After the Michigan football team lost its season-ending game against Ohio State, most students stayed in, deciding not to go out after another disappointing loss to their rivals. Jim Egerer was no different. But unlike most students who opted to stay in for the night, he made nearly $50,000 in the process.
That Saturday night, Egerer, a sophomore in the Ross School of Business, logged onto his computer to partake in his job – playing online poker.
Though he came up short in reaching the $77,464 first prize, his second-place finish in Full Tilt Poker’s FTOPS Event #14 netted him a cool $48,836.
Not a bad day’s work for a 19-year-old.
Egerer rarely plays in tournaments, instead opting for high-limit cash games. But that Saturday, his decision to play the pot-limit Omaha tournament turned out to be a great investment.
“I’ve had some days that rival that, but you’re risking that money at the same time in a cash game. With the tournament, I lay down 500 bucks and come out with $50,000,” Egerer said.
Whether for good or ill, Egerer isn’t alone. After a scare less than two years ago, Internet poker, and poker in general, is experiencing its second boom in less than a decade, on campus and off.
A boom and a barrier
The first boom began four years ago with a man whose last name almost destined him to be a poker ambassador. In 2003, Chris Moneymaker, an amateur playing in his first live big buy-in tournament, won the World Series of Poker’s Main Event.
The storybook ending for the accountant from Tennessee inspired millions. It didn’t hurt that his run through 838 people for $2.5 million was captured by ESPN cameras and was replayed ad nauseum either.
Field sizes, the number of people in each World Series tournament, nearly doubled for three straight years. For some, poker went from a recreational game to a lifestyle. After Moneymaker’s highly publicized victory, no longer was the game reserved for back rooms in the Old West.
Just like so many other would-be poker winners, Moneymaker started online. He won entry to the tournament on PokerStars.com, the site that subsequently sponsored his playing. PokerStars.com, like other similar sites, including PartyPoker.com, held satellite games for its users into the $10,000 buy-in Main Event. With more people flocking to online sites following Moneymaker’s win, the tournament that had fewer than 400 entrants in 1999 had more than 8,000 people putting up $10,000 to play in it in 2005.
By 2006, online poker had become a $3 billion a year industry within the United States. With poker growing exponentially, many thought it would be unstoppable. But as 2006 neared its end, the seemingly invincible phenomenon found its kryptonite: the United States government.
That October, President Bush signed into law the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act. The bill, originally designed to enhance security at U.S. ports, ended up being a poker player’s worst nightmare.
A special provision, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), was attached to the bill. It restricted online gambling sites from performing transactions with American financial institutions. Without means of getting money onto websites, many people turned away from online poker.
Along with sports betting sites, many poker sites, like the extremely popular PartyPoker.com and ParadisePoker.com, closed operations to United States customers when UIEGA was passed.
With those sites closing, many thought UIGEA made Internet poker illegal. The casual player seemingly disappeared from the online poker scene and even fewer people made a successful living strictly playing poker.
Egerer, who began playing professionally when he turned 18, found it much more difficult.
“Last year when UIGEA passed, the games definitely got tougher at the higher levels,” said Egerer, who says he has played about 215,000 hands this year. “There were a lot less recreational players that would build up money and take their shots.”
With less opportunity to make money, online poker enthusiasts knew they had tough times ahead. But maybe more damning was the negative stigma that came along with UIGEA’s passing. Hoards of scared people turned away from the game.
“A lot of people thought (UIGEA) made online poker illegal,” said Brandon Jacobs, who has played professionally since 2004. “In reality, it didn’t, it was just a little more difficult to get money on sites. . Once word got out and people stopped panicking, things have started to go back to normal.”
Oddly enough, the same force that slowed the poker boom is changing the momentum back in a positive direction.
Back on the upswing
Less than a year after taking aim at the online poker industry, a few Washington players are now rallying behind it.
Studies show fewer than 10 percent of individual poker players are long-term winners.
That doesn’t seem like the type of statistic that would be a rallying cry to poker for sympathetic politicians, but the Democrats sponsoring H.R. 2610: Skill Game Protection Act are trying to use just that kind of figure to prove their point.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), looks to exempt games “where success is predominantly determined by the skill of the players involved” from being classified as gambling.
Unlike many forms of gambling, poker allows for an element of skill to greatly influence the play. Even though instances like Moneymaker’s World Series victory show luck plays a key role in poker, those close to the game argue that in the long haul, skill will separate the long-term winners and losers.
