How the poker boom has gone bust

Posted by Steve Ruddock on Jul 16, 2012 Posted in Op-Ed | 2 Comments »

In the fall of 2003 the world (the world of young males in the United States anyway) had already caught poker fever; Chris Moneymaker, and his fated run to the World Series of Poker Main Event title was simply the tipping point; a culmination of events that lead to the explosion of poker’s popularity. Before ESPN ever showcased it’s new “hole-card camera” toy in November of 2003, the World Poker Tour (WPT) was already building upon the cult phenomenon of the movie Rounders; James McManus gripping tale of his own WSOP run in Positively Fifth Street; and not least of all, the rise of Internet Poker. The culmination of all of these factors gave us what is commonly referred to as “The Poker Boom”.

But something strange happened during the middle of the Poker Boom, the “Boom” went “Bust”, and today the game is harder to beat than it ever has been in the past. What caused the bust was basically the same thing that caused the boom in the first place; a series of intertwined events, which I’ll try to explain in this article. But what many people fail to realize is that this series of events began with the poker boom itself.

Before the Boom

If you were already a poker player at this time, which I was (and by poker player I mean someone who could beat the game), it was quite an interesting transition. In 2002 I was all of 26 years-old, and when I entered a poker room I brought the average age down at least a decade. But poker rooms (legitimate poker rooms in casinos) were only one part of my usual poker routine, as a lot of my time was spent in bars and private clubs playing poker –sometimes out in the open and at other times well after-hours in smoky, windowless, back-rooms. This is where I cut my teeth in the game, beating players that can only be classified as “Terrible”. Amazingly, just a decade later the thought of this period of time is like hearkening back to river boat gambling on the Mississippi in the 1800’s; it just seems like such a distant memory and so far from where the game is today.

In these days, “thinking” players were a scarce commodity in a poker game. Sure there were plenty of experienced poker players, and there were plenty of players with a rudimentary understanding of the math involved in the game, but finding players who actually thought or experimented with different strategies, adjusted to their different opponents, AND had the experience to spot tendencies and tells was a rare thing.

An even more glaring difference was who these players would share this knowledge with. If you were lucky enough to happen upon during this time period you would find some of this talk, but for the most part, higher-level thinking, was something rarely talked about in the open. The best a new player might find on his own was some basic info on starting hands, counting outs, and pot odds. Anything more than this required a book (there were very few in these days and the price-tag wasn’t $10) or for you to know some good poker players who would take you into their confidence.

Basically, for thinking players the only thing better than an absolute fish was a completely predictable player; so it should be no surprise that virtually every poker manual up until about 2005 stopped as soon as it taught players to be predictable! The higher level stuff was left unsaid (and to a certain extent it wasn’t something the players even knew they were cognitively doing, it was more of a sixth sense and hard to quantify). In these days I wasn’t just a favorite in a 20 man tournament; barring some really horrible beat I was a virtual lock to at least cash –shooting for a 10% ROI was something I would laugh during my early poker days.

I was a part of these early forums, and I can recall one incident where I felt I gave out too much information during a discussion on hand-reading, when I was basically describing hand-ranges (this was before there was even such a term in use), and most of the people in the thread thought I might be losing it. Other concepts I was using (some consciously and some not) were fold equity, ICM, and such. But like all of the other seasoned players I pretty much kept this information to myself, while discussing pot odds, blind defense and so on with anyone who asked.

The Poker Boom: The Early Years

At the beginning of the poker boom the status quo remained as it pertained to the dissemination of knowledge. More and more poker books were written and forum talk picked-up, but all-in-all the strategies and concepts didn’t move forward, and the games were softer than ever and there were more of them.

What did change was the amount of new players in the game, young players at that. With so many new players it was basically a foregone conclusion that some of them would become good players (and they did) by figuring out the game on their own. But what wasn’t expected was the way information became readily available for anyone with a computer and Internet access –so basically ANYONE! Now, what these players maybe didn’t understand was what this information-sharing was going to lead to in the future, and as the poker boom continued, more and more information was coming to light for the entire world to see.

