Poker Isn’t Broken; It’s Mildly Sprained

Steve Ruddock : April 14th, 2016


There is a widely held belief within the poker community that something has gone horribly awry in recent years. The narrative is the prosperity of the boom years has been squandered. The players, the industry, the media, and everyone in between simply haven’t held up their end of the bargain, and haven’t done their part to insure the game of poker continues to thrive.

It seems hard to argue with this mindset, considering the distinct falloff poker has suffered through since its boom-era peak, when Nevada’s 100+ poker rooms boasted over 900 tables and were pulling in over $160 million a year. In 2015 the total number of poker rooms in Nevada had fallen to 76; poker tables to under 700; and revenue to $118 million. More importantly, poker revenue has declined in seven of the past eight years, and the lone exception was a mere .5% increase in 2013.

Here’s a look at several key poker metrics from the UNLV Center for Gaming Research that clearly show the drop-off in Nevada poker since 2005:

Year # of Rooms # of Tables Total Revenue % Change YoY
2005 96 701 140,224,000 42.00
2006 106 886 160,929,000 14.77
2007 113 907 167,975,000 4.38
2008 113 913 155,724,000 -7.29
2009 114 905 145,580,000 -6.54
2010 109 920 135,200,000 -7.13
2011 104 872 131,877,000 -2.46
2012 99 809 123,253,000 -6.54
2013 88 774 123,891,000 0.56
2014 79 736 119,904,000 -3.18
2015 76 681 118,023,000 -1.57

The same types of declines (to varying degrees, depending on the market) are also occurring online.

Based on the past 10 or so years, it appears poker is in trouble.

Or is it?

Was it a boom or a bubble?

If you look at the poker boom as the baseline for success than yes, poker is in major trouble, it’s a compound fracture that requires emergency surgery. On the other hand, if you look at the boom as a bubble, an outlier period created by a perfect storm of events, than poker in 2016 looks a whole lot different. Under this lens, poker has a mild sprain that will be cured with a bit of ice and some rest.

Realistically, how wounded the game is largely depends on when you started following the poker industry. If your experience only dates back to 2006 or 2008, poker looks like a lame duck. But if you were around in the late 1990’s, it’s not bad at all. Taking this a step further; if you time travelled a poker player from 1999 to 2016 they would call this period a massive boom, and would be overwhelmed by the interest in the game.

The chart I posted above looks pretty dire, but if we go back a bit further, and if we eliminate the boom years of 2004 through 2011, the numbers tell an entirely different story.

Year # of Rooms # of Tables Total Revenue % Change YoY
1992 92 564 74,701,000 -2.57
1993 89 571 70,814,000 -5.20
1994 93 586 71,667,000 1.20
1995 92 574 66,520,000 -7.18
1996 82 539 64,485,000 -3.06
1997 77 490 61,509,000 -4.61
1998 76 526 58,873,000 -4.29
1999 70 546 63,244,000 7.41
2000 68 473 63,064,000 -0.28
2001 65 475 59,673,000 -5.38
2002 57 386 57,791,000 -3.15
2003 58 383 68,276,000 18.15
2012 99 809 123,253,000 -6.54
2013 88 774 123,891,000 0.56
2014 79 736 119,904,000 -3.18
2015 76 681 118,023,000 -1.57

What the poker community needs to do

I’m of the opinion that everyone in poker needs to reset their expectations. We need to turn over the Etch-a-Sketch and shake it around a bit and start over.

Instead of trying to recreate the boom, poker players and the poker industry should be trying to build on the gains they’ve made over the past 25 years. The game is going strong. Ignoring the boom period, poker is stronger than it has been in any other period in its near-200 year history.

The trend from 1992 – 2015 is clearly one of upward growth.

This isn’t to say another boom period couldn’t occur, it very well could. But problems arise when you try to force it to happen, instead of just letting it happen naturally, as is usually the case with such things.

At some point there will be another convergence of innovation, economic factors, and popular culture that send poker soaring back into the stratosphere. But, it’s impossible to create this environment (otherwise everyone in every industry would do so), what we need to do is be prepared for when it happens, and we do that by making pragmatic improvements where we can, ensuring the game survives to experience another boom.

Basically, instead of trying to invent some magic pill that will allow poker to suddenly go from here to here:

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