In Part 4 of this series we looked at the 2006 backlash against online gambling by U.S. government authorities and how online poker was swept up with online casinos in the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.
Coupled with a sudden crackdown by the U.S. authorities on foreign executives of online casino companies, the UIGEA made for a chilly atmosphere in the United States and artificially shifted the bulk of the online poker industry to other markets overnight.
The European market immediately became much more important to the online poker industry, while other smaller markets around the world became worth pursuing as well. These shifts would alter the character of the online game significantly and have an effect on high-stakes live tournament poker.
The online market turns elsewhere
In the same September 2006 statement in which it announced it was leaving the U.S. market until further notice, online poker market leader PartyGaming warned shareholders that its earnings would fall significantly short of projected figures announced before passage of the UIGEA. Rather than panic in its new surroundings, though, Party turned its attention to new player sign-ups in other markets.
Attracting players from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, the geographic zone where 67% of its daily revenue was generated, became a major focus for Party in late 2006.
To a lesser extent it also focused on new sign-ups in Canada, Latin America and South America, which generated about 27% of the daily take. The company's overall revenue was only one-third of its pre-UIGEA total, but new sign-ups were expected to make up the difference over time.
In a mid-December conference call, PartyGaming CEO Mitch Garber made it clear his company had successfully switched gears. "PartyGaming is no longer a poker-led, U.S.-dependent and one language gaming operator," said Garber. "We are rapidly becoming a multi-lingual and multi-currency non-U.S. company."
Even the online poker rooms that decided to stick with the U.S. market branched out to a certain degree by increasing their presence overseas. The four European players known as the Hendon Mob had already signed on with Full Tilt in May 2006, and their popularity helped the online room increase its player base in the United Kingdom and Europe.
PokerStars, meanwhile, began reaching out to the rest of the world to recruit new members for Team PokerStars. Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier, Luca Pagano, Dario Minieri, Andre Akkari and Katja Thater were just a few of the international players who signed on to promote the popular poker room in their home countries and abroad, leading to an increased player base in Europe and South America.
International tournament poker
The changing makeup of the online poker player base in 2007 was reflected in the expansion of live poker tournament throughout the world. New tours began, old tours continued to grow, and a few independent tournaments made their mark as well.
Asia's huge population and affinity for gambling made it a target for online poker room expansion long before the UIGEA was ever passed. Once the law was in place, however, the major rooms had even more reason to turn their attention toward the East.
India held its first tournament, the independent Asian Poker Classic, in Goa over the first week of March 2007. The $5,000 event drew 143 players in from around the world with a guaranteed $1 million prize pool. The overlay was a boon to Denmark's Carl Hostrup, who took home $320,000 for first place. The event proved a big enough success that it is scheduled to go off again in March 2008.
In August 2007, PokerStars launched the first season of the Asia Pacific tour (APPT) with a $2,350 event at the Hyatt Hotel in Manila, Philippines, that drew a strong field of 255 players. The APPT brought tournament poker to South Korea for the first time in September, and then held the historic first-ever poker tournament in China when it stopped in Macau. England's Dinh Le topped the 352-player field there and won $222,640.
The APPT season wrapped up after only four tournaments, but all the events proved popular and it's likely the tour will return for a second run in 2008.
Full Tilt Poker came on board as a major sponsor for the Aussie Millions in 2007, giving the already-popular January event an immediate boost in prestige. Attendance skyrocketed, with over 700 players - 300 more than had come out in 2006 - turning up for the main event in Melbourne.
Along with Full Tilt's sponsorship came American and European satellite winners and worldwide television coverage on Fox Sports Net. Full Tilt may have walked away the biggest winner of all, at least in terms of public relations, when its own Gus Hansen took home the main event championship.
The Aussie Millions wasn't the only big game in town in 2007. The PokerStars-sponsored APPT also held its Grand Final in Australia.
The $6,300 AUD buy-in was higher than the other APPT stops, but APPT Sydney still drew the largest field of the season with 561 players. Australia's own Grant Levy took home the championship and the $1 million AUD prize.
In addition to its new tour in Asia, PokerStars continued to sponsor the European Poker Tour, which had grown in both popularity and prestige since its launch in 2005.
The tour's third season, which began just before passage of the UIGEA, saw attendance figures and prize pools climb steadily upward, culminating in the Season 3 Grand Final held in Monte Carlo.
An incredible field of 706 players put up €10,000 each for a shot at the biggest payday in European poker history. In the end, the €1,825,010 ($2,434,061) prize went to American professional player Gavin Griffin.
The fourth season of the EPT began in late 2007 and brought most of the tour's buy-ins up to at least the same level as their WPT counterparts. Attendance stayed strong even with the higher buy-ins, thanks to cheap online satellites and the game's continued popularity throughout Europe.
The European tournament calendar for 2007 had over 250 festivals scheduled, with many of them sponsored by the likes of PartyPoker, 888.com and other online poker rooms. Made-for-television competitions like the Poker Million VI and Late Night Poker remained popular in Europe as well.
WSOP goes international
The lure of a gold WSOP bracelet has always attracted the best poker players from around the world. In 2007, more of those players than ever before made an impact in Las Vegas.
Throughout the 2007 preliminary events, a total of 10 players from seven nations outside the U.S. won bracelets. Ciaran O'Leary and Alan Smurfit of Ireland; Alexander Kravchenko of Russia; Jason Warner, Robert Cheung and Lukasz Dumanski of Canada; Katja Thater of Germany; Jeffrey Lisandro of Australia; Rafi Amit of Israel; and Ram Vaswani of the United Kingdom all won events at the Rio in Las Vegas.
The international flavor of the 2007 WSOP carried over to the Main Event. Six nations - Canada, Denmark, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States - were represented at the Main Event final table, making it the most internationally diverse final table in the 38-year history of the $10,000 tournament.
In the end it was Jerry Yang, a Laotian who came to America as a refugee, who emerged victorious.
To put the final stamp of authenticity on poker's expansion into a worldwide game, the WSOP flew to London in September 2007 and held three events, all of which awarded bracelets to the winner.
Eighteen-year-old Norwegian online phenom Annette Obrestad won the £10,000 Main Event. In the process she set a record for youngest bracelet winner in WSOP history that won't be broken in Las Vegas without a change in the Nevada gaming laws.
While the UIGEA had a big impact on their business, online poker rooms were able to generate steady revenue at a lower level by increasing their global outreach. The new international focus of the online poker industry helped to create a rich environment for the growth of already-existing major international poker tournaments and the expansion of the tournament schedule outside North America.
We'll wrap up the series on Thursday with a look at where poker in all its forms might be headed next.