Online poker originally was the big player in the online gambling scene, providing an alternative to real-world sports betting, bingo and casino gaming. However, today, it is not quite as popular as it once was. The number of people opting to engage in online poker has dwindled since the 2000’s, and today the traffic levels can be considered as being at some of their lowest levels. This, of course, isn’t good for the poker world, in general. Plus, it has led to various networks not being able to maintain their structure and closing down for good.
Why is it that online poker doesn’t have as much draw for gamblers anymore? And what’s more, why is it that newcomers to the online gaming world don’t have much interest in playing it? Has it just lost its general appeal or has something else knocked it into submission? Also, is this a game that has gone through a steady decline and will ultimately be non-existent in the years to come or can it be saved some way? Let’s take a look at the rise and the fall of online poker and find out if gambling companies are doing anything to keep it as an available option at their sites.
The Rise of Online Poker
There was plenty happening back in the year 2003. In February, more than 2,000,000 people demonstrated against the Iraq War, which was the largest demonstration in UK history. June saw the release of Harry Potter and the Orders of the Phoenix (simpler times for J.K. Rowling, no doubt). And Iain Duncan-Smith resigned after just two years as the Leader of the Conservative Party. However, it was also the year that the online poker boom became prevalent.
That period of poker’s huge boom would last for at least three years, with No Limit Texas Hold’em and various other versions of the game reaching heights of popularity that it hadn’t experienced before. It was during this time that the online poker player pool went through a revolution that saw it double in size every year at the very least.
As it happens, it was a film that sowed the seeds for the growth of poker, when Rounders starring Matt Damon was released in 1998. Furthermore, online poker was introduced at Planet Poker in this year, and with the occasional broadcasts of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Events, there was enough there to appeal to people. There were two other triggers in 2003 that bolstered the status of poker, starting with the World Poker Tour’s inaugural season on the Travel Channel in the United States. And then, in May of 2003, Chris Moneymaker – an amateur in the poker world – won the WSOP Main Event after winning his seat via an $86 satellite tournament.
The General Decline in Numbers
Online poker experienced quite the enthralling three years of high popularity, before October of 2006 rolled around. It was then that the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was written into law in the US, meaning that several online poker sites (including industry leader PokerStars) had to withdraw from the country. In the first WSOP following this, attendance in the Main Event of the tournament fell by around 28%.
While the game still remains more popular today than it was prior to the poker boom of 2003, it still looks like the number of people participating in it is falling. But why is this? Well, several factors have worked against the professional poker world, and these issues have continued to arise even in recent times.
An AI Issue in Recent Times
is killing off sectors of various industries and people are losing out on their jobs to robots. However, it was in 2019 that Facebook’s AI Research team published their own paper, which outlined results for a superhuman AI that was capable of consistently outplaying the world’s top poker players. Of course, that’s a great feat for the AI world. Yet for the poker world, it’s a huge blow. This nearly $4 billion industry was set to be rocked by this artificial intelligence, and they were likely to pop into action at all online poker rooms.
This isn’t just something that has randomly come around. In fact, the paper that Facebook released is the culmination of many decades of work. Humans have been trying to design a piece of AI that can beat humans at a game with more than two teams, and the launch of such, known as “Pluribus”, went on to successfully beat five other world champion players in a format akin to standard six-player online poker. And what’s more, that AI was crafted with less than $150 of resources. Essentially, such intelligence can be created by anyone, making online poker no longer a game of skill, but one of battling robots.
Yet, even before these artificial intelligence bots came into operation, the online poker world was suffering from declining numbers. This just seems to be another punch in the face for the industry.
Poker as a game in general has always had those players who are a lot more professional and those who are considered more as amateurs. That’s the same with anything really, but at one time, this had little impact on the game. As the years went by though, the sharks became more prevalent, taking advantage of the small fish.
Basically, a poker shark is a more experienced player who preys on those who are considered amateurs and newcomers. This provides them with an easier way of winning money, as their superior skills often outmatch those of their lesser experienced opponents. And this would be something that affected online poker rooms often at one point, because a shark could simply take note of the username of a fish and follow them from table to table to get as much money as possible from them.
Today, some poker rooms incorporate anonymous tables, so usernames are not displayed for anyone. This makes it difficult for sharks to target specific players when they move from one table to another. Furthermore, poker rooms have included games that transport players from one table to a different one after they fold in a game. This keeps things mixed up and doesn’t allow any one player to specifically be focused on.
