The Poker Boom Part 3: Live tourneys benefit

Spoils of War

This is the third article in a six part series taking a look at the history of the poker boom. Stay tuned for Part 4 of the series on Thursday, Feb. 14.

The first two parts of this series looked at the role television played in setting the stage for the poker boom in 2003 and the growth of the online poker industry. Today we turn to how those two catalysts fueled an unprecedented expansion of major live tournaments and their prize pools.

The WSOP booms: 2004-2005

Thanks to Chris Moneymaker's unexpected win in 2003 and ESPN's broadcasts of the event, the WSOP became one of the focal points for poker's growth throughout 2004 and 2005, forcing the event to move away from Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas to the roomier Rio Hotel and Casino off the Strip.

The Main Event

The Main Event was the most obvious sign of the game's growing popularity throughout 2004 and 2005. In 2004, it set a new record for the largest poker tournament in history when 2,576 players turned up.

That was more than triple the previous year's total, making the first prize worth a record $5,000,000. The field was so large that for the first time, the tournament staff broke the first day up into two heats to accommodate everyone who wanted to play.

Greg Raymer
Raymer becomes the second PokerStars qualifier to win the Main Event.

Just as the year before, the winner had qualified for the event through an online satellite. Greg Raymer wasn't quite the unknown that his predecessor Moneymaker had been, but the fact that he won his WSOP seat online only encouraged more players to try to replicate the feat.

In 2005, the Main Event's growth was also record-setting as 5,619 players turned up at the Rio for a chance at the $7,500,000 first prize. The mammoth $52,818,610 prize pool was so heavy that all nine players who made the final table won at least $1,000,000.

The victory by retired chiropractor Joe Hachem was the spark that ignited poker fever in his home country of Australia.

The house that Moneymaker built

PokerStars - the "house that Moneymaker built" - has kept track of its players since it first sent them to Las Vegas in 2002. Based on the information at their Web site, here's a look at how much of the WSOP Main Event field was made of PokerStars players from 2002 (before the boom) to 2005 (in the middle of it).

 

PokerStars graph

 

  • 2002: 631 entries - 2 qualifiers from PokerStars, 0 at final table
  • 2003: 839 entries - 37 qualifiers from PokerStars, 1 at final table
  • 2004: 2,576 entries - 316 qualifiers from PokerStars, 4 at final table
  • 2005: 5,619 entries - 1,116 qualifiers from PokerStars, 2 at final table

Preliminary events

Throughout 2004 and 2005, the preliminary events saw a marked increase in attendance as well, due in part to ESPN's expanded coverage that included final tables from other bracelet events.

For at least the last five years, the first No-Limit Hold'em event at the WSOP has been the cheapest - generally a $1,500 or $2,000 buy-in event with a large field - making it one where players who want an economical shot at a WSOP bracelet get the most bang for their buck.

In 2003, professional player "Minneapolis" Jim Meehan took down the first NLHE tournament against a field of 407 players. The next year saw relative neophyte James Vogl outlast 834 entrants in the first $1,500 NLHE of the WSOP, while pro player Allen Cunningham topped 2,305 runners for the first 2005 $1,500 NLHE bracelet.

The event proved so popular in 2004 and 2005 that the first prize rivaled that of the average WPT event, despite having a buy-in less than one-sixth the size.

No-Limit Hold'em wasn't the only game that grew in popularity. Among the highest buy-in events in other variants of Hold'em, Stud, and Omaha, attendance rose by 26.5% from 2003 to 2004, and by 51.8% from 2004 to 2005. Events with smaller buy-ins saw similar growth throughout the two largest WSOPs poker had ever seen.

Europe joins the game

John Duthie
John Duthie capitalizes on the poker boom in Europen.

 

John Duthie, a British television producer, became the first man to win over $1,000,000 on a televised poker tournament in Europe when he topped the 2000 Poker Million. In the fall of 2004, Duthie cashed in on the boom in another way with the creation of the European Poker Tour.

The EPT began modestly in September 2004 with the €1,000 Barcelona Open, which awarded €80,000 to Alexander Stevic when he outlasted a field of 229 players. The rest of the season, which ran to early spring 2005, would be characterized by relatively affordable events with healthy starting fields.

Cheap satellites on PokerStars, the EPT's sponsor, helped bolster the tour's fields and even produced a champion. American Brandon Schaefer, who won a PokerStars satellite with frequent player points to get his seat, won the French Open in February 2005.

When Schaefer finished second in the Grand Final at Monte Carlo the next month, the EPT's reputation as an online-satellite-friendly tour was born.

The second season of the EPT saw bigger buy-ins and playing fields. The average buy-in rose from about €2,000 to about €4,000 and the average field size nearly doubled.

The season ended with 19-year-old Jeff Williams, an American online qualifier unable to legally play tournaments in his home country, taking home a Grand Final first prize of €900,000. Only two years into its existence, the EPT had arrived.

The boom repays the WPT

The WPT was a huge success with its first season on the Travel Channel. Together with readily available online poker rooms, the WPT had made poker a cultural force. Now it was time for the game's new devotees to take the WPT even higher.

The threefold growth of the WPT in its second year was simply without precedent in 2004. The average field for Season 1 was 126 players and the average prize pool was $967,720. In Season 2, the average field grew to 319 and the average prize pool tripled to $2,721,037.

Much of the growth was thanks to the booming popularity of online poker. In March 2004 Business Wire quoted Steven Lipscomb on the role PartyPoker played in the second-season growth of the WPT.

"The fact that last year there were 177 players in this tournament is a testament to PartyPoker.com and its dedication to growing the event," Lipscomb said of the 546-strong field of entries. "We at the WPT can't believe the increase in players for the PartyPoker Million."

It wasn't just PartyPoker's cruise that was growing. Nine of the tour's 13 stops during Season 2 drew more than 300 players, including the season-ending WPT Championship. With a $25,000 buy-in - the highest in the world at the time - the tourney still drew 343 players to create an $8,342,000 prize pool.

The WPT's third season was even more of a success. A second Bellagio tournament and the Mirage Poker Showdown were added to the schedule and drew strong participation. The average prize pool went up to $4,552,979, and the average field size grew to 464 players.

The growth was most reflected in the fact that the WPT's first season only had 1 of 12 tournaments pay out at least $1,000,000 for first place, but only three of 15 events in Season 3 did notaward at least $1,000,000 to the winner.

Conclusion

The two year period from 2004 to 2005 saw poker grow to such heights that the future appeared limitless. It seemed that only one thing - government interference - could get in the way of the game's continued expansion. Up to that point, opponents of online gambling in America had been shouting into the void. Soon they would become a major influence on poker, which we will examine in Part 4 of the series.

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