The Poker Boom

Once the poker boom was in full swing, and money was rolling into poker players’ pockets like never before, young players were suddenly being poked, prodded, and propositioned after every big score, and unlike the wizened gamblers of old (who kept the cards close to their vest) these younger players were not worldly enough to know when to stop talking, or when a quick buck might wasn’t worth it. Even worse, the book proposals, and later the online training market, monetized poker information, and soon anyone who knew anything about the strategies of poker was openly divulging the secrets for what became less and less money.

I don’t solely blame these players who monetized their knowledge (they were simply in the right place at the right time), but I do wonder if the dissemination of this knowledge would have been far slower if it weren’t for the sudden influx of young, smart players? These were players who were extremely smart and mathematical, but maybe lacked the discipline, experience, and long-term thinking of the older generation of poker players. For all their skills, cunning was usually nowhere to be found—even to this day you see younger players falling victim to obvious scams.

Sure they were earning easy money making a training video or writing a book, but a few years later they probably realized the true extent of their folly.

Where We Are Now

So now we are in a place where the skill level of the typical poker player is exponentially higher than it was pre-boom and to a certain extent the game is moving towards being “solved” for lack of a better term. If you don’t believe me just look at the number of players leaving the game or who have been felted, or look at the stakes some of the best players during the Boom now participate in (sure the very best play ultra-high-stakes, but even some online legends who crushed $25/$50 and higher NLHE are now reduced to playing $3/$6 NLHE), and for the first time people are starting to vocalize their worries that the money in poker has dried-up.

The hope is that a second Poker Boom can solve this problem by bringing new players into the game. But realistically these players are going to start out better, and quickly improve thanks to all of the resources available. I’ve said this before but it’s such an important thing to realize I’ll say it again: In 2004 a fish was someone who didn’t understand pot odds; in 2012 a fish is someone who has a really-low 3-bet-percentage from the button.

The Poker Boom definitely brought in a lot of young, smart, players, who sent poker theory and strategy talk into the stratosphere, but at the same time they were unable to prevent this knowledge from getting out, and much like a nuclear arms race, in today’s poker world EVERYONE seems to be armed to the teeth.


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2 Responses to “How the poker boom has gone bust”

  1. Johnny Sep says:

    Great Article Steve, and pretty much perfect. I’m in my 12th year playing poker instead of getting an lol job. Over the last three years my yearly has gone done tremendously and if it wasn’t for a few clutch tournament wins I would have posted 2 losing years in 2010 and 2011. Those would have been the first losing years since 02. It is really hard to actually take a step back and remove ego from the situation, but upon doing so you realize that your no longer the young shark who studies round the clock and crushed the guys who have gotten old and stuck in their ways, you are now old and stuck in your ways. I have a family now, and I can’t dedicate 100 hours a week to getting better anymore, so I have accepted that the game of NLHE has passed me by. Younger kids with no responsibility and all the brains in the world are now dedicating 100 hours to getting better, and what is even more helpful is that they are in very tight nit circles with other younger guys who are insanely smart and they all pick each others brains. I made a decision that in order to continue playing poker and have an edge I needed to revert back to my starting days in poker and play Stud instead of NLHE, where I am still 30 years the junior of most of the table and my edge is massive, it’s working out so far. I also play selective tournaments now that are full of shot takers who truly are ESPN fan / Dead money… like the small events when the circuit comes to town, etc… I wouldn’t dream of playing a 5k at the WSOP right now, because I am simply out matched. With experience though comes the ability to force yourself to make money, and that is why myself and people like me will see these elite players come and go, and we will still be grinding.

  2. Steve Ruddock says:

    This is an excellent point: When I first started playing I thought about poker around the clock to the point that I was calcualting odds on the possibility of being hit by a car depending on the traffic flow and blind spots! With age comes responsibility, and with responsibility we have to realize that priorities change. I’m in the same boat and I decided in 2006 that poker and family didn’t work for me, and have only played casually ever since then. I still consider myself a good poekr player, and it took me a longtime to realize that even local players are my betters, recognizing your outclassed is a very difficult and admitting it is even harder.

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