Yet, the damage was done with the initial influx of sharks. Newcomers were scared off by the shark-infested waters of the poker world. Anyone who is new to the game would likely fall victim to them sooner or later, and this makes playing it far less enjoyable. Therefore, fewer people were signing up for accounts to play poker, and with less players for the sharks to prey on, their numbers also dwindled somewhat.
The Closure of Networks
The number of online poker networks has also diminished in recent times, due to the decrease in people playing. A variety of networks have had to take the decision to close their poker operations over the past few years, with Microgaming’s being one of the more recent to do so.
Microgaming started offering online poker to its members in 2003, which is when it first opened the Prima Poker platform. Of course, with the poker boom of the time being of great importance, the Microgaming Poker Network (MPN) grew thick and fast, and over time, the developer went on to craft a network of around 30 different sites. This led to it transforming into one of the largest collaborations in gaming history. However, the network is another one that has suffered from the influx of bots taking over, and it wasn’t too long before it took the decision to close down that it released certain data on its efforts to counteract this. That was done as a way to hopefully encourage the industry to be more transparent into itself about such things.
Despite the MPN becoming a large enough network in itself, it paled in size when compared with many others. Towards the end of its tenure, reports suggested that it averaged around 300 cash game players at any given time. That figures allowed it to be ranked 19th in the world, which was far behind big players like PokerStars and PartyPoker.
Microgaming said in its announcement on the closure, that the poker network “no longer fits with our strategic vision for poker”. At the same time, it did say that while the MPN network was closing down, it’s not the end for poker and Microgaming. The developer said that it is following a “new strategic direction for the vertical”, with details set to be revealed further down the line. The MPN finished operating in May of 2020.
Other online poker sites and networks have suffered similar fates. Various operations were shut down as a result of Black Friday in the United States, including Absolute Poker and Doyle’s Room. The UIGEA forced several brands out of America, such as Card Spike and Everleaf. Others suffered from financial issues due to the lack of players and stupid spending, like Feltstars and Jetset Poker. These closures over the years have led many to believe that online poker is simply holding on for its last breath before shutting down altogether.
Can Online Poker Survive Against All Odds?
Thanks to the potential influx of AI bots, it will become exceptionally difficult (pretty much impossible) for any human player to win at online poker. Naturally, that’s only going to send player number spiraling downwards. Nobody wants to play a game that they know they can’t win. Obviously, poker networks require players to successfully operate, which makes AI a problem on both ends of the scale.
To avoid this becoming a big issue, the market will require stricter security measures to be brought into effect. Increased ID checks would be helpful in this area, as people using bots would need to prove they are the ones playing and not their AI. Live playing could also be nicely utilised, which would depict gamers actually playing the game via a webcam, ensuring authenticity.
The fact still remains that at the moment, poker is much more popular than it was prior to 2003. It was around 2011 that it took a deep dive downwards before evening out for the 2014 and onwards period. However, figures still suggest that far fewer people are accessing poker games than they used to be. Of course, it will always have a following of thoroughly avid players, without a doubt. Yet, it remains a game that doesn’t particularly have such a breakthrough appeal to the broader public. It’s not like a video game or a movie for example, which can appeal to much larger audiences.
The truth is that there are many people who underestimate how big the poker industry has reached (and in some ways still is) overall. Good games still remain, on a professional level, and there’s no reason why this can’t be the case on an amateur level, too. As long as good players are able to win large amounts of money by playing poker, it’s likely to survive. However, a good player pool is what’s needed to maintain those huge prize possibilities. Furthermore, live poker appears to be much more of a thriving scene than online poker.
Unfortunately, what seems to be happening with the online scene, for various reasons, is that the same recycling of old players is taking place. Very few poker rooms are bringing new players in, and games like Texas Hold’em are becoming less known of due to the diminishing market. It’s not as viewed as it once was on TV and because the markets in locations like North America don’t allow it within, the player base has been depleted, too. Any recreational player managing to sign up and start playing these days will realise swiftly that they’re a small fish in a big shark feeding frenzy. Cut to that player having no regrets about leaving the poker world behind.
For the moment, it looks highly unlikely that another poker boom will occur as it did in 2003. While a few alternate variations of poker have taken hold in certain locations – by providing a much more conducive environment for gamblers to enjoy – can they really save the poker world? Today’s online scene has become so restricted to a 2% portion of the playing population winning 98% of the money involved in it, that the future does look bleak in those respects. How long can that kind of system remain operational? There has to be some sort of equality driven into the poker scene to allow for newcomers to really benefit from accessing tables. Otherwise, it’s going to be an ongoing cycle of sharks taking money from fish who then disappear. Sooner or later, these fish will get wise to it and stop joining poker rooms altogether.