In the wake of a record-setting World Series of Poker, it is clear that the popularity of tournament poker hasn’t yet hit a wall.
But the commercialization and transformation of the game has some experts predicting the interest in televised poker will dwindle and the growth of online poker will slow sharply.
The Travel Channel, for instance, reports that ratings for its World Poker Tour have fallen 36 percent in the last two years. Similarly, ESPN has experienced a dip in its World Series viewership, as has Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown.
Critics say that one of the problems associated with televised tournaments is bigger "blinds" — forced bets that players are required to throw into the pot before the hand is dealt — that causes players to burn through their bankrolls more quickly. That forces faster play and speedier eliminations — qualities TV demands for its impatient audiences.
"It’s as if you played golf where every hole was just one or two shots — that’s what they’ve done to TV poker," said Phil Gordon, a poker professional and author. "They’re more interested in production values than in letting a player’s true skill play out on the green felt."
Poker purists agree. They contend that real poker is about a thoughtful assessment of risk and long-term gains at the table, and not about speed or frequent high-stakes collisions over huge pots.
"The minute you make it a tournament meant to bankrupt someone else then it isn’t poker anymore," said Aaron Brown, an executive director at Morgan Stanley and the author of a new boo, "The Poker Face of Wall Street." "It’s the same difference between being a career singer and being on ”˜American Idol.’ Tournament play may be great entertainment, but it’s not poker."
TV honchos dismiss such criticism. They say their efforts have snared a mass audience of new poker fans and that those who are not enamored of high-octane tournament play simply have not adapted to modern times.
"I do think that poker is one of the most durable and cost-effective forms of programming in television," said George Greenberg, a Fox executive who oversees the network’s poker shows. "Quality poker, dramatic poker and poker that is in your face is the poker that will be left standing."
Gordon disagrees that TV’s "in your face" brand of entertainment serves poker well. He’s also upset that television, in conjunction with tour operators such as the World Poker Tour, are trying to monopolize all of the financial action floating around tournament play.
In fact, Gordon and six other players last month filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the World Poker Tour. Among other things, the suit charges that WPT’s film releases are too open-ended and that players aren’t properly compensated for giving up their "intellectual property."
Serving as a kind-of sugar daddy and beneficiary to all of this has been the Internet. According to industry sources, digital gamblers open their wallets at a far lustier rate than poker players entering live tournaments.
It is estimated that 40 million players entered online tournaments last year and forked over buy-ins totaling about $1.1 billion, compared to about $375 million from bricks-and-mortar players.
The Internet fosters speedy poker play as much as television tournaments, while changing the gambling landscape by attracting a younger, less patient audience.
For now, anyway, the online poker industry — most of which is generated from U.S. players — makes money faster than the U.S. Mint.
Online poker titan PartyGaming, for instance, reported revenues of $977 million last year, up from a paltry $30.1 million in 2002.
But PartyGaming’s recent securities filings cite a study indicating that the growth of online poker revenue will show sharply. While revenues grew at an annual rate of 158 percent from 2000 to 2005, the study projects annual increases of only about 18 percent from 2005 to 2010.
Still, the game goes on, along with the promise that skill, courage and patience can carry a player to winner’s circle.
"It’s the only game that normal, everyday people can visualize themselves doing at the highest level," said Phil Gordon. "They know they will never be able to hit a Randy Johnson fastball or catch a Joe Montana pass, but they can imagine themselves sitting across from Phil Ivey and going all-in. A plumber with marital difficulties can find himself suddenly rich and famous."