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Full Circle

Putting the poker boom into perspective

by Matthew Hilger |  Published: Apr 29, 2011


Something amazing happened on March 6, but first, let’s look back at what started it all. Most people credit Chris Moneymaker’s win in the 2003 World Series of Poker main event as the beginning of the poker boom. I would argue that his win just accelerated the poker boom, but that is a discussion for another time.

Let’s take a more detailed look at that event. In 2003, the WSOP main event had 839 entrants who came up with the $10,000 buy-in. Most people remember that Moneymaker won $2.5 million for his first-place finish that year, as it was telecast over and over again on ESPN. It was an amazing victory, as amateur poker players around the world then felt like they could take on the pros. And, indeed, the event is unique, since anyone with $10,000 can mix it up with the likes of Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Ivey. The prize pool that year was a little more than $8 million.
Back in 2003, online poker was really just starting to get ready for its boom. Online poker had been around for a few years, but no one expected the boom that occurred in 2004 and 2005, when thousands upon thousands of players joined poker sites, hoping to be the next Chris Moneymaker.

Flash-forward to 2011.

On March 6, 2011, something amazing happened; 59,128 players around the world ponied up $215 to play in an online tournament at PokerStars. The winner would get $1.6 million (actually, a deal was made, but first place would have been $1.6 million), which was better than Sam Farha’s second-place prize money in 2003, $1.5 million. But to put this online tournament into perspective, the prize pool was 40 percent bigger than the prize pool of the 2003 WSOP main event! The poker boom has truly come full circle.

The live tournament that accelerated the online-poker boom is now not even as big in terms of prize pool as an online tournament. The tournament took only 14-and-a-half hours, which means that a player was eliminated about every second. I beat 56,000 players, and managed to only double my buy-in. Beating 56,000 just wasn’t good enough, as I needed to beat 59,000!

To put this tournament a little more into perspective, it was just one year ago that PokerStars broke records when the Sunday Million had 36,169 entrants. In one year, the number of entrants increased by more than 60 percent. It makes you wonder how far the online-poker boom can really go. Will we see an online $200 tournament with more than 100,000 entrants? If so, we could see a first-place prize greater than the $2.5 million that Moneymaker won in 2003.

The numbers are truly staggering. This all goes to show that live poker helps online poker, and vice versa. The World Series of Poker has played a crucial role in the growth of online poker. Conversely, online poker has played a crucial role in the growth of the WSOP. Nowadays, we are seeing record numbers in both live and online tournaments. This is no coincidence. Players learn their trade online to prepare themselves to participate in the higher buy-in live events.

What does all of this mean for us poker players? Cash games in general are getting tougher and tougher to beat as players become more sophisticated. It’s the same for tournaments, but tournaments are especially attractive for amateurs who are seeking the big payday. When a tournament has almost 60,000 players who are willing to pony up $215, you know that the field is extremely weak. I have always preferred tournaments to cash games, so I do have a bias, but I think that in today’s online environment, tournaments still represent the best value for the average poker player.
The poker boom has come full circle — so enjoy the ride. ♠

Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books.” Recent releases include Advanced Pot-Limit Omaha, Volume II and Volume III, by Jeff Hwang, and Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em, by Ed Miller, Matt Flynn, and Sunny Mehta. Upcoming is The Math of Hold’em, by Collin Moshman and Doug Zare. Dimat books and e-books are available at Amazon and