The writing has been on the wall since the 2016 WSOP Main Event finished up and a 20-something pro poker player didn’t win the title for the first time in almost a decade.
A people’s champion
Sure, there have been some exceptions. But for every feel-good story about a recovering addict turning his life around and humble circuit grinder making good, there was an angry young man who probably shouldn’t have played in poker’s biggest tournament if he didn’t want the attention that comes with winning it.
Instead, the 2016 WSOP Main Event was won by Qui Nguyen. And, the increase from 6,737 entries last year to 7,221 this time around can be directly attributed to the fact a Vietnamese-American gambler who resides in fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada won it all with an unorthodox style of play.
The number of entrants in the Main Event went down the year after German Pius Heinz took the title and thumbed his nose at the world. They actually went up after Pennsylvania’s Joe McKeehen won and gave the media the middle finger, but not in any significant way.
The fact is, a win from another maladjusted math whiz barely old enough to play does very little to perpetuate the poker dream. In fact, it has proven to be a whole lot less than what an old school riverboat gambler like Nguyen has given the game.
The Qui Nguyen appeal
Nguyen didn’t exactly go on a world tour promoting poker after the win. He didn’t sign up to be the ambassador for an online poker site. He didn’t have to. Nguyen played fast and loose, gambling his way to victory in front of the ESPN cameras. By the time the title was his, there was little doubt there would be at least 480 more amateur players thinking they could be next. His promotional work as poker’s world champ was done becoming poker’s world champ.
It’s a matter of demographics as well. The average age of participants in the WSOP Main Event this year was a little over 40. Nguyen isn’t yet 40, but he’s closer to 41 than 21. That makes his appeal to the average Main Event participant even greater. It’s easy to see how the average Joe could suddenly picture themselves becoming the next Qui Nguyen. It’s a lot harder to envision anyone turning back the clock to become the next Martin Jacobson.
WSOP Main Event growth, not exactly a boom
The day after the 2016 WSOP Main Event final table ended, people weren’t talking about ranges, excessive tanking, or how poker had become a younger man’s game. They were talking about gambling, taking shots, and how anyone can win. It was the same kind of things they were talking about when Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event in 2003 and poker boomed.
The truth is, the addition of 484 players in this year’s main event can hardly be considered a boom. However, it is at the very least some indication that the same things that attracted a massive amount of people to the game almost 15 years ago, can continue to do so today.
Plus, there’s still a ton of room for growth, particularly when it comes to women.
WSOP Main Event’s next big challenge: Women
Unfortunately, if there is a dark cloud to the 2017 WSOP Main Event entry numbers silver lining, it is the fact the number of women in the event actually dropped to under four percent. In fact, there were only four more women entering the 2017 WSOP Main Event than the 268 that did so last year.
The numbers appear even more hopeless when you add in the fact only one female under the age of 26 ponied up the $10,000 buy-in to play.
Figuring out how to grow the number of women participating in the WSOP Main Event is the poker industry’s next big challenge. Fortunately, it’s one that might be solved quite simply.
All that’s required is for a single charismatic female gambler to throw caution to the wind, go for broke and outlast 7,220 other hopefuls to take down the title this year. It probably wouldn’t hurt if her name sounded like win, or had the word money in it, but that might be asking too much.