The Rise of the Gifted Amateur

Imagine entering a $40 online poker tournie and ending up winning $2.5 million at the WSOP. This has happened – twice

The numbers really are staggering. At the WSOP main event this year, 5,619 players turned up to compete for a prize pot of million

There were so many people entering this year’s World Series of Poker events that it started a debate among the crew of Vegas based professional players about whether any of them would ever again win a WSOP bracelet.

They just couldn’t believe how many people they were going to have to beat to get on any one of the 45 final tables from the events making up the WSOP.

With the move to the Amazon Room at Las Vegas’ Rio Hotel and Casino, more than 29,000 players stepped up to the felt to compete for in excess of $103 million in prizes that were awarded over the six-week period.

To put that in perspective, it took the previous 35 years for the total prize pool in the WSOP to reach the $300 million in prize money mark. In 2005 alone, one third of that was handed out to the players. The reason? The internet.

Poker mania

With poker mania sweeping the world, a rank amateur can easily rise to the top and become an overnight multi-millionaire at events such as the WSOP. Two years ago, an accountant from Nashville, Tennessee called – unbelievably – Chris Moneymaker qualifi ed online in a $40 satellite tournament on PokerStars to take the WSOP title – and $2.5 million. Last year, patent lawyer and amateur fossil collector Greg ‘Fossilman’ Raymer did the same thing, again via qualifying online on PokerStars.

Both players are now big celebrities in the poker scene, which goes some way to explaining why all those people turned up in Vegas this year to compete against the best in the world.

In Los Angeles, where Fossilman’s face appears on billboards along major thoroughfares, poker players hanging out with their film actor buddies (Jennifer Tilly, Tobey Maguire and Mimi Rogers to name a few) have undergone the bizarre experience of being sought out for their autographs, while their more famous companions are roundly ignored.

For example, Fossilman was walking back to the tournament area from the bathroom at this year’s WSOP, but the short walk took almost 15 minutes, as he had to sign 34 autographs and pose for 12 pictures, all the while chatting like a tourist with all who stopped him.

A man called Moneymaker

And then there’s Moneymaker.

Having never played in a real casino before – indeed, he’d never played the game until he watched the movie Rounders – no one gave him a prayer against the 839 others in the Big One.

However, a week later, Moneymaker, who had stuck on a cheap hat and mirrored sunglasses to avoid giving away his tells, walked away with the first prize and into the world of overnight celebrity.

Two years on, thousands more dreamers and schemers were in Vegas, hoping to get lucky and make like Moneymaker. During the last two years, he has become a poker pin-up to housewives, truck drivers and college kids alike – if he can win the World Series, they figure, then why not them?

‘Yes, I guess I’m the poster boy for online poker,’ Moneymaker told a local newspaper at the WSOP this year, shortly before being eliminated in the second round. ‘Amateurs and those who had never even played the game watched me on TV and figured, “Hey, I can do that.” And they’re right.’

Poker has turned into the latest incarnation of the American dream. A century ago, it was the sight of the Statue of Liberty to the incoming immigrant that best symbolised the land of opportunity for all. At the turn of the 21st century, it was buying and selling stocks on the internet in the great dot-com boom. And now it seems to be poker.

Goodbye, Binions

A decade ago, the WSOP was a discreet little event held at the Binion’s Horseshoe casino in downtown Las Vegas, one more money pot among many offered in America’s gambling capital. Perhaps 100 players would show up and chip in the $10,000 required to participate. They tended to be pros – strange, febrile, driven individuals with colourful pasts often involving drugs, booze or chillingly close run-ins with mafioso loan sharks.

Then up popped the internet. The first online poker sites made their debut in 1998, the same year that Rounders, a poker movie starring Ed Norton and Matt Damon, became a modest box-office hit. Suddenly it was possible for people all over the world to hone their Texas hold’em skills in front of a computer without feeling like they were risking the house, or the kids’ college fund.

By 2000, the winning pot at the WSOP topped $1 million. In 2003, poker started to be broadcast on US TV, modestly at first on the Travel Channel on cable, and then with an increasing frenzy on CBS’s sports channel, Fox’s sports channel and, finally, on sports station ESPN.

It might not seem like the most obvious of spectator sports, but the Travel Channel pioneered a way of making it more dramatic by editing the games down to their most tense moments and using hidden cameras to show the TV audience what no live spectator could see – the hole cards held by each player.

Fruit of the boom

Since 2003, the game has exploded. When the Travel Channel first began its broadcasts, online poker sites worldwide were attracting about 88,000 players betting just under $16 million each day. As of May this year, those numbers had mushroomed to 1.8 million players risking $200 million each day online.

UK viewers can watch poker at most times of the day or night on channels such as Challenge TV, Bravo and the Travel Channel. We even have two dedicated poker TV channels – the Poker Channel and PokerZone – neither of which would have been deemed viable even two years ago.

For sites such as VC Poker, PartyPoker and PokerStars, it’s 1999 all over again. PartyPoker has even been floated on the London Stock Exchange with a price tag of £5 billion, making its founders billionaires.

These websites have so many users paying to compete against each other, they can afford to sponsor loads of players at the WSOP and, sometimes, offer other inducements as well. Around 1,100 players qualified for the main event via PokerStars this year – approximately 20% of the entries. Paradise Poker even gave its top 10 contestants a free tropical holiday as well as travel, hotel and spending money.

Meanwhile, at VC Poker, each of the qualifiers for the main event were treated to a night out with Doyle ‘Texas Dolly’ Brunson, the legendary poker player and author of Super System, the most famous poker book ever published. Presumably, the pep talk must have worked, as two of the VC Poker qualifiers got into the money.

The numbers really are staggering. At the WSOP main event this year, 5,619 players turned up to compete for a prize pot of $52 million. The first prize was a cool $7.5 million, while second place won $4.25 million.

Meanwhile, a finish in the top ten made you an instant millionaire, and a top-100 finish earned you $77,000.

Technologists and other experts all talked about the internet being the vehicle for a new industrial order, which, with hindsight, was something of an exaggeration. But it sure as hell has worked for poker!

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