Decade in Review: From Poker Boom to Rebuilding After Black Friday Scandal

The poker industry went on quite an extreme roller coaster ride over the past 10 years. We shifted from the poker boom era to the poker-is-dying era, and then back again. Poker strategy has changed from small ball to GTO. And the way we watch poker now is vastly different than in 2010. In many ways, however, the game is the same it was 10 years ago.

PokerStars poker industry

The poker industry took a crushing blow on April 15, 2011. (Image: parttimepoker.com)

We’d like to extend a Happy New Year to our CardsChat community. Today marks the end of an interesting year in poker in which we discovered one of the biggest alleged cheating scandals ever, saw a wild finish in the WSOP Player of the Year race, and watched Hossein Ensan win the 2019 WSOP Main Event for $10 million.

The end of this year also marks the beginning of a brand-new decade. We don’t know what to expect from the poker industry over the next 10 years, but if it’s anything like the last decade, it will be filled with plenty of highs and lows. Let’s take one last look back at the 2010’s from a poker standpoint, from start to finish.

Poker Industry Thriving at Start of Decade

When the calendar flipped to January 1, 2010, the poker industry was in the middle of its golden era, a.k.a.,  the poker boom. Online poker was thriving in the US, with major poker sites – PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker – attracting millions of recreational and pro players to the virtual tables.

Being a poker superstar early in this decade meant major sponsorship deals. Pros such as Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, and the members off Team Full Tilt could break even at the poker table and still make a comfortable living. The best players in the game were international celebrities.

In Nevada, the state with the most poker rooms and home to the World Series of Poker, the game was booming. From January 2010 through July 2011, revenue exceeded $10 million in the state every month except two (September 2010 and February 2011).

Prior to January 2010, revenue hit the $10 million mark every month since February 2005. Before January 2005, Nevada’s card rooms had never generated $10 million in revenue in any month.

Internet Stars Become Television Poker Celebs

Towards the end of the 2000’s, many Internet poker crushers such as Tom “durrrr” Dwan and Phil “OMGClayAiken” Galfond, went from online phenoms to stars of the televised poker scene.

Early in the current decade, Dwan was among the most popular players in the game. When he appeared on Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker, two shows everyone in poker loved, you just had to tune in to see him pull off an epic bluff or two.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfP2GU74dFc

Dwan was already a known player before he appeared on TV. Many online poker fans had already been watching “durrrr” crush the nosebleed games at Full Tilt Poker. He was an innovator in the game because of his loose-aggressive, but controlled, style of play. By 2010, he was like a rock star in poker, much like Hellmuth, Negreanu, Phil Ivey, and many others.

…And Then, it All Came Crumbling Down

Friday, April 15, 2011 is a day the poker industry won’t ever forget. It was undoubtedly the worst day in poker history. And no one saw it coming. Well, except for the US Department of Justice.

By April 2011, poker had reached its peak. The game remained popular, but the era dubbed the poker boom was coming to an end. The third Friday of that month would change the game forever.

Online poker players on the four major sites offered in the US – PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, Ultimate Bet, and Absolute Poker – woke up that morning to discover the US Department of Justice had shut those sites down. Players in the US couldn’t access their accounts, and no one knew how long it would be until they could play again.

The poker sites never returned. Only PokerStars is still standing, but its global platform still isn’t available in the US. Thousands of players went unpaid for years as sites such as Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker didn’t have the funds available.

Full Tilt Poker paid its executives millions of dollars, but didn’t have enough money in reserves to pay the players. A couple years later, PokerStars bought out FTP and eventually paid its players. But many pros went months, and some years, without the money they were owed. Some had their entire bankrolls locked up on the poker sites, and were forced into debt.

The US online poker industry still hasn’t recovered, and probably never will. Michigan recently legalized online poker, becoming just the fifth state since Black Friday to pass legislation. Just 10 percent of all states have legal Internet poker now, and there isn’t much hope for many additional states to hop on board in the near future.

Black Friday changed the way many poker players live. Some were forced to move to other countries to play online. Others either quit playing poker for a living, or switched to live poker. We’re hopeful the online poker industry in America is in better shape come December 2029, but we won’t hold our breath.

Epic Poker Failure

Annie Duke was an outspoken poker pro, and is also the sister of Full Tilt Poker’s disgraced executive and poker player, Howard Lederer. In 2011, shortly after Black Friday, she implemented a self-ban from the game of poker, but it wasn’t intentional.

Duke, along with former WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack, created the Epic Poker League which kicked off in August 2011 at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. The new league was intended to cater only to a a select group of poker pros. At the end of the first season, Duke promised a $1 million freeroll, but the league went bankrupt before that could happen.

Duke took a six-figure salary for her role with the league, but after just three, $20,000 buy-in events, the Epic Poker League went bust and was canceled.

For failing to deliver on her $1 million freeroll promise, and still taking a paycheck, the poker community turned on Duke. Because of that, she is no longer working or playing in the poker industry, instead finding a new career as an author and motivational speaker. It’s just too bad she wasn’t motivated to do the right thing in 2011.