Other pro-poker sponsored bills are entering Congress, too. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) have both introduced legislation designed to regulate poker. With support in Washington coming around, poker appears to be back on the upswing.
With people rallying around the game, traffic is beginning to rise again on online sites open to Americans (PokerStars.com routinely tops the 100,000 user mark during its peak hours.)
More tournaments are popping up around the United States, whether they be online or live. But with these opportunities comes temptation.
Many college students who experience success drop out of school to try and maximize the opportunity. Egerer has felt the same temptation, but he knows graduating from college has its benefits.
“Every day it’s hard. I look at going to an hour-and-a-half lecture as ‘Wow, I just missed out on 400 bucks, or whatever the hourly wage would be,’ Egerer said. “But at the same time, there’s no security in online poker like there is in having a degree.”
More problems exist than just a few students dropping out. Even if 10 percent of people win overall, 90 percent of players are losing. And while some could only lose spending money, others might lose a lot more.
With more than 1,000 Gamblers Anonymous groups meeting through the United States, many point to poker as one of the main precursors to gambling problems. Problem gambling is estimated to occur in 1.6 percent of the adult population in the United States.
A recently released study showed that problem gambling has actually gone down since 1999, though, coinciding with the advent of online poker.
Online poker hasn’t just helped a core group of talented players get rich. It’s also aiding economic growth. Look no further than Metro Detroit.
Card rooms at GreekTown Casino and MotorCity Casino have seen a boom in attendance. MotorCity Casino recently made a brand new poker room to accommodate the increase in demand. A third casino, MGM Grand Casino, also welcomes players with its new, state-of-the-art poker room.
Unlike home games, casinos are legally allowed to take a rake of pots. In cash games, the casinos can take up to $6 from each pot. When the casinos hold tournaments, they charge a “seat fee” on top of the entry fee, which goes into the prize pool.
Though a lot of the occupants in these card rooms are part of the “old guard” – the group of poker players who don’t know a computer mouse from a field mouse – more and more of the people playing in card rooms first learn the game online.
The online poker craze is good for brick-and-mortar casinos because it gives people experience they need before playing live and for money. With the intimidation factor gone, more people feel comfortable playing at casinos.
Despite the complimentary nature of live and online poker, the rise of online poker has seemingly cut down on campus poker in general. Although there’s never been a real big poker culture at the University as on some other campuses, campus police rarely deal with gambling – which is prohibited in all University buildings and punishable with a misdemeanor.
“As far as poker at U of M, there are not as many games as I thought there would be. I’m not sure if that’s because of the casinos or what,” said Egerer, who, like a lot of University students, can’t play at Detroit casinos, which require everyone to be at least 21 years old.
Egerer is trying to increase the visibility of poker on campus. He founded the Michigan Poker League last fall. Just one short year later, the MPL mailing list has about 350 people on it, and 30 to 45 people come to the MPL’s weekly games.
Though there’s a difference between live and online poker, the two complement and bring attention to each other.
“I think it’s all a catalyst for each other,” said Egerer at a recent MPL event. “The exposure – it brings more and more people in. These guys bring their friends along and they start coming back.”
Online poker is once again becoming more accessible. Casinos are catering more and more to poker players, both in the Detroit area and around the nation. And groups like the MPL are making the game more visible on a campus that traditionally hasn’t had much of a poker presence.
But where does poker go from here?
Live poker looks to be extremely healthy. Aside from the World Series of Poker itself, which is held in Las Vegas each summer, there’s also a separate World Series of Poker Circuit that goes year round. Combine that with the World Poker Tour (a televised tour with weekly purses in the millions) and the Midwest-based Heartland Poker Tour, and there are plenty of chances to make it big if you play your cards right.
Even with live poker gaining more mainstream acceptance and with the government starting to rally behind online poker, the second online poker boom could be a short-lived one.
Without government regulation, online poker could be a mere afterthought that thrives in the other markets. Because poker sites can’t operate in the United States, most poker-related jobs are outsourced too.
With the success of the newly formed Asia-Pacific Poker Tour, it’s evident that the poker boom has extended beyond the United States. If the government can’t find a way to make both sides happy, it would not only be missing out on millions of dollars it could potentially make from taxes, but it could once again start losing the game that millions of Americans play in some form or another.
To those close to the situation, though, a solution may be on the horizon.
“I think eventually it’s going to be regulated in the U.S.,” Egerer said. “It’s a $3 billion a year industry. How could it not?”