In the lead-up to the poker boom a typical conversation between regulars at a brick & mortar poker table went something like this:

Player A: Do you play online?

Player B: No. Never even tried it, I don’t trust it at all.

Player C: I play a little bit here and there. I’ve never had any problems.

Player A: I’ve been thinking about signing up. Do I just use my credit card? What’s a good site?

Player B: Good luck to both of you; I’ll stick to real poker games.

These conversations were far more enlightening than one might think. The poker world was about to change in a dynamic way, and some people were unwilling to evolve along with the times, or even consider that poker as they knew it could undergo such a dramatic shift.

There were a lot of good, experienced poker players that could have cleaned up at the online poker tables during the early days of the poker boom had they adapted to the changes taking place in poker, instead they decided to ride the status quo wave as long as they could, and in the end they fell by the wayside.

Like Blockbuster not getting ahead of the digital and streaming wave, or any number of retail giants who resisted going online until it was simply too late, these poker players (mainly Limit Holdem types) saw No Limit Holdem and the Internet as non-threats to their current lifestyle. They simply thought these things were incapable of displacing their beloved Limit Holdem or potentially making the game tougher.

And now, some 10-15 years later, I wonder if the people who replaced these pre-boom, Blockbuster Video-minded, anti-online,  limit holdem poker players, aren’t making the same mistake. Seeing the ongoing changes as a flash in the pan or reversible, instead of the next evolution in gaming.

The new changes we are seeing are a bit different, as the industry is trying to self-correct (as they see it), but the resistance from the poker community is very much the same. Current poker players are clinging to the idea that rakeback and player-friendly policies are where the money is, instead of stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

They don’t want to change to a new format, or play live. Instead they want the games their accustomed to beating to remain beatable.

The zeitgeist

My belief is we shouldn’t look at the changes at PokerStars and elsewhere solely in terms of increased profits or poker ecosystems, those are the byproducts of the changes being implemented, it doesn’t speak to the reason why these changes are suddenly needed.

What’s driving these changes is, in my opinion, a shift in gaming that’s as dynamic as the rise of online gambling in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, industry diversification.

A quick perusal of the gaming sector is a clear indication that diversification is seen as the key to future success.

For instance:

  • B2B and B2C companies are now one in the same.
  • Most brick & mortar casino corporations have online divisions.
  • There are no more standalone online poker rooms, and almost every major operator runs poker, casino, and sports books platforms, and many have added social and DFS products to boot.
  • Furthermore, traditional online gaming now has competition for people’s entertainment time and money.

This last part is very important, and something I’ve talked about in the past.

In 2001 most people were still on dial-up Internet, stealing songs off of Napster, and the word buffering was as commonplace as meme, and made watching anything online an exercise in dedication and patience.

During this period of time, there weren’t any social media sites or apps people could hop on to kill some time, but there were online gambling sites. Online gaming sites were among the first entertainment time sinks the Internet offered – the only real time-sink competition were the cheesy Yahoo games like backgammon or chess.

That’s all changed.

Whether it’s direct competitors like daily fantasy sports (which are slowly being pulled under gaming’s increasingly large umbrella), eSports, skill-based gaming, or social gaming, or if it’s the indirect competitors that offer people an alternative form of entertainment like social media, streaming videos, or even podcasts and music channels, online gaming isn’t the only game in town.

As more and more people are siphoned away from the online poker tables by these alternative forms of online entertainment poker players have to realize poker is going through a fundamental change. Poker players have to realize it’s not the rake, or the VIP rewards that brought people to the tables in the first place or kept them playing poker, and poker players have to realize that as the dynamics of the game change, they have to change along with it, or risk being the new iteration of live limit holdem players in 2003.

Where is online poker headed?

In five or 10 years I can envision the term professional poker player (and certainly professional online poker player) being somewhat passé, and in its place we’ll find professional advantage gamblers. People adept at poker, skill-based games, DFS, and even eSports will look for edges wherever they can find them, with some specializing in a single game like poker or DFS.

The reason this will come about is that the changes sites are implementing are meant (in part) to reduce the amount of money most people (not all) can take out of the online poker economy. The best players will still win and continue on pretty much unaffected, but middling professionals will be hard hit and be winnowed away as they either become losing players or cannot earn enough to make a living anymore now that rake has been raised in their game of choice, and without their previous rewards and perks.

Oddly, the future of poker looks a lot more like the game’s not so distant pre-boom past – fewer players but more profitable games, with a clear demarcation line between the pros and everyone else.

There will also be an emphasis on being adaptable.

There will be less pros, but considering how many people were pulling money out of the poker economy (I’ve heard percentages as high as 30% of online poker players were winners post-rakeback) this may in fact be more right-sizing than anything else, but whatever the reason, poker players need to get out of ahead of this.