Doom and Gloom in New Poker Era

After Black Friday crushed the hopes and dreams of thousands of poker players, many wondered if the game was dead. They had good reason to think that way.

The poker boom was officially over. Many pros lost sponsorship deals because the poker sites were no longer existent in the US. Popular poker shows, such as Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker, were cancelled as their main sponsors – the poker sites – couldn’t continue advertising in the US. And the idea of being a professional poker player didn’t seem so glamorous anymore.

The doom and gloom mentality reflected from the general poker community was visible across the entire industry. Attendance in the WSOP Main Event was down by 500 players in 2011, compared to 2010, and Nevada poker revenue was steadily declining.

From March 2005 until July 2011, Nevada’s poker rooms raked in at least $10 million in revenue every month, except in September 2010 and February 2011. The Silver State’s card rooms generated less than $10 million in revenue in 47 of the 70 months following Black Friday.

It was abundantly clear that Black Friday negatively affected the poker industry. WSOP attendance remained stagnant, if not in decline. Poker revenue across the US was down. The question on everybody’s mind was, is poker really dying, or could the industry rebound?

2012 WSOP Champ’s Battle With Drug Addiction

Greg Merson was an improbable WSOP Main Event champion in 2012, but not because he lacks talent as a poker player. As a matter of fact, the Maryland native is a darn good poker player. He did, however, have a little something in common with three-time world champion Stu Ungar: Merson was a drug addict.

Fortunately, however, Merson’s story has a happier ending than did Ungar’s, who died of a drug overdose in 1998 at age 45. Merson has remained sober for the past eight years, a testament to his discipline, and a skill that helped him win $9.5 million and a gold bracelet seven years ago.

Merson is one of the greatest success stories in poker history. He’s a poker champion who also beat addiction, neither of which is an easy accomplishment.

Adapt or Get Crushed

With the poker boom era long gone, the game of poker was changing. Many of the big stars from earlier in the century either quit poker, could no longer compete with the stars of today, or had gone bust.

Erick Lindgren, for one, went from being considered one of the best in the game to filing bankruptcy multiple times. He still occasionally pops up at random WSOP events, but he is mostly non-existent in the poker world these days. Gabe Kaplan, the host of High Stakes Poker, no longer announces poker on TV.

Phil Ivey and Tom Dwan are still around, but spend more time playing high-stakes cash games in Macau and other Asian countries than they do grinding the high-roller scene in the US. Sammy Farha is no longer a member of the poker community. Phil Gordon has also moved on from poker, and is now an entrepreneur.

There are some poker boom-era stars who are still grinding and winning, however. Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Erik Seidel, Todd Brunson, and Michael Mizrachi, all still crush it on the felt, as do some other poker greats from the glory years.

The game has evolved since the poker boom. The top pros are far more skilled than they were 10 years ago. They play a new style of poker called game theory optimal (GTO), which, if played perfectly, is unbeatable. Many old-school pros argue they can beat GTO with their “live reads.” But, as we’ve discussed, many of the great players from a decade ago are no longer winning. Perhaps, the new-school players are onto something.

Online Poker Giant Favors Recs Over Pros

In 2016, with Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet gone, PokerStars was the lone remaining major online poker site in the world. Pros, recreational players, and just about everyone who played online poker at the time played at PokerStars, except for the American players who couldn’t.

Amaya Inc., now The Stars Group, decided it needed to make some changes to its site – PokerStars – to cater more to the recreational players. The company made the decision to remove the long-time Supernova Elite rewards program that financially benefited the pros who put in high volume on the poker site, and replaced it with a loyalty system that benefited recreational players instead.

In doing so, PokerStars received negative publicity from angry poker pros. Isaac Haxton, in 2016, was the first PokerStars Team Pro to publicly express disdain for the changes, and left the company. He then switched over to Partypoker as a sponsored pro.

In the following years, PokerStars would cut ties with many other popular pros such as Vanessa Selbst, Jason Mercier, Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier, Barry Greenstein, and even Negreanu, who was the face of the site. Still, PokerStars remains the most popular online poker site in the world, and likely will retain that title well into the upcoming decade.

Esfandiari Wins Largest Poker Tournament Prize Ever

Recreational player Guy Laliberte introduced a $1 million buy-in WSOP event in 2012. At the time, the buy-in was almost unthinkable for a poker tournament. But the charity event, dubbed the Big One for One Drop, was a rousing success.

Antonio Esfandiari beat out 48 players to win $18.3 million, a record at the time. Bryn Kenney, who won $20.5 million this past year in the Triton Million, would eventually surpass that record. Dan Colman in 2014 ($15.3 million) and Justin Bonono in 2018 ($10 million), would also win the Big One for One Drop event. The tournament is no longer in existence, at least for the time being.

Colman’s win was, perhaps, the most memorable. Not because he won $15.3 million, but because of his pedestrian reaction to the accomplishment. After finishing off Negreanu in heads-up play, Colman appeared disinterested in winning eight figures. If you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t know if he just won life-changing money or if his girlfriend had just dumped him.

