At its core, poker is a game.
Forget the multi-million dollar industry behind it; the gambling, the money, glamor, degeneracy or sometimes designation as a “sport.”
It’s a game. A fun one, too, with plenty of strategy and depth. There’s nothing wrong with that. That's a good thing.
These days poker seems to be at a turning point with a great deal of consolidation in the industry, wide-spread adoption of Twitch poker streaming and significant creep into the eSports world.
Poker seems to be going through a bit of an identity crisis these days as casual and hardcore audiences continue to drift apart. So what’s the future of poker?
That’s a big question and obviously no one knows exactly but here are some of the basic issues that most poker experts seem to agree:
- Another boom like the mid-2000s seems unlikely
- The massive WSOP Main Event appears to have plateaued
- A player base that consists only of hardcore grinders cannot sustain itself
While regulation in the USA and potential growth in markets like South America and Asia could create booms of their own it seems more likely that poker is levelling off.
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Poker’s core game play is as timeless as ever and there’s a reason that major athletes, eSports stars and actors play it in their spare time.
It’s easy to understand but very difficult to master. Even if an overall player base goes down, or becomes less hardcore, that doesn’t make a game inherently worse.
How Do Other Games Do It?
Let's take a look at a variety of different games with varying levels of seriousness and assess whether poker could learn anything from them. Let's get to it!
Chess is one of the oldest games in the world. Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fischer and even recent chess champions like Magnus Carlsen are pretty much household names. Chess is a game of "perfect" information. meaning that each player can see all the pieces at the same time.
Since there’s no luck involved a master chess player will beat a brand-new player 100% of the time. New players also frequently suffer from analysis paralysis when the attempt to read the board.
In other words, chess can be a challenging game to get into. At the same time there is a casual chess scene and it’s a very popular online game.
For years chess has lagged behind poker when it comes to prize pools but that appears to be changing somewhat. This year marked the debut of a $1m chess tournament in Las Vegas and a separate Garry Kasparov-backed tour with a $1m prize pool.
Released: 6th century India.
Skill required: Very high.
Luck involved: No.
Depth: Very complex.
Active community: Over 605 million players.
Professional scene: FIDE hosts numerous tournaments around the world.
Shadiness: There have been a few cheating scandals but nothing compared to poker.
Star players: Garry Kasparov, Magnus Carlsen, Bobby Fischer.
The prizes: Magnus Carlsen won $1.6m in the 2014 FIDE Chess Championship.
Key takeaway: Despite the fact computers have surpassed humans in the game of chess it hasn’t lowered hurt players passion for the game. Poker fans shouldn’t be too worried about CEPHEUS or other A.I.s.
Monopoly is the ubiquitous board game that can be found in nearly every closet in North America.
Originally designed as a tool to illustrate the inherent issue with monopolies in business, Monopoly the board game has players rolling around a board, attempting to buying property, charging rent and eventually bankrupting their opponents.
For many people Monopoly was their first experience playing a board game, which is strange because many consider it an example of bad game design.
The game is shallow, incredibly long, very luck-based and also contributes some very "feels bad, man" moments for beginning players when they slowly lose everything they’ve accumulated over the course of a 3-4 hour-long game.
There is some strategy involved with the game, however, and there is a surprisingly healthy professional circuit with a $20,580 prize for the winner of the World Championship.
Skill required: Low.
Luck involved: High.
Active community: 250 million copies sold.
Professional scene: Surprisingly active with the annual Monopoly World Championship.
Shadiness: Keep a close eye on the banker.
Star players: Nicolò Falcone, Christopher Woo.
The prizes: $20,580 first-place prize in World Championship.
Key takeaway: If you had two words to describe Monopoly strategy “bankroll management” would fit nicely. People seem to like it. Teaching proper bankroll management in poker is a nice parallel.
Magic: The Gathering
One of the first trading card games, Magic: The Gathering rose to popularity in high-school lunch rooms during the late ‘90s with a memorable theme that included demons, dragons and angels depicted on the cards.
