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America and a Second Poker Boom

It is not difficult to pinpoint the beginning of what most call the poker boom. In the minds of nearly every poker player, the genesis can be linked to Chris Moneymaker winning the Main Event of the World Series of Poker on a $40 satellite back in 2003. But what proves more difficult is just when the boom ended. For some it never has and these people would say we are still in a state of growth. When considering tournament numbers pre-covid and the totality of those that now play online I can understand why some would say that. But if we are to consider the health of the game, I do not think it can be denied that the game has long passed its apex. Without doing a ten page dissertation on the subject I think it would be easy to associate the end of the poker boom with Black Friday, the day that the FBI seized the domains for Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet. Ever since online poker was made illegal in America the game has certainly been in a state of decline in the States and such has had ramifications for the rest of the world. So will there be a second poker boom? I would argue that there has been already, or at least a preview of how another one can begin.

I would categorize the history of poker into several eras or ages. I would name everything prior to 2003 as the pre-boom era, 2003 to 2011 as the boom proper, 2011 to 2016 as the dark age and 2016 to present as the era of the mobile apps. We have already discussed the first era, bookmarked by Chris Moneymaker and Black Friday. The second era is characterized by the exit of America from the online market and the overall decline of the game. While many would argue that overall numbers grew during this time, I would point out that such was done at the expense of the overall ecosystem. By this time heads up displays (HUDs) were near ubiquitous and we also saw the beginnings of what would eventually become solvers in programs such as Poker Stove and Flopzilla. Also by this time high speed internet was near ubiquitous as well and in more homes than ever before. With this training sites, YouTube channels and generally a wealth of information were available to more prospective players. Although the game was continuing to grow in numbers, players were entering with much more knowledge than previously. With a vast population and the availability of online poker for most players, America previously served as a feeding system of recreational players into the poker ecosystem. With this system now gone, less recreational players were piped into both live casinos and online poker rooms and were replaced by those who studied the game for hours on end, making the game a much more hostile environment. There have been attempts during this stage to legalize online poker in America and reintroduce the game to a more recreational player base. And while some states have brought it back in some form, the ability to play is restricted to local residents of that state and has not been able to impact the rest of the world.

Some semblance of online poker still did exist in America during this time, with some sites choosing to still serve the market. But these sites were not as reputable as those previously mentioned and would often fold without paying players out. Money also became very difficult to move as the depositing process was hard enough. But getting money out for winning players was even more difficult with some players having to wait months on end in order to receive a check. I remember playing on the Cake Network during this era and checks would sometimes take 4-6 months to arrive. One such check I waited for many months, only to have it bounce once I tried to cash it. The situation became so desperate that I resorted to selling my chips on online poker forums at $0.75 to $1. It was during this time that many players decided to travel in order to play from areas where online poker was still allowed. All of this is to say that those in America who still went through all this trouble just to continue playing online was not the average and casual player. After recs were basically kicked off due to the lack of availability, what was left was a less friendly environment in which fewer and fewer players won most of the money.

It was during this time when I started to travel as well, having moved to Cambodia in 2014. The original intent was to reopen my Poker Stars account and start grinding online again, but I actually started to play live near exclusively once I arrived. As online games became tougher more players also started to travel for the purposes of seeking out softer live games in foreign lands. It was during this time around 2016 when a new era in poker would be ushered in which I like to call the age of the mobile apps. New apps were being developed out of Asia during this time, especially out of China, that were designed to be played on smart phones and tablets. On the surface these apps looked like any other play money app, and perhaps they were. But beneath the surface an independent group of people started devising a system in which games on these platforms could be played for real money. Groups started to form clubs within these apps and would employ agents that would recruit players for games that were basically a virtual version of a home game. These agents were very effective in recruiting recreational fish and whales and soon enough a multitude of them were popping up in the live rooms of Asia trying to recruit every player possible. This is what led many players to believe that a second poker boom was imminent and that China was the key as these apps were being developed out of that country and also many of the players were from that market. But even though the apps and player base grew in number, and China certainly played a role in this growth, nothing close to what anyone would consider a boom truly occurred. It was not until a new development that such would even come close to fruition.
Two events would then occur that would change the landscape of poker and greatly increase the growth of these mobile apps. Around 2018 apps were developed with an eye specifically on the American market, spurring clubs to form in that country with agents that would recruit players starving for online poker. With this reintroduction of the American player base, other players started to join these clubs on the new apps in droves. But things would not reach a critical mass until a tragic event occurred world wide far bigger than the scope of the poker world. The corona virus originated out of China in late 2019 and began its meteoric rise as a world wide pandemic. It reached America in early 2020 and once shutdown orders began and people were forced to stay home, the landscape of online poker as a whole changed dramatically. With only a few options for online poker in America, the nature of the local agent model made it easier for players to deposit into real money games and play their favorite poker games online. And once again with the influx of even more American players, the rest of the world would join in. I would argue that this is at least the beginning of a second poker boom, or rather a preview and an indication that America is the key element for such to take place. It is no accident that numbers started to decline and most associate the end of the boom right around the same time as Black Friday in America and once again it does not seem coincidental that the numbers are on the rise now that American players are being reintroduced to the ecosystem via these new apps.

I realize that many would scoff at my hypothesis and point out that these apps exist in a legally grey area at best and that more than a few players have lost their funds to illegitimate clubs and agencies. To this I would like to point out that the first boom had many, if not all, of the same characteristics. The sites during the initial boom were never considered legal in the United States and players lost their funds many times when sites or payment processors folded. Bank accounts of these entities were seized multiple times and most of us are too familiar with scandals linked to Ultimate Bet and Full Tilt. But all of this was coupled with unparalleled growth in the industry and it is this same type of growth that we are experiencing today. I do think that online poker will be legalized in the fullest sense in America in the near future and with that will come what everyone can consider a true second boom. But I remain unsure as to whether or not it will the app model that will survive to see it as the first ones through the door always get bloodied. What I do know is that both the U.S and online poker will be at the forefront of what will propel this game into the future.
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