PROFESSIONAL POKER PLAYERS
Television and televised poker events represent the media factor that has decisively contributed to the huge popularity boost, online and offline poker has gone through since about 2004. Certainly, there were other factors too, but I think everyone would agree that advances in communication and information technology were the main triggers of this phenomenon.
If we take a look at the numbers of WSOP main event participants over the years, there’s a clearly and relatively steadily ascending graph we can trace from 1970 (7 participants) to 2002 (631 participants) when Robert Varkonyi took home $2,000,000. In 2003, something happened though. The graph takes a sudden upward swing here. The exact causes of this sudden surge, both in player numbers and in prize pools, are difficult to pinpoint because of the fact that several events coincided to favor them.
On one hand, the WPT went on the air in 2003, and created nothing short of a mass poker hysteria. On the other hand, the 2003 WSOP main event bracelet went to Chris Moneymaker, a virtual nobody at the time, who had made his way into the tourney through online poker qualifiers via PokerStars.
The popularity boom that resulted was probably due to both the WPT’s on-screen antics and the emergency of such unlikely “folk heroes” through online poker. Thus, the 2004 WSOP main event first prize rocketed from 2 and a half million the previous year, to a staggering $5 million, and appropriately ended up in the pockets of another online qualifier, Greg “The Fossilman” Raymer.
The peak of the online and offline poker craze was apparently reached in 2006, when Jamie Gold walked away with no less than $12 million, as the UIGEA adopted in September the same year went out of its way to curb a phenomenon many people were making huge money on. Poker and online poker have outgrown the wildest expectations and thus became a thorn in the side for certain interests. That year, there were 8,773 people playing in the main event. This number would fall to 6,358 in 2007, probably as a direct consequence of the abusive restrictions on online gaming, put into place by the no less abusive UIGEA. The first prize also took a hit, and fell from $12,000,000 to $8,250,000.
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Televised shows such as the WPT continue however, and they continue to be highly popular as the kind of entertainment they offer their viewers cannot even be mentioned on the same page with sitcoms, reality shows, soap operas and other such abominations used by TV producers to make a mockery of the last grains of human intelligence brainwashed TV viewers are supposedly endowed with.
No matter how we turn it around, there is one shared element in all the different factors that have made the poker industry into the global monster that it is today: the poker professional. This modern day television hero represents a new breed of entertainment. He doesn’t confront bad guys in pathetically staged fight-scenes, he doesn’t commit any superhuman feats for the good of humanity. He doesn’t even bring his personal problems to the screen in a pitiful attempt to entertain by disgusting. He is your average everyday Joe, who does something most people only dream of doing: wins and loses huge sums of money, and treats fortune-size amounts of cash like your kids treat their daily allowance. Oh yeah, and he does it calmly, and without a trace of anxiety. These professional poker players are due the most credit for turning the game into what it is today. Sure, the internet was there to help, and television too, but it is these people who have done (and will probably continue to do) the most for the proliferation of the game of poker, and who won’t be afraid to continue to stand up for one of the most fundamental human rights: the right to choose.
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No, poker and online poker will not take a nose-dive popularity-wise in the coming years. The genie is out of the bottle, and as long as poker celebrities are rightfully more respected than your everyday "celebutante”, we can safely say: this game is here to stay.