The game can be played by two or more players in various formats with the most common featuring two 60-card decks, which are constructed by the players.
Often derided as a geek pastime like Dungeons & Dragons, M:TG actually offered real strategy with dynamic gameplay that shifted every few months thanks to new expansions.
The game has stood the test of time and there are now over 20m players (online and live) with a healthy pro circuit.
One of the key differences between M:TG and other games is that the pieces that make up the game are actually valuable. Cards have different rarity levels (like baseball cards), which means elite decks can cost a considerable amount of money to construct.
It’s that business model that has kept Wizards of the Coast (the game’s owner) in business. The company is integral to keeping the game fresh and community coming back for more.
Unfortunately it also keeps the game fairly expensive, which can certainly be a negative for new players.
- Magic: The Gathering a Training Ground for Poker Pros
- Gabriel Nassif: Former Magic: The Gathering Champ Grinds WSOP
Skill required: High.
Luck involved: Yes. It’s a card game.
Depth: M:TG is very complex with new cards being added all the time.
Active community: There are an estimated 20 million M:TG players.
Professional scene: The International Pro Tour offers $250k in cash prizes each year.
Shadiness: Several cheating incidents but nothing on a large scale.
Star players: Jon Finkel, Kai Budde, Eric Froehlich
The prizes: $50,000 for first-place in the Magic World Championship Event.
Key takeaway: Poker could experiment more with different formats. In M:TG the game can change massively from month-to-month. It’s up to the players to adapt.
Settlers of Catan
Settlers of Catan, recently shortened to Catan, is a wildly popular game that has almost single-handedly revolutionized the board game industry in North America and introduced “Euro-style” board games to a broader audience.
European board games tend to offer more strategy than traditional North American board games like Monopoly, Risk, Battleship etc.
In the game 3-4 players assume the roles of settlers attempting to build a society while accumulating resources like brick, lumber, wool and ore.
The key to the game is interaction with other players. The player who manages the best trades with other players will usually win the game.
This game is primarily for a casual audience but there is legitimate strategy involved.
Ease of learning: Easy.
Luck involved: Some.
Depth: A lot of the depth in Catan is reading people.
Active community: 20 million players (estimated).
Professional scene: Not really. There is the Settlers of Catan Championship.
Shadiness: Nearly 100% clean.
Star players: Your friends and family.
Prizes: Someone won a cruise for two at the Catan World Championships once.
Key takeaway: Games don’t necessarily need big prizes or famous players to become wildly popular and sustain a casual community.
Dota 2 has been making headlines for the last couple years for offering the single-biggest prize pools in the history of pro video games (eSports).
A MOBA (Multi-player Online Battle Arena) game, Dota 2 features two five-player teams competing in a match with the ultimate goal of occupying their opponent’s stronghold.
Dota 2’s definition as a game is somewhat blurry because it does require lightning fast reflexes and reaction times, which would lead some people to call it a sport (hence the whole eSPORTs thing).
Dota 2, and eSports in general, have a leg up on many traditional games in that they offer a more visual spectator sport.
The steep learning curve, however, tends to keep recreational video game players away from them.
One generally accepted fact is that eSports are on the rise. Thanks to The International the biggest Dota 2 prize pool hit $18m in 2015.
Dota 2 isn’t the only player in the MOBA scene. League of Legends is the original and some would claim best MOBA with over 27 million players. Dota 2 only has a bigger prize pool because of the Valve-supported International.
Ease of learning: Very hard (if you aren’t an experienced gamer).
Luck involved: Very little.
Depth: Over 110 playable heroes adds a ton of complexity.
Active community: Over 10m active players.
Professional scene: There are numerous big tournaments each year.
Shadiness: MOBAs are fairly transparent, which makes cheating difficult.
Star players: Evil Geniuses, Vici Gaming, Team Liquid
The prizes: Substantial. The International awarded $18m in 2015.
