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Growing or declining?

Four years ago, poker was set to take over the world.

At any time of the day, it seemed, poker was on television, highlighted by the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour and ESPN’s World Series of Poker. There were poker video games and poker books on bestseller lists.

Johnny Chan, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson and Doyle Brunson, poker players cut from the same cloth as legends such as Stu Ungar and Johnny Moss, became overnight celebrities. Poker’s showcase event reflected this trend.



From 2003 to 2006, the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas grew exponentially, reaching an all-time high of 8,773 participants in 2006 when Jaime Gold won $12 million for first place – the largest payout in poker history.

But for the first time since its inception in 1970, this year’s main event saw a drop in the number of participants from the previous year. The 2007 tournament drew 6,358 players – about 25 percent less than from the previous year but still the second-highest turnout in the 37-year history of event.



Now the question is this: Is poker’s popularity growing or declining?

“You can’t sustain 300 percent growth each year or else everybody in the world will be playing poker within five years,” said WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla. “We have a problem every company in American would love to have. We grew so fast, so quickly, that we really didn’t know how to handle all the growth.

“But while the main event did decline, keep in mind that the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas is 55 events spread out over several weeks. We had 54,000 entries in those 55 events, and in five events there were around 3,000 players, which are staggering fields for tournaments with $1,500 and $2,000 buy-ins.”

The leading reason for the decline in the number of 2007 main events participants is believed to be President George W. Bush’s signing of an anti-gaming bill called the “Port Security Bill.” Passed into law in October of 2006, the bill also contained the “Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act,” which made it illegal for Americans to play poker for money on the Internet.

The law resulted in the immediate closure of publicly-traded poker Web sites, including http://www.PartyPoker.com. Chris Moneymaker, who won the 2003 WSOP Main Event, and Greg Raymer, who won the 2004 event, both gained entry into the $10,000 buy-in tournament by winning tournaments on http://www.PartyPoker.com.

Although it’s still possible to find online sites to gamble real money – and several U.S. lawmakers are working to revise Internet poker laws – the trickle-down effect has been felt.

“It was part of the boost, online poker, but I don’t think it will affect the game that much,” said Harveys Poker Room Manager Vince Contaxis. “Where I think the Internet helped out was attracting new players. I think the influx of new players has definitely slowed down, but the players that already came into the game aren’t going anywhere. Poker has definitely plateaued, but it’s not dying.”

While Americans might not be gravitating to poker at the same clip as they did four years ago, the potential for growth still exists. Like a good capitalist, poker is going global.

The World Series of Poker launched a European event two months ago in London. All three tournaments sold out, exceeding expectations for the inaugural event.

Asia and South America are also getting interested. ESPN Deportes, a Spanish-language version of America’s leading sports broadcasting company, already includes poker as part of its regular programming in Latin America.

“Growth has flattened out in the United States, but the real growth now is overseas in South America, Asia and Europe,” Dalla said. “Poker being on television certainly added some respectability to the game that maybe it didn’t have 15 years ago. And the international community took notice.

“They see poker on television and they see the same things that Americans see, a game that looks very exciting and is relatively simple to learn. The United States has always been the leader, the epicenter of the poker universe. I’m not so sure that’s going to be true 10 years from now.”


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