When it first started, the late Benny Binion’s gathering of the greatest “road gamblers” in the world – under the auspices of the “World Series of Poker” – was meant to be a celebration of the game. The very names that are now legend – Moss, Slim, Pearson, Brunson – used the time to rekindle old friendships (or maybe old animosities) and to play a little poker along the way. As the years went by, however, the general public began to learn about poker’s greatest tournament and decided to join the fun.
Virtually every year since the original gathering at Binion’s Horseshoe in 1970 (in actuality 1969, when the Holiday Casino in Reno played host to the Gaming Fraternity Convention, but that’s a story for another time), the number of players that have participated in the WSOP and, by extension, the WSOP $10,000 Championship Event, has increased. Binion wouldn’t recognize today’s WSOP, held in a giant poker arena(s) while drawing thousands of players from not just Texas but around the world. With the 2017 version of this event, however, the question must be asked…has the World Series of Poker reached its peak?
In the biggest tournament to date at the 2017 WSOP – The Colossus – the players line up to take their shot at earning a $1 million payday for only a $500 expenditure (IF you only took one shot). When the tournament debuted two years ago, 22,374 entries were fielded. In the 2016 version, that number fell slightly to 21,613. For 2017, the numbers didn’t even crack the 20K mark; only 18,523 entries were recorded. While there are potential explanations for this (including that people don’t like playing in a bingo tournament), other tournaments on the schedule have been flat or also seen small declines in their numbers, unlike the days of yore.
In the inaugural 1970 WSOP Championship Event, only seven people stepped up to play and the eventual “champion” was named by a vote amongst the players for Johnny Moss. In the first “buy-in” WSOP in 1971 (won by Moss), only six players came forth to play. Since then, however, the numbers have increased dramatically; by 1979, 54 players entered the tournament and, three years later, the century mark was passed. In 1991, 215 came to the WSOP Championship Event, marking the first time the tournament passed the 200-player mark.
As the 21st century approached, the WSOP went supernova. Noel Furlong beat a 393-player field in 1999 and, the very next year, the numbers ratcheted up over the 500 mark (512). Although the WSOP Championship Event would make another 100-plus player jump in 2001 (613), it basically plateaued to the next year (631). Then came the “Internet Era” of poker.
Although it was an impressive leap, the 839-player field for the 2003 wasn’t notably affected by the advent of online poker, but it was the winner of the tournament that year that was the catalyst. Coming from an online satellite on PokerStars, Chris Moneymaker’s historic win gave literally EVERYONE the feeling that they could be the “next Moneymaker.” In 2004, the Championship Event field increased threefold and, in 2005, more than twofold. By 2006, 8773 players were in poker’s biggest game and people were wondering how long it would be until they had to hold the tournament in Sam Boyd Stadium instead of its new home at the Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino.
Then came the UIGEA…and the financial collapse of 2008…and the various “Superuser” scandals from poker rooms…and “Black Friday” …and poker has never been the same.
It isn’t fair to put the entire burden for the “peaking of poker” on 2017 alone. It has been working towards that direction for quite some time. There was a precipitous drop in players for the Championship Event in 2007 and, after a bit of recovery to 7319 in 2010, suffered another drop in 2011 to 6865 players. Since 2011, the numbers haven’t gone over that mark. Thus, the problem has been incubating for several years, not just 2017 alone.
The WSOP is an example of the “get everything out of it” approach that casinos have taken regarding the game of poker. Back in 2006, the WSOP featured 46 different tournaments and it was thought that it couldn’t get any bigger. There also wasn’t the WSOP Europe or the WSOP Asia/Pacific to add on to the overall number. Fast forward the clock to 2017 and there is a saturation of tournaments that no player could conceivably take part in. 74 bracelet events make up the schedule at the Rio and, once you add in another 11 bracelet events from the WSOP Europe at King’s Casino in the Czech Republic later this year, there are 85 total events. That type of schedule is impossible for players (and fans, for that matter) to keep up with. And let’s not just blame the WSOP…who can forget the PokerStars Championship Bahamas back in January, with 90 scheduled tournaments over NINE DAYS.
There’s something that must be said about the “re-entry” fad that also destroys the game of poker. Joe Public has one buy in to go play the WSOP, the World Poker Tour or the PokerStars Championships or partypoker LIVE! events. He then sees that it’s a “unlimited re-entry” where the deep-pocketed pros toss money around like Rick Ross at a strip club. What do you think Joe Public is going to do with that roll of cash if he knows he’s only got one shot? In most cases, he’s going to turn around and leave the tournament floor.
Finally, there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room – maybe people just aren’t finding poker fun anymore? When someone heads to a poker room nowadays, what do they see? People with hoodies, sunglasses and earbuds ignoring any possibility that there are entities that exist outside their sphere or, if there are people who aren’t in their own personal isolation booth, a constant stream of berating from a person who “plays for a living” analyzing their play angrily. If you had that type of situation for a four or five-hour period, would YOU be excited about playing a game?
It’s taken us at least a decade to reach this point, so it isn’t going to be fixed overnight. But we can start with going back to the classic “freeze-out” tournament that gives Joe Public the chance to bust the big stars in the game. We can cut down on the number of events on a festival schedule and look to entertain the players in other areas rather than just the poker room. We can bring some fun back to the poker room, relax the rules a bit (some of the Tournament Director Association rules, to be honest, are a bit draconian should a newcomer violate them). And we can be “human” at the poker tables rather than the automatons and “know-it-alls” that it seems has permeated poker rooms around the world.
If these things can be done, then there’s a chance that we can rekindle the flame of poker and get players to head back to the poker rooms again. If we continue down the current path, we’re not going to grow the game at all and risk an even further erosion of those already a part of the community. While things may not be at the peak that they were in 2006 and probably will never return there, we can still keep the game alive where it is now rather than reverting to 1999.