Was Beating Poker In 1997 Harder Than Beating Poker Today?

Steve Ruddock : May 25th, 2016


Daniel Negreanu caused a mini brouhaha (a common occurrence on Kid Poker’s Twitter feed) when he expressed his belief that it was tougher to make money in poker before the poker boom than it is in the modern poker world.

These statements caused quite a divide in the poker community, mainly along generational lines, as modern players scoffed at the notion, pointing the exponential advancements in strategy and the proliferation of training guides as evidence that the modern game is far tougher to beat.

Unfortunately, the difficulty of the games is not what Negreanu was referring to.

Negreanu’s point is there are more opportunities for people to become good enough playing poker that they can make a living from the game now than there were in the past. The games are harder to beat in 2016, but the information detailing how to beat the games is available to anyone who wants it. Furthermore, there are more places to play poker in 2016, and more opportunities to start from nothing and work your way up.

The internet changed everything

Not only can you play poker online and find a ton of solid information on the game’s strategies simply by typing the words “poker+strategy” into Google, but because of the poker boom and the spread of poker:

  • There are more live games in more locales;
  • There are more game types and stakes to choose from;
  • there are strategy sites and people offering coaching;
  • There are hundreds of books that can be downloaded or purchased in seconds.

What Negreanu is saying is if you want to learn the game in 2016 it’s much easier than it was in 1997. In 1997 you had to have a natural affinity for poker and the intelligence to work through the game’s strategies on your own, without any way to truly test your hypotheses. You also had to be loaded with street smarts, as you often had to play in backroom games, and deal with criminals and degenerates.

Another important part of this debate is stakes. In a casino in 1997, the lowest stakes offered were $2/$4 Limit Holdem (there were maybe a handful of No Limit games being played anywhere on the East Coast in 1997), so there wasn’t any opportunity to grind up a bankroll at the microstakes. Not to mention you had to grind 25 excessively-raked hands per hour in the $2/$4 Limit Holdem game – there was no such thing as $100 bankroll in 1997, that was a buy-in.

Even if you were good enough to beat the rake at the $2/$4 table, you had to hope variance was on your side, since most people didn’t start playing poker with a $2,500, or even a $500, bankroll.

I started playing poker in the late 1990’s and even then:

  • Legal, brick & mortar poker could only be found in Connecticut, Atlantic City, Mississippi, Nevada, and California, and the poker rooms were far smaller and more sparsely populated.
  • Online poker was in its infancy. You couldn’t multi-table because the software and computers at the time were terrible compared to today, and the number of games themselves were scarce.
  • Bookstores didn’t carry more than a couple poker books, if any, and they weren’t $10, they were usually about $30 and most were out of print.
  • There were a couple poker forums and some strategy articles at Card Player and PokerPages.com, but by and large it was trial and error.
  • I spent a lot of my time trying to get games together in local social clubs and bars, and keeping those games going.

My own experience

This sounds crazy now, but when I started playing poker I had a binder full of notes on my regular opponents (from live games) that I updated after each session.

I used to do things like deal out 100’s hands of Stud and Texas Holdem just to see what the strength of the typical winning hand was. Or, play all the hands to see where bluffing opportunities were, or how many hands a raise would likely fold out.

I purchased poker books from other forum users, or on backorder from bookstores.

And oddly enough, I sent emails to some young poker player on the RGP forum (he wrote for Card Player too) and he responded time and time again to my questions. That poker player was Daniel Negreanu.

Final thoughts

Negreanu’s point is simple: Before the poker boom a poker player was more or less on their own.

Opportunities to learn and improve were miniscule, and because of this, there were very few professional poker players compared to the thousands upon thousands who derive a living from the game today.

Yes, without question, a modern player going back to 1997 would crush the games, and a top player from 1997 transported to modern times would be eaten alive. But if you compare the combination of dedication, skill and luck needed to make it to the top 1% of the poker world back in 1997 compared to 2016 it’s no contest. It was a much harder feat in 1997.

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