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Written by Scott McDaniel
By now, the story of the poker boom sounds a lot like a Disney production. The aptly named Chris Moneymaker won his entry into 2003 World Series of Poker’s Main Event through a $40 online satellite tournament on what was then a little-known online site called PokerStars.com.
The Tennessee accountant made the trip out to the Wonderland of Las Vegas, where he sat down with poker’s best players. He was terrified and out-classed, but when the field narrowed from 839 players to just two, Moneymaker was still there. His family arrived to support him, clapping their hands to show that they believed. The glass slipper fit. He won $2.5 million and become an instant celebrity.
ESPN ran with it, re-running the broadcast repeatedly and planting a single thought in the minds of everyone watching – “Why not me?”
But the real winner was the game of poker. Millions of people started depositing money in online poker rooms and testing their skill (and a lot of luck) against each other. PokerStars, along with Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker, among others, took their cut from these games. It wasn’t long before these sites were advertising all over the major print, television and online media outlets, and soon enough a game that had been around for hundreds of years had found new life – particularly Texas Hold’em.
The Day Online Poker Died…
Then came Black Friday. On April 15, the FBI seized the aforementioned big three poker sites and New York’s U.S. Attorney charged site founders with bank fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling. American online players were no longer able to play for real money.
The FBI maintained that the sites had long been violating the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006, which prohibits the transfer of funds from a financial institution to an illegal internet gambling site with the exceptions of fantasy sports, horse racing and state lotteries.
Naturally, the massive poker community was in an uproar over the news. Professionals and amateurs alike let it be known that they were not pleased with the government; others expressed disappointment in the poker sites themselves
Phil Ivey has earned 8 WSOP gold bracelets in his career and is a mainstay on the ESPN broadcasts. After the government crackdown, he planned on boycotting this year’s World Series of Poker and filed a lawsuit against Tiltware LLC, developers of the Full Tilt Poker software. The lawsuit claims that Full Tilt Poker still owes its U.S. players approximately $150 million in payouts. In short, the online accounts are stuck, and if other players can’t access their money and participate in the WSOP, Ivey wouldn’t play there either.
(Tiltware responded to Ivey’s lawsuit by alleging that Ivey declined to “to take actions that could assist the company in these efforts, including paying back a large sum of money he owes the site.”)
For the last two months, there has been serious concern that the aftershock of Black Friday might cause WSOP attendance to drop significantly. Fear rose that those ordinarily head to Vegas for the WSOP would stay at home, anticipating the moment they can retrieve funds from those seized poker sites.
With the 2011 WSOP kick off on May 31, speculation can now give way to fact. How has all of the doom and gloom of Black Friday impacted the WSOP numbers? Not much. Attendance has been relatively steady. In fact, Event No. 3, $1,500 Omaha Hi-Low Split-8 or Better, attracted a record-setting 925 players, which is 107 more than entered a year ago. The winner took home $262,283.
ESPN showed little fear in a 2011 WSOP popularity decline, announcing it would give the 2011 WSOP nearly twice the coverage than usual. An extra 34 hours of programming will be shown from days three through eight of the Main Event (July 14-19) on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN3.com. Not only that, but for the first time ever the action will be shown semi-live and unedited (just a 30 minute tape delay).
Sure, online poker is not what it once was in America. But its lasting impact is still being felt at this year’s 42nd annual World Series of Poker. The millions of people who found a love for poker following the boom did not vanish with their online poker home. From May 31 to July 19, a record 58 WSOP gold bracelets will be awarded along with millions of dollars in prize money. And of course, the action will once again culminate with the $10,000 entry Main Event.
The players will show up, and they’ll be wondering, “Why not me?”