The Poker Boom Part 6: The future

Great Wall of China
The foreign markets are particularly appealing to online poker rooms.

In the first five parts of the series, we've looked at where the poker boom started and where it led the people who came along for the ride. In this final installment, we'll take a look at where poker stands today and what the future may bring.

The state of online poker

If the UIGEA was doomsday for online poker, today's market shows there is indeed life after death. The total number of real-money players at peak times today, according to PokerListings.com's MarketPulse, tops out at around 70,000. In late 2005 you could find that many players on Party Poker alone, but given the shifts in the market since 2006 the traffic is healthy and only continues to grow each day.

Nearly one-third of today's players (32%) play at PokerStars, which has supplanted Party Poker as market leader. On average, twice as many players play at PokerStars as at any other online poker room. It's worth noting that PokerStars is one of the few privately owned companies in the business; because it didn't have to answer to shareholders, it never left the U.S. market.

Full Tilt Poker, another privately held company that never left the U.S. market, continues to do solid business with about 15% market share. Party Poker's traffic might have dropped off after leaving the U.S., but it still holds steady in third place, with a market share of 12%. At peak times, Party sometimes surpasses Full Tilt's player count, showing its resilience in the new world order of online poker.

Worldwide markets

Much as it was during the immediate aftermath of the UIGEA, the growth of foreign markets will be key to sustaining poker's profitability. Just how much those markets can be tapped will depend on how national governments respond when the poker rooms come knocking.

Germany, for instance, recently passed a law banning all forms of Web-based gambling within its borders, despite warnings from a German court that such a ban would be nearly impossible to enforce. The German government has authorized Internet service providers to block access to sites that allow betting.

Fellow European Union member France has historically banned the licensing of online gaming companies. The French government has also authorized U.S.-style arrests of foreign nationals who run online gaming companies, such as Petter Nylander of Unibet Group.

Germany and France made their moves against online gaming in order to protect state-run monopolies on gambling. If online poker grows popular in other countries or regions where similar monopolies exist, we can expect to see those governments follow suit.

The outlook for online poker in such markets isn't all dark, though. The EU has been working to open up competition among its member states in the online gaming market. If it were to successfully sue a member nation over anti-competitive online gaming laws, an important worldwide precedent could be set.

Then there is the prospect of more governments getting in on the action themselves. Austria recently opened its state-run online poker room, joining Sweden as the only countries in the world to operate such businesses. Finland's culture and sport minister recently proposed a similar venture, pointing to the profits made by online gaming operators as justification. The EU has publicly pondered going after such state-sponsored online poker rooms, so their future is unclear at this time.

The U.S. market

The sheer size of the U.S. online poker market, if it wasn't already apparent, was revealed immediately after passage of the UIGEA, when so many poker rooms pulled out and the traffic dried up. Even today, U.S.-facing rooms tend to have the most traffic despite the damage dealt by the U.S. government.

With such a huge amount of money remaining untaxed and the federal government's budget in the red, it comes as no surprise that the idea of regulating and taxing online gambling within the U.S. has slowly become more popular.

Several bills with varying approaches to online gambling have been proposed in Congress. Chief among them is the Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act, proposed by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). IGREA would repeal the UIGEA and, as its name suggests, implement a regulatory scheme for all forms of online gambling. Other bills seek to protect skill games, to tax online poker and to commission a government study of online gambling.

The last option opens up some interesting possibilities. The American Gaming Association, which represents major players in the casino industry such as Harrah's Entertainment and MGM Mirage, has called for such a study. If the results of a government study such as the one proposed by the AGA were positive, the door could be opened for major American casino companies to jump into the online gaming market - especially if either of the current Democratic presidential candidates were to win the presidency. (Both have come out in favor of the AGA's proposed study.)

For now, the U.S. online poker market remains the domain of the hardcore poker player. The glory days of the early-2000s Party Poker fishbowl might never return, but a shift in the rules of the game - especially given the ever-changing nature of American politics - doesn't seem far away.

Online tournament series

As popular as live tournament series like the WSOP are, the online equivalents are gaining ground. And why not? With no travel costs, more affordable buy-ins, dirt-cheap satellites and the same variety of games as are available live, series like FTOPS and WCOOP are the perfect alternative to major live tournaments.

  • FTOPS

The seventh edition of the Full Tilt Online Poker Series (FTOPS) that has taken place over the last 18 months just wrapped up. If the results are anything to go by, the series is more popular than ever.

The first FTOPS, held in August 2006, featured eight tournaments and awarded a little under $2 million. By contrast, FTOPS VII featured 20 events and the first six of them alone awarded over $3.7 million in prize money.

  • WCOOP

The PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) comes only once a year, but when it does it brings the noise.

The 2007 installment of the oldest continuing poker series online drew an amazing 40,280 players for its 23 events and handed out over $24 million in cash. Even the lowest first-prize payout in 2007 - $171,400 in the Pot-Limit Five-Card Draw event - was nearly triple that of the 2002 WCOOP main event top prize. The future only looks to get brighter for the WCOOP.

Satellites for live events

Online poker series might be growing in popularity, but the big money is still in major live tournaments held around the world.

Cheap satellites have been a big boost to the popularity of the EPT in its four seasons, and they fueled much of the participation in the first season of the APPT as well. Having so many satellite qualifiers from overseas helped bolster the fields of the new Asian events to respectable levels, encouraging locals to pick up the game and qualify for the next year's installment.

As more live tournaments spring up around the world, their promoters and host casinos will be looking to fill up as many seats as possible with players from outside the local area. Expect to see the major online rooms come on board to sponsor tournaments wherever possible, especially in newer markets, and offer cheap satellites to entice players with the dream of hitting a big score.

Conclusion

Online poker has been on a tumultuous ride, going from cult pastime to worldwide cultural phenomenon to conservative media target in the space of just a few years. With the industry still in its infancy and political forces undecided on how to deal with it, its future is murky to say the least.

What does appear sure is that no matter the method outside forces choose to use in dealing with it, poker's popularity in all forms remains robust in 2008. Tournament fields around the world continue to grow, new tournaments crowd the schedule and new players and markets emerge every day.

Whatever the course poker takes in the future, PokerListings.com will be here to deliver the news.

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