Poker is becoming increasingly popular across the United States, with many predicting a potential second poker boom as we stride into 2022.
Across the United States, there is a general relaxing of laws around online poker providers, as lawmakers become wise to the benefits of a correctly managed and regulated industry. Some states have already passed bills and others are in the process of doing so, leading to a more accessible market for gamers. That, coupled with televised coverage of the biggest tournaments and the return of poker’s biggest event, the World Series of Poker (following a COVID interruption), has laid the groundwork for renewed interest and another boom.
When people say “another” boom, they are of course referring to the original one that took place at the beginning of the 21st Century. While several factors are pulling together in 2021, such as laws, the pandemic shuttering casinos, and increased media attention, the first boom was fueled by three things: a film, money, and a man called Moneymaker.
Poker had been around for plenty of time before the original boom, but a perfect storm arrive in 1998 when Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovich starred in Rounders. It was not a big success at first, taking a $12m budget and grossing $22m at the box office. It did open some eyes to the possibilities surrounding the World Series of Poker though, as Damon’s final speech stated: “First prize at the World Series of Poker is a million dollars. Does it have my name on it? I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.”
Damon might not have found out if his name was on it (the much-anticipated Rounders 2 has never been released, but plenty of poker fans watching the film were alerted to the possibility. In 2000, a player named Chris Ferguson took home a top prize of $1.5m and earned his gold bracelet. The United States, and the world, were teetering on the edge of the poker boom, but it took something special to push it over the edge.
That something special came from Chris Moneymaker, an accountant from Tennessee who entered a satellite tournament from his home with $86 and qualified for the 2003 event. He went all the way to the final table, ultimately winning $2.5m. That opened the floodgates, as the success and riches hinted at by Damon’s character in Rounders became a reality for a standard guy off the street. For almost a decade, the internet was awash with online providers looking to draw in those players chasing the dream, leading to such a spike in interest that the WSOP pot rose to $9m in just a few years. Moneymaker was one of 839 entrants in 2003; in 2006 there were 8,773, 14 times as many as those who had entered the 2002 pre-boom tournament.
The subsequent collapse of poker began as early as 2007, following the introduction of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. WSOP entrants fell by more than 2,000 in a single year. Then, in 2011, the boom was killed off well and truly on Black Friday. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York shut down three of the biggest providers in the U.S., including Full Tilt Poker (where one-time champion Chris Ferguson was a director), alleging they were in violation of federal bank fraud and money laundering laws. Several people were later convicted of conspiracy to commit bank fraud and similar offenses, shaking confidence in the industry.
Since then, online poker has rebuilt its shattered reputation and it seems that U.S. lawmakers are finally coming to terms with the possibilities, rather than the pitfalls. All we need now is Rounders 2, and we might just have the second poker boom of the century.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this look back at a bizarre but fascinating chapter in recent cultural history in the U.S., and please enjoy some of our additional history posts while you’re here!