Diversity Makes a Boom, Not Monotony

Innovation vs. Repetition

Poker Boom"A rising tide lifts all boats." -- John F. Kennedy

At the bottom of this article is a rough timeline of the poker boom. The boom can be summarized even more briefly by saying poker boomed because it diversified its appeal. More brick & mortar options, more online options, more TV exposure, more exposure around the world, more ease of play for women and college age players, more flexibility of when you could play and for how long, more more more...

The boom subsided largely because of external pressures, like from governments, but that was not the only factor. Poker boomed in large part because of entrepreneurship, innovation, diversity and the seeking of new markets, not merely fixating on attracting more of the same. Sadly, fifteen years after the key moments that kicked the boom into high gear, the industry suffers from sameness, repetition and corporate-think rather than entrepreneurism.

One factor in the current malaise is "the donkeyization of poker". By donkeyization I mean the impulse to offer what is popular to the largest faction of the current poker audience -- rather than focus on enlarging the poker audience. For example, a article about PokerGO included this: "we saw our core viewers -- millennial males -- cutting the cord in favor of skinny bundles and a la carte entertainment packages." In a nutshell, you'll never create a boom by following your core audience, especially ones as impulsive as millennial males!

It's true the bulk of the poker boom was financed by hundreds of millions of dollars from under-29 males. The amount of arrogant under-29 males who thought they were brilliant poker players and were sadly mistaken in that assessment was truly staggering. However, continuing to cater only to this demographic is similar to a 1970 teen magazine catering only to Bobby Sherman fans while barely noticing fans interested in "new guy" David Cassidy. Under-29s age, and they often lose interest in those things that fascinated them when they were younger.

Look at the pool of top players who came of age during the poker boom. The majority of these players diversified beyond the first game that got their attention, No Limit Hold'em. They learned to embrace other poker variants, from Omaha to Open Face Chinese to Badugi to Archie. Poker is a cornucopia of a cabaret of choices, but you would never know that from the options presented and emphasized by the post-boom corporate-thinkers.

With the notable exceptions of the World Series of Poker (Nevada edition), the Matt Savage-run Commerce Casino tournaments in Los Angeles, and most high stakes ring games, corporate poker presentations focus almost solely on appealing to No Limit Hold'em playing millennial males.

News flash to those who weren't around during the poker boom or missed the point of it... people like to PLAY poker! They aren't drawn to game show nonsense, or lottery-type nonsense or team/sport nonsense. Poker is a game that people of all ages, sexes and races like to play because people like having fun or making money while playing games. The primary way to satisfy most players is to deal another hand. And then another and another. They don't want a bunch of flashing lights; they want to play poker.

Among other things, this central fact means that appealing primarily to millennials is an eventual dead end if only because millennials will age out of their current interests. And the fixation of televised poker on buffoonery means television shows filled with drunk, misogynist loudmouths will primarily appeal only to drunk, misogynist loudmouths. During the boom, viewers saw a diverse selection of people. Among this diverse group, they saw peers they could identify with. Only immature asshats can identify with a table full of immature asshats.

The non-booming of poker broadcasts is attributable to the limited non-boom thinking behind them. "Good television" is not what appeals merely to an existing niche. Good television (good any product) expands the box. We are years into the diminishing returns of trying to get a larger percentage of millennial males, via even greater limitation of the appeal of programs. Yes, pro wrestling programs are popular with immature males with extra cash, but they don't get the numbers of more broad-based programs like the Super Bowl or the Masters. Anyone who thinks that a slowroll or childish insult makes "good television" is sadly missing the point of the poker boom. It's poker that people are drawn to. It's poker that people play and want to see play. People like to play poker!

The game's the thing.

Jackass-type movies can make money, but they are not the biggest mainstream hits. Most programming for other games or sports feature the best players playing their best, or whoever happens to have done the best in a specific tournament-like setting. Random collections of various interesting people can do the trick too but random collections of similar obnoxious people will seldom motivate anyone. Motivated people join a boom; grossed out people don't.

Beyond that, it may come as a shock to some, but prior to 2003, the over/under on No Limit Hold'em games being spread at any moment in the entire United States was one. Normally there would be zero, but during the WSOP and other major tournaments one game would sometimes be hosted. No Limit was and is relatively unprofitable for casinos (any amount bet above the rake cap is a waste from the casino point of view), is bad for the poker ecosystem since newbies can be busted in literally one hand, and it is even sloooooower today than it was then. But because No Limit is the most popular game, short term oriented corporate-think operators see it as the only game. This means that as players mature and want to face the greater challenges offered by any of the dozens of other poker variants, they have nowhere to go -- unless they are among the most elite players who can afford to learn to be competitive at the other games even though they have to play at a high stakes level as they learn.

Large field, low buy-in No Limit donkaments have their place, but they should not take up every space. Clowns have their place, but they shouldn't be every place.

If you are in the business of marketing poker, yes consider that millennials males are your biggest market, but also look beyond that niche and use your creative energy to think: "what can I do to market to everyone who is not a millennial male?" And yes consider that No Limit Hold'em is your main game and main tournament, but use your creative energy to think of how you can also appeal to people who don't like No Limit and especially those people who are bored with No Limit. (And no, offering hyper-turbo-marathon-blah-blah variations of the same show isn't being innovative. The Jerry Springer Show on fast forward is still the Jerry Springer Show.)

Donkeys may do most of work pulling the wagon train, but other creatures with money walk this planet too.

Diversity keeps a boom booming; beating a dead donkey does not.

A quick timeline of the poker boom:
- Flop games come to California (where the majority of public poker is played at the time) in the 1980s
- Casino gambling spreads across the United States (even if most casinos don't offer poker yet)
- Planet Poker becomes the first online poker room in 1998
- Rounders is released later in 1998
- Paradise Poker opens in 1999
- PokerRoom, UltimateBet, PartyPoker and PokerStars turn a two-cardroom universe into a multi-cardroom one
- Pokerspot and ProPoker open and close as the first scam cardrooms
- In 2002 the US Court of Appeals rules the Wire Act only applies to sportsbetting; Justice Department disagrees
- In 2003, the World Poker Tour broadcasts it's first episode using hole-cams
- Later in 2003, after winning a satellite on PokerStars, Chris Moneymaker wins the World Series of Poker main event
- Full Tilt Poker opens, most high profile poker players start wearing shirts for online cardrooms
- Google pulls gambling ads while PayPal stops gambling transactions
- Poker online moves beyond being an English-language activity, including events like the European Poker Tour
- Party Poker goes public on the London Stock Exchange is 2005 with a valuation around $8 billion
- In 2006, as part of the Safe Port Act, the US passes the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act which criminalizes transactions to illegal gambling sites without specifying what that those illegal sites are
- Like PayPal before it, widely popular Neteller ceases to process online gambling transactions in 2007
- Ceasing to boom, the poker industry plateaus as a mature industry, even after Black Friday in 2011 when the US Department of Justice seizes the domains of and temporarily closes several online sites

See also The Online Poker Industry Evolution