Birth of Super High-Roller Scene and 24/7 Poker Network

By 2015, the ante had been upped in the high-roller scene. High-stakes pros were grinding $25,000, $50,000, and even $100,000 buy-in tournaments without so much as a second thought — events whose existence was practically unthinkable in the very recent past.

With the growth of the super high-roller scene, Cary Katz found an opportunity. The wealthy entrepreneur launched Poker Central, a digital channel that aired poker 24/7. Outside of the WSOP and WPT, poker no longer aired on mainstream television. Poker Central hoped to fill that void.

The network first launched in October 2015, and filled the majority of its schedule by rebroadcasting old poker shows. But, Poker Central also introduced the $500,000 Super High Roller Bowl that year from Aria in Las Vegas. Brian Rast was the inaugural winner, and took home $7.5 million.

In future years, the Super High Roller Bowl became a $300,000 buy-in tournament. Eventually, Poker Central dropped its free programming in favor of a paid app called PokerGo. The poker app has grown and now offers a plethora of original programming, including live-streams of WSOP final tables each year.

A ‘Kid’ Takes Over

At the ripe age of 23, Fedor Holz had the most dominant summer in poker history. In 2016, the German sensation won a then-record $16.1 million in live tournaments. That included four, seven-figure scores, the most notable of which netted him $4.98 million for winning the $111,111 WSOP High Roller for One Drop.

Holz was part of the German invasion on the game of poker. Today, many of the top high rollers in the game hail from Germany, including Holz, Rainer Kempe, Manig Loeser, and Steffen Sontheimer.

Holz didn’t last long as a poker grinder, however. He took his money and moved on to motivational speaking and investing in start-ups. He still plays in the occasional high-roller event, but is more focused on other ventures.

Rebuilding the Game

During the middle part of the past decade, the poker industry appeared to be on a decline. Times have changed, however. In 2017, the WSOP Main Event field drew 7,221 entries, a spike of nearly 500 players compared to the previous year. It was the first time since 2010 that poker’s most prestigious event attracted more than 7,000 players.

Was it a sign of good things to come, or just a fluke? The former is clearly the correct answer. The Main Event has seen a rise in attendance every year since 2016. In 2019, 8,569 players entered the $10,000 buy-in tournament. Only the 2006 Main Event, with 8,773 players, had more entries in the tournament’s 50-year history.

Nevada’s poker revenue has increased year-over-year every month since October 2018. There’s no denying the game of poker is thriving once again, even without stable online poker in the US.

Vloggers Play Integral Role in Game’s Growth

In January 2012, Tim “TheTrooper97” Watts posted his first poker vlog on YouTube. At the time, he may not have realized the craze he was about to start. Watts gave his YouTube followers – he now has more than 38,000 of them – an insight into the life of a low-stakes poker player. From there, other poker grinders have followed his lead.

Andrew Neeme and Brad Owen – both with more than 100,000 subscribers each – have become the most popular vloggers in recent years. They’re as responsible as anyone for the continued growth of the game, and give poker fans a free glimpse into the poker lifestyle. With so many people consuming poker on YouTube, it’s no surprise poker’s popularity is on the rise.

Major Cheating Scandal Rocks Poker Community

Three months prior to 2019’s end, the first major cheating scandal in a decade was discovered. Mike Postle, a low-stakes grinder at Stones Gambling Hall in Northern California, was accused of cheating during the Stones Live live-streamed cash game show.

Postle allegedly used some sort of device to gain access to his opponent’s hole cards. He faces a $10 million lawsuit from players involved in the games he allegedly cheated, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever be forced to fork over much, if any, cash.

The poker community, led by Joey Ingram on YouTube, concluded that he won hundreds of thousands of dollars over dozens of cash games from 2018 to 2019. A cheating scandal certainly wasn’t a good way to finish off an otherwise positive end to the decade. Still, the poker industry is in great shape heading into the 2020’s.

What’s in Store for Next Decade?

With the 2010s now in our rear-view mirror, it’s time to look ahead to the upcoming decade. We can’t make any guarantees, but we’ll throw out a few predictions for what the poker industry will look like on this day in 2029.

  • Phil Hellmuth will have 18 World Series of Poker bracelets, but Phil Ivey will hold the record with 20.
  • Online poker will be legal in 20 states.
  • Game theory optimal (GTO) will still be the most commonly used poker strategy.
  • Daniel Negreanu and Shaun Deeb still won’t like each other, and will continue battling for WSOP Player of the Year titles.
  • PokerStars will no longer be the top online poker site in the world, but they won’t be overtaken by Partypoker or any other current site. Instead, a new poker site will be developed between now and 2029 that will dominate the market.
  • The all-time winningest live tournament player will have over $100 million in career earnings.

We’ll check back in 10 years to see if our predictions were accurate.

Jon Sofen
Written by
Jon Sofen
Semi-pro poker player with 17 years experience on the felt and more than five years working as professional poker media.

Comments

Transcendence wrote...

Again deceived) again block)) hahhaha)

antonis32123 wrote...

Black Friday was the worst thing that happenned in poker imo . I wish things go better for poker in this new decade in the US and the whole world . We already have very good and positive signs for a better future for poker players and the game we love 🙂

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