window in the long history of poker where young players were better equipped than established players.”
That’s no longer the case.
The amount of time it takes to become a polished player is increasing, and bankrolls are no longer built overnight.
In 2004 poker strategy was stagnant, and the internet provided a means for players to test theories and communicate with one another. Young players swarmed to the poker tables, and the best and brightest among them challenged the status quo. The result was several huge leaps forward.
As I said in last year’s column:
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.
The bottom line is this: Instead of starting at 15-18 and being a very polished player with a high-stakes bankroll at 21, players are starting at 18-21, and grinding out bankrolls for multiple years.
Lead image courtesy of Dutch Boyd/Flickr