Key takeaway: The team aspect of Dota 2 and MOBAs in general is instantly relatable to people who follow sports. While poker isn’t a team sport there still may be some potential in that format.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard about Backgammon if you’ve been in poker for any serious amount of time. A favorite of poker pro Gus Hansen, Backgammon is one of the oldest board games in existence.
Similar to poker Backgammon features strategy as well as an element of luck because dice are involved. Another parallel to poker is that many people consider Backgammon dull when you don’t play for any stakes.
The very first World Series of Backgammon was also hosted in Las Vegas three years before the World Series of Poker but it wasn’t anywhere near as successful.
Backgammon was revolutionized about 100 years ago with the introduction of a doubling cube, which added an element of gambling to the game.
Like chess, Backgammon has been “solved” to a certain degree, which some think has hurt its chances of being a serious online contender.
It’s worth noting that Backgammon, unlike many games on this list, has an active private game scene. Gus Hansen has actually missed substantial No-Limit Hold'em tournaments because the private Backgammon games were too good.
One final note is that Backgammon is far more popular in Europe than North America.
Released: 5,000 years ago.
Ease of learning: Intermediate.
Luck involved: Medium.
Depth: Not as complex as chess but there’s a lot of depth in Backgammon.
Active community: Over 100 million play Backgammon the the hardcore scene is relatively small.
Professional scene: Plenty of tournaments like the World Championship of Backgammon.
Shadiness: Loaded dice are a common way of cheating in Backgammon but that has been reduced in recent years.
Star players: Tim Holland, Gus Hansen.
The prizes: Backgammon has a renowned private cash game scene.
Key takeaway: Backgammon has never been as “sexy” as poker but that hasn’t stopped its small but passionate community from enjoying the game.
Hearthstone is a relatively new addition to the video game world but it’s been a wildly popular one. It is essentially a virtual card game where two players construct decks out of hundreds of different cards and battle each other heads-up.
The crossover between video games and online poker in Hearthstone is very real with many well-known poker pros including Daniel Negreanu and Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier praising Hearthstone.
Unlike poker there’s very little bluffing or gambling in Hearthstone. On the other hand Hearthstone is a great gateway for players unfamiliar with video games because it doesn’t require the hand-eye coordination and “twitchiness” of traditional video games.
Hearthstone is also a perfect candidate for Twitch.tv live streaming because it moves slow enough for streamers to talk to their followers.
It’s also captured a very passionate casual players base with over 40 million players in just two years of existence.
Ease of learning: Easy to Intermediate.
Luck involved: Medium.
Depth: Hearthstone is fairly easy to learn but there are some legitimate high-end strategies.
Active community: Incredibly active with over 40m players with numerous websites and forums dedicated to the game.
Professional scene: Surprisingly active with numerous teams and Twitch.tv streamers.
Shadiness: Bots were a significant problem but Blizzard has all but eradicated them.
Star players: TrumpSC, Reynad, FireBat.
Played for money: The World Championship has a $1m prize pool.
Key takeaway: Hearthstone has perhaps the best entry for new players of any games on this list. Poker could learn something from the amount of hand-holding and rewards provided to new players.
Once decried as “sex in a box” Twister was one of the first games to use humans as pieces and a cultural phenomenon in the ‘60s.
Technically a game of physical skill, Twister is generally played with 2-3 people. The idea is for players to contort their bodies until one player can’t reach a square and collapses or quits.
Twister is completely casual and most people will tire of it very quickly. Despite that, Milton Bradley still produces millions of the games every year. The game offers no professional scene, no money and no stakes (although a few gamblers over the years would probably beg to differ).
Twister remains one of the most popular games in the world.
Ease of learning: Simple.
Luck involved: None.
Active community: Over 60 million people have played Twister at one point or another.
Professional scene: Essentially non-existent.
Shadiness: We’ll let you decide.
Star players: I dunno? A yoga instructor?
Played for money: Not really.
Key takeaway: Don’t take yourself too seriously.