What's the biggest difference between this year's and last year's WSOP? Well, besides the addition of 10 more events I think the answer is simple - the exclusion of online poker rooms. Last year Full Tilt Poker, Pokerstars.com, Bodog.com and other poker rooms all had uber fancy player's lounges. These lounges provided a place for the professional players to come and relax and it also allowed poker fans to help themselves to a free beverage or listen to tutorial from one of the big name players.
It was a cool atmosphere and it was nice to see a physical front to online businesses that you normally wouldn't get a chance to interact with in person. It also seemed to generate an interesting team dynamic between the players, which was cool to see considering poker tends to be a "ME against THEM" affair.
This year the rooms are gone and the halls feel a bit barren.
The reason, of course, for the room's recent exodus is the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) which is a bill that was signed into law on Oct. 13, 2006. The UIGEA prohibits online gambling sites from performing transactions with American financial institutions. Because of the questionable legality of the issue, Harrahs, who runs the WSOP, decided not to allow third party registrations into tournaments this year. This means you can't win a seat at the 2007 WSOP from an online site and it also means there will be no Chris Moneymaker or Greg Raymer stories this year.
Some industry folks thought this might severely affect the number of entrants at the WSOP but that appears to be untrue so far. We've already had two record setting days and the participation does not seem to be down (heck, people are even playing in tents). The popularity of the game seems to be sustaining it in that area (we'll have to wait until the main event to know for sure) but there were certainly more trickle down effects from the UIGEA.
The bill also meant that poker rooms couldn't advertise at the WSOP so the online rooms in turn found no reason to go. Some might say that inclusion of corporate online rooms was just a way to cram more advertising down the consumer's throats.
I would argue differently.
In many ways it was a celebration of poker culture and it gave the average poker player something to aspire to. It offered legitimacy to an industry that takes place behind curtains. It, in effect, gave players and fans, something back while giving the online poker industry a face.
To get back to the main issue - it's fairly obvious the Feds blew it this time. They missed out on one of the biggest opportunities they've had in years. Can you imagine the tax revenue that online poker rooms that were actually based in the United States would bring in?
There are many countries around the world that allow online gambling (in fact pretty much most of Europe) and the system seems to be working very well for them.
At the end of the day people are still going to gamble online it's just a question of where the money goes. It's eerily reminiscent of prohibition. By trying to outlaw something they are just making it harder to regulate.
If you're interested in the legality of online poker check out Poker Players Alliance. The Poker Player's Alliance is a nonprofit membership organization that is comprised of members from across the United States including big name professionals like Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Greg Raymer, Howard Lederer and many more. The organization has the basic goal of protecting the integrity of poker.
There are many interesting statistics on the site including the fact that as much as 75% are opposed to banning online poker and that online poker is a source of charity.
To get back to our original question - Will poker continue to be as popular? Well, it doesn't seem like it's going to slow down anytime soon. Let's hope the powers that be will let it continue to grow.