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History of Online Poker Part II: From Boom to Bust

Chasse Rehwinkel

I gamble, therefore I write...or I write, therefore I gamble...honestly, they're pretty similar professions…


Sorry again for the technical difficulties of the past few days, but we're finally back up and ready to continue the story.

...and, save some sort of continued computing problems, the final part of this series--part III--should be up tomorrow, so be sure to check back.

Okay, without further adieu, here is part II of the history of online poker...enjoy!

The Rising Tide

Planet Poker may have been the first poker site out of the gate, but it was soon followed and then passed by a slew of other, more well known sites.

Paradise Poker--known to many online pros as the last bastion for suckers--launched in 1999. PokerStars, Gut Shot Poker and Ultimate Bet all started up in 2001. And although Party Gaming was founded in the late 1990s, Party Poker also came on the scene in 2001 and quickly became the biggest player in the world of online poker.

These early sites started to create a climate for expansion within the online poker industry. PokerStars and Gut Shot started running satellite tournaments to the WSOP, Party Poker and Ultimate Bet signed big name players to be the face of their brands--Mike Sexton and Phil Hellmuth, respectively--, Party Poker even became the first site to host a major live tournament when it's flagship live event--the Party Poker Million--joined the World Poker Tour's first season.

In retrospect, the online poker industry was seemingly building toward a period of unprecedented growth and success. And although it may seem like a dangerous historical reconsideration, I think it fair to say that the industry was only in need of a single spark to set off this growth period.

And in 2003, that moment materialized.

Archduke Franz.jpg

No! The Archduke's assassination has nothing to do with this!


A Man Named Moneymaker

Okay, maybe online poker wasn't exactly the powder keg I've been portraying it to be, but the environment was futile enough to build off a massive influx in interest for the game.

That massive influx came after the 2003 WSOP Main Event, where an amateur player with a fortunate name, Chris Moneymaker, took down poker's top prize.

Now amateurs winning the world championship was nothing new in poker--recreational player Hal Fowler proved that an amateur can win way back in 1979 and newcomer Robert Varkonyi won the year before Moneymaker, in 2002--, but Moneymaker's victory was different for a couple of reasons.

First, ESPN stepped up their coverage of the World Series Main Event, bringing Moneymaker's meteoric rise to television prominence.

Second, and most important for the online poker world, Moneymaker won his seat to the Main Event through a $39 satellite tournament, played on PokerStars.

Robert Varkonyi.jpg

Oh and Varkonyi isn't exactly the most marketable Main Event winner ever...

So in 2003, under the bright lights of ESPN's cameras, an accountant from Tennessee bested high stakes gambler Sam Farha to take down poker's top prize, the PokerStars label over his breast pocket all the while on display for the entire world to see.


Following Moneymaker's win in 2003, poker experienced a boom of unprecedented proportions.

Between 2004 and 2007 poker went from being an almost back alley game to the hobby of millions of Americans.

The World Series of Poker's Main Event doubled and tripled its prize pool throughout this period, with the 2006 WSOP Main Event having more than ten times the amount of players that the historic 2003 world championship did--8,773 to 839. The success of the WPT inspired the creation of dozens of new poker tours, each catering to a variety of different players. And ESPN's expanded coverage of poker created a greater level of legitimacy for the game with the regular American public.

Once you have your own Sportscenter commercial you've pretty much made it

As Chicago Tribune sports columnist Steve Rosenbloom once wrote in 2004, "Poker is the new golf."

And while ESPN's expanded coverage grew the game's awareness with the average sports fan, the real surge in interest for the game during this period was almost certainly spurred forward by the growth of the online game.

As 2004 WSOP Main Event Champion Greg Raymer states, "Online poker's micro limits and free money games helped introduce a whole new group of people to the game, who didn't want to spend a lot of money learning how to play."

"When I was first starting out with charity casinos in Illinois it was expensive game to learn," says Raymer. "You could be the best player at the table and still run bad, losing a hundred dollars in the process. Most people don't want to make that kind of monetary investment to learn a game, but with online poker players could now learn the rules and basic strategies without paying any money. And if they did well, players could then deposit a small amount of money online and start playing at the micro limits without feeling any financial pressure."

Raymer, himself, satellited into the 2004 WSOP Main Event, making his breakthrough victory a discounted one.

And like Moneymaker's win in 2003, Raymer's success helped inspire even more people to try out the game.

Never Run Bad

During the mid-2000s poker seemed to be a path of self-perpetuating growth, with each new innovation--i.e. poker training sites such as Cardrunners and the introduction of super high stakes online poker on Full Tilt--increasing the fan base of the game.

Yes, this was the high water mark for both online and live poker, but--being careful not to sound too much like a Behind the Music special--trouble was on the horizon in the form of cheating scandals and legal action.

Behind the Music.jpg

Damn, I think that was too close

Poker truly is a boom and bust game; the swings can be nasty. And the whole of the poker industry--online and live--was about to feel those swings as the 2007 WSOP approached.

Check back tomorrow for Part III of this multi-part series on the history of online poker!



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