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Sexton vs. Stewart Debate Underscores Poker’s Need For Growth

by Various Authors |  Published: Mar 13, '15


Splash The Pot is an ongoing series of op-eds from various members of the poker community. For more information or to submit your own writing, send an email to

By: Brian Pempus

Two of poker’s most prominent public figures recently took to the Internet to talk about some key components of the annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Bracelet winner and World Poker Tour commentator Mike Sexton went to his blog to “call out” the richest poker tournament series in the world, and WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart found it necessary to respond at length to Sexton’s concerns.

But how significant was this exchange and what does it really mean for the game of poker?

Those questions are not to diminish the specific points made by Sexton or Stewart, or anyone who has ever expressed concern with the details of how the WSOP is run every summer. It is rather an attempt to step further back and contextualize the debate within poker’s current economic period. Public confrontations such as the one between Sexton and Stewart, which, in Stewart’s words, “struck an emotional chord,” are significant in that they underscore the problem of a stagnating poker economy. Friction will continue between the core group of grinders, mostly professionals and semi-professionals, and the likes of the WSOP if growth in the industry at large is not eventually realized.

Just to highlight a few indicators of poker’s recent economic struggles: Nevada’s live poker offerings continue to shrink; just three U.S. states have online poker and revenues have been lower than originally projected; California, projected to be the most lucrative online poker state, could be years away from legalizing it; and despite regulated U.S. online poker’s infancy, two once existing regulated poker sites already have closed.

Also: According to the most recent research from the American Gaming Association, the number of stand-alone poker rooms in the United States fell from 713 in 2006 to 493 by 2013. There is no doubt that there is less poker available these days than there once was.

Meanwhile, the WSOP itself continues to break its own attendance and prize pool records, surely thanks in large part to the skill and creativity of its planners. It’s the predominant tournament series on the planet, and it has been successful in keeping its position. The WSOP is still growing—with a record 68 bracelet events this upcoming summer—but in a period when poker overall is struggling. It’s a strange situation, and probably is the underlying reason why poker players often want the WSOP modified.

It remains to be proven that it’s possible to come to some sort of multi-faceted compromise—on how exactly the WSOP should be run—that doesn’t vanish quickly unless there’s another period of real growth in the poker industry.

The WSOP says it also cares about long-term benefits, which of course is true, but this logic hits its limits when you factor in the needs of the players who have to worry about their individual bankrolls and finances in a more concrete time frame, while simultaneously promoting the game itself to ensure its more abstract long-term health. Players who care about growing their bankrolls matter from a marketing perspective because players who win prove the game is skill-based, which is vital in distinguishing a poker tournament from a lottery. Both the WSOP and the poker playing community as a whole need to have their bankrolls grow over time. If either contract, there’s crisis in the game of poker and eruptions of discontent emerge, like we have seen over and over again, whether on social media, forums or blogs. This is not to suggest the WSOP sucks so much out of the poker economy that players can’t remain in the game. Sexton’s WPT has been dealing with some of these issues too, as many reconsider how often the re-entry format should be used and what kind of long-term impact it will have. Like the WSOP, the WPT has been expanding into other countries, trying to get more millage out of the word “world.” It’s not quite an arms race between the two tours, but there is competition.

Poker, especially online, is hugely affected by the regulatory policies of States around the world, which have been dealing with the aftermath of the global economic crisis that reached its fullest expression in or around 2008. It’s not a coincidence that poker began declining around this time. Though it goes beyond the scope of this article, it’s worth saying that no country is anti-online poker intrinsically. We could be in an era of deglobalization, sparked by the economic crisis, in which countries take steps to isolate themselves in some ways; and no one wants citizens in their country to be spending money that can’t be taxed and used as a source of domestic economic growth. In this light, something even remotely close to a global regulated online poker network seems impossible in the current political economic climate we live in. Another poker boom seems unlikely right now, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be steady growth in the meantime, especially in the United States, which could have an online gaming industry worth $5.2 billion by 2020, if more states jump on board with the industry.

The key issue that seems to remain is how the U.S.-centered poker industry can be fine-tuned in the meantime in ways that make growth more likely. Can this be accomplished in public online debates? The WSOP is at poker’s galactic center, but how much gravity does it really exert? Sexton and Stewart going back and forth is valuable, but no matter what changes are made to the WSOP—even to something as significant as how, when and where the main event final table is played—we’re probably not looking at a game changer. The implication here is the argument that no matter how successful the WSOP is, it will likely have a negligible impact on state governments legalizing online poker. As mentioned, the WSOP is as successful as ever, but regulated online poker still may get banned nationwide.

Assuming American discretionary spending would permit it, the United States needs a robust online poker industry, with many states involved and sharing liquidity, in order for something resembling a boom to occur again. If that happens, everyone in poker wins—the players, the WSOP, and many other businesses involved in the industry. Arguably most important for poker players is sponsorship—getting paid to wear a patch while playing. After poker became more popular around a decade ago, the skill level of the average poker player eventually skyrocketed, making sponsorship an invaluable supplemental, or even primary, income. But that money went away as the game’s TV presence was scaled back. In North America, roughly 75 percent of poker shows that aired in the past decade are no longer on the air, simultaneously both a consequence and cause of poker’s economic woes.

This is not to suggest that people and organizations in poker aren’t already working tremendously hard to advocate for poker in government settings, even if efforts sometimes seem futile. It is worthwhile to try to put eruptions of tension between players and the WSOP in a more elucidated context, especially as we move forward.

Brian Pempus is Card Player’s Online Content Manager and has been covering the WSOP since 2009. His database of articles can be found here.

Splash The Pot is an ongoing series of op-eds from various members of the poker community. For more information or to submit your own writing, send an email to

Any views or opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the ownership or management of
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