Poker is a funny old game. Incredibly simple at its very foundation, years of variations, renaissances, flirtation with fashions and liability to trend have turned transformed it from a simple pastime into a worldwide phenomenon that everyone has either heard of, or played at least once in their life.
The beauty with poker is that you don’t need a great deal to play it. A deck of cards, something to use as blinds, and tokens, cash or chips to bet with are all that’s needed to create an exciting games of cards on any flat(ish) surface. So how on earth did something so simple become a multi-billion dollar global industry
The day poker became cool
Back in the early 1900s, poker was still very much the frontier game played by rugged outdoor types rather than wannabe millionaires in casinos and online. The real step towards stardom came when poker was transported into the big cities of America, notably along the Mississippi and Chicago. Before long, poker was being played in music halls, prohibition bars and locations associated with vice. It was a game of ruin or fortune, played by the same ‘nothing lose’ types that were playing it on the frontier. Then, Las Vegas happened.
Poker was suddenly the coolest card game in the world. The gangsters and hedonists who were fleeing the LA police were playing poker in the hotels and bars of the desert, giving rise to the idea that Las Vegas could become a Mecca for gamblers. Popularity kept growing until poker was truly mainstream, with organised tournaments eventually popping up after the milestone World Series of Poker was held in 1970.
Tournament play became one of the cornerstone of modern poker, where this basic game that was grown and developed by manual workers in the middle of nowhere began to be analysed and mastered. Players were using mathematics, psychology, techniques and of course cheating to try and win.
Before long, poker was taken even further into the public domain thanks to the Indian Gaming Regulatory act, which brought casinos closer to residential areas and cities thanks to their construction on native land, which was deemed outside of governmental jurisdiction. Poker’s popularity began spreading by word of mouth, then by live spectators, then the big one, televised poker.
Poker over the airwaves
The hole card camera changed poker completely, turning it into a spectator sport
Televised poker began life in the US in the late 1970s and 1980s, but the coverage was basic, with no real insight into players’ hands and play-by-play live broadcasting. Summar shows were the only real staple until 1997, when a game-changing invention came along – the hole cam. This allowed the audience to see a players hidden cards, and therefore be able to see from the player’s perspective what was needed to win.
This was the turning point where poker went from tournament pastime, to spectator sport. Late Night Poker on TV stations around the world boomed by the turn of the millennium, but that was only a tiny contributor to poker’s astronomical rise to popularity by the start of the noughties.
The world’s first online poker game took place in 1998, when Planet Poker became the first online casino to deal a real-money game of poker to paying customers. The online poker market (and therefore the entire online gaming industry once roulette and other table games were added to the offering) suddenly exploded, going from a global market worth of $0 in 1998 to one worth $55 billion in 2019. This astronomical growth has helped poker to leave the stuffy tournament halls and kitchen tables, and to become a console, app or PC game that can be accessed by anyone in a country where gambling is legal and the internet is available.
Despite this thundering growth, poker viewership has receded somewhat since the turn of the century. Whether down to ever-changing trends and market factors, or because people generally have less time to stay up late and watch poker, not as many people tune into televised poker as they did 20 years ago. Which is where Twitch comes in.
Twitchy poker players
Twitch is an incredible concept. Video games have come on a similar path to online gambling, growing exponentially over the last three decades or so, to the point where people around the world are spending almost $100 billion a year on them. Twitch was designed to cash in on the ubiquitous desire to watch other people play video games, with broadcasters sharing their opinion, playing a bit differently, or creating a genuine online community where fans of a particular game can hang out and talk about it.
So why on earth wouldn’t this work for poker? Well, it does! Twitch is now packed with poker players and broadcasters who film themselves playing online poker, generally chatting about their game, showing off when they win, or just sitting in silence placing bets as the camera rolls. Just like televised poker in the 1990s, people now have a much better insight into poker players’ lives, albeit with a webcam pointed at a computer screen rather than a TV camera pointed at someone in a gigantic cowboy hat and shades. And this this where Twitch is really changing poker.
Televised poker back in the day was jammed with entertaining players. From brats like Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow to superstars like Dan Negreanu and Phil Ivey.
Dutchman Lex Veldhuis or “LexVeldhuis” as he’s known online are the new breed of poker star, broadcasting themselves to the world via twitch rather than on Channel 5 at 11pm on a Tuesday
Now, the stars of poker are the bedroom players, or the professionals who have given up work to play poker all day; Twitch allows the everyman to be a Tom Dwan or Jennifer Harman, broadcasting their personality to whoever will watch and getting cash in return (Twitch does allow decent poker broadcasters to make a living.
The future of poker based on developments like Twitch is 100% online. As the technology gets better, more people are able to get a better experience than they would at the casino. They can watch Twitch stars to get tips on how to play, before simply logging on and playing, rather than taking a trip to the casino.
And to end on a sad-ish not, this is the fate of poker. Casinos are expensive and less popular than ever before, and getting to real-life poker tournaments is time consuming and often expensive. Why on earth would anyone want to leave the house when they can make more money tapping a tablet or phone screen? The guys who still make paper decks of cards need to be worred…