Among the widespread impacts of the federal crackdown on online poker is the potential effect on the World Series of Poker, which crowns the game’s annual world champion and might be poker’s most recognized global brand.
But at least one industry executive who is tied closely with the WSOP said the poker organization believes its future remains bright. To that end, the WSOP got a boost when ESPN confirmed to the media that it plans to film the WSOP as previously planned.
On April 15, 11 online poker executives were charged with bank fraud and illegal gambling. The targeted sites, Full Tilt, PokerStars and Absolute Poker, also had their services suspended to U.S. customers.
ESPN has temporarily suspended all poker programming – including new shows and re-runs -- because of its previous business relationships with the targeted sites, but still intends to honor its contract this year with the WSOP.
“The plans have not changed,” ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys told the media earlier this week.
While the long-term future of online poker remains in doubt, there’s no question the cyber version of the game had a significant impact on the poker boom over the past decade.
Chris Moneymaker, the 2003 WSOP champ who is considered “The Godfather” of the poker boom, won his entry to the Main Event by winning an online satellite tournament on PokerStars. Images of the poker amateur from Nashville holding up wads of cash as he celebrated his improbable win, watched by ESPN viewers worldwide, remains one the poker boom’s indelible moments.
The WSOP, a six-week long series of tournaments in Las Vegas that culminates with the world championship Main Event, has grown in overall participation in every year since. Last year, a total of 72,966 players competed in the WSOP, up from 60,875 in 2009 and 58,720 in 2008. There were 7,572 players in 2003, the year Moneymaker won the world title.
Seth Palansky, media relations director for the WSOP and editor-in-chief of WSOP.com, said the WSOP would have no comment regarding the potential impact the online poker crackdown might have on the tournaments. The WSOP has a 58-tournament slate scheduled to start May 31 and running through July 19.
In the poker community, opinions among poker executives and professional players vary as to the potential effect on the WSOP, which is owned by Caesars Entertainment and operates its tournaments at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
However, a high-ranking Caesars Entertainment executive, who spoke to Covers.com on the condition of anonymity, said the WSOP positioned itself to survive the online poker bust when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was passed in 2006.
The legislation essentially outlawed online poker, and the WSOP immediately took steps to abide by the regulations. For instance, the Caesars official said, the WSOP stopped accepting third-party entries to its tournaments. In other words, it no longer took sign-ups directly from online poker companies that offered seats to WSOP tournaments as part of their promotions.
The WSOP also stopped accepting advertising or promotion of any poker site that ended with “.com,” the industry’s standard domain name for a pay-for-play site. The online poker companies were only allowed to promote their free-play“.net” sites.
“Nothing is going to change for us, because we affected change ourselves five years ago,” the Caesars executive said.
The transition had a negative short-term impact on the WSOP Main Event. After Jamie Gold defeated a record 8,773 players in a field chock full of Internet qualifiers in 2006, the 2007 field dropped to 6,358.
Instead of offering seats directly into WSOP events, online poker companies resorted to offering cash equivalents in their promotions, and a majority of players started pocketing the dough instead of using it for a Main Event buy-in.
Even so, overall participation in WSOP events continued to climb, as did poker’s global popularity. The development of international events such as the WSOP’s Europe Tour, the World Poker Tour and the North American Poker Tour helped bring poker to worldwide audiences. Increased media exposure through television, print and online outlets also bolstered the poker boom throughout the latter part of the past decade.
Despite the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, participation in the Main Event steadily climbed, and last year’s 7,319 is the second-highest turnout in the tournament’s history.
The Caesars executive credits poker’s growing international appeal and the prestige of winning a WSOP event as primary factors in the WSOP’s continued growth.
“We’re still the Olympics of poker,” the executive said. “We’re going to be the only show in town.”
Professional poker players have had myriad responses, ranging from those who foresee the WSOP taking a major hit, to others who agree with the Caesars executive that the WSOP should emerge relatively unscathed.
Las Vegas-based pro Kent Hubbard said he believes the WSOP shouldn’t suffer this year because most players made their WSOP plans long before the online poker crackdown took place.
Another positive sign for players came when the government announced earlier this week that it will temporarily restore the sites’ domain names in order for them to process refunds to American customers.
“I can’t see it being too much of a problem unless there are players out there who have so much of their bankroll tied up online that they can’t afford a buy-in until they get their money back,” Hubbard said. “Anyone who is in that situation was irresponsible to begin with.”
However, others are predicting at least a short-term downturn for the WSOP. Greg Raymer, the 2004 WSOP champ who, like Moneymaker, won his seat in the Main Event through an online tournament, told USA Today he anticipated a significant drop in entries for this year’s Main Event.
“If I was actually putting a number to bet on, I would say more like somewhere in the low 5,000s,” Raymer said. “If you made me pick a number because you were going to bet either over or under, it would be something like 5,250.”