For many, many years, the game of poker was “cool”—it had a high-flying, wheelin’-dealin’, almost romantic “boom or bust” mystique that separated it from other gambling pastimes. It was a form of slick Americana, the game of choice for the John Waynes, Paul Newmans and Steve McQueens of the world.
Kids played for pots of bubblegum on the sidewalk and neighbors prepared various dips and casseroles in time for basement get-togethers. Its vernacular became part of the lexicon, because God knows it helps to keep a poker face when going all-in, especially when the chips are down.
However, as gaming expanded and other offerings like slots, blackjack and sports betting became real needle-movers, poker lost a little of its luster and became less of a staple and more of a complementary option. Its player base stopped evolving and started getting older, some might even say stagnant, and it’s easy to understand why—the game, as cool as it may be, has an extremely high barrier to entry; as Kenny Rogers made famous, you’ve got to know a lot of things to be an effective poker player.
The game has many endearing qualities, but accessibility has never been one of them.
Then the dot-com boom of the early 2000s came along, and all of a sudden the game was completely reinvigorated with digital life, and anyone with a desktop could run hands all day and night and master the game without going through the school of hard knocks that was previously considered to be part of the process.
The birth of televised tournaments with green-screened cards spawned a newer, younger generation of data-driven players who were more akin to Silicon Valley than Tin Pan Alley. It seemed as though the spark was enough to rekindle a new, brighter future for poker.
Sadly, it wasn’t. Participation and interest gradually re-fizzled over the years, until eventually the Covid hurricane came through in March 2020 and swept the entire industry basically out to sea. A large number of casinos had already begun to scale down their poker ops before the crisis, and numerous rooms around the country have since closed for good.
With all of that said, what is the state of the game in 2022? As with everything else, it depends on who you ask.
Steady as She Goes
When it comes to gaming trends, the simplest answers often come from regional operators, as those with locally focused markets need to be calculated and decisive about their expenditures.
For Jerry Sandau, director of poker operations at Agua Caliente Casinos in California, the game certainly isn’t dead, but its future prospects in terms of evolution and growth aren’t exactly gangbusters. Sandau is confident that “there’s still a place for poker in most casinos,” given the fact that the game has “always been a facilitator for the rest of the property, whether it’s table games, slots or whatnot.
“That being said though, the state of poker, I think, is pretty obviously in a downfall over these last several years,” he says. “It really curtails more towards the older generation, I guess you could say that they’re the ones that draw to poker the most. Although the younger crowd who play tournaments are out there, in general, it’s more the older clientele that would play a lot of poker.
“And as we know, little by little as time goes on, many of them are, you know, slowly but surely passing away. And so we’re seeing the volumes, at least here in Southern California, decrease exponentially over these last several years.”
The data would agree with that sentiment, even across the border in Nevada, the gambling mecca of the U.S.—-according to Statista, the number of casino poker tables in the Silver State increased every year from 2001 to 2010, peaking at 920 that year. That figure then steadily declined until 2020, where it bottomed out at 313. Before anyone starts shoveling dirt, however, it’s important to note that 2021 rebounded to a total of 440, which is actually on par with pre-internet levels.
And in a certain sense, pre-internet expectations may be a good framework for analyzing the game’s present and future: the dot-com boom was certainly a gold rush, but it’s over now, and that’s OK. After all, people still live in Virginia City.
Edna Dalton worked as a poker executive in the ’90s and early 2000s, and for her, the game is people-driven, and the strength of the industry will always depend on positive experiences. As one of the few people who was around before and after the online revolution, she remains confident that “as long as casinos are willing to treat the players decently and respectfully, with decent payouts and time elements, they’ll continue to come.”
Dalton previously headed poker ops for both Planet Hollywood and The Venetian, where she got a chance to learn firsthand from some of gaming’s most successful and well-known figures. Perhaps the biggest thing they imparted on her, which Sandau echoes as well, was the Field of Dreams-esque mantra that if you build it, they will come. In other words, the high-risk, high-reward mindset of the game attracts some pretty high rollers, whose rising tides lift all of a casino’s boats—as she says, “action creates action.”
She also had the unique experience of traveling overseas to help improve poker operations in casinos across Europe—Holland Casino in Amsterdam, one of the sites she mentored, is slated to celebrate its 30th anniversary for the game this year.
This not only helps spread poker’s influence around the world, it also makes foreign players more comfortable “so they’re not as afraid to go and play” here in America, says Dalton. That said, most legal online poker is hosted abroad, and convenience gaming often wins out over in-person play. But overall, increasing the number of players worldwide is never a bad thing for an industry in the midst of a plateau of sorts.
So, as the identity of the game continues to transition from superstar to sixth man, that means the industry has to hone in on the things it does well and emphasize them to the fullest extent to keep pace and stay relevant. That may be difficult for other, more singular games, but poker has always had a unique ace in the hole: tournament play.
Strength in Numbers
It would be difficult to talk about the importance of tournament play to the poker industry without starting with the World Series of Poker (WSOP). The brand, thanks in large part to decades of ESPN-televised tournaments that brought the game to innumerable bars and living rooms, is easily the biggest and most recognizable in poker, and now it’s doing its part to guide the industry forward, especially for live play.
Ty Stewart, senior vice president and executive director of the WSOP, fully acknowledges that “as an industry, poker may not seem as ‘buzzy’ as it was in the early 2000s when everyone was discovering the game,” but overall, the game “has now settled into a more mature life cycle, and at the World Series of Poker, we’re embracing the days ahead.
“In terms of driving business to our live rooms across the country, the WSOP always provides a seasonal, but material lift to the Caesars’ system and the entire city of Las Vegas,” says Stewart.
“We’re excited to open more WSOP-branded poker rooms this year and would expect the numbers to continue to climb from a participation perspective at our rooms across the country… Poker rooms in Las Vegas were at an all-time high before ‘Black Friday’ and the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act. I believe that live poker will go the way of online poker, as they’re both linked to interest in the game. Our customers deserve the convenience of playing at home, but online poker will never replicate the experience of sitting down in a live poker room.”
One of the most important aspects of maintaining and growing the game is to make it accessible to smaller, regional markets—Stewart notes that the WSOP is working on several new projects around the country, including “exciting new WSOP poker rooms at Indiana Grand and Isle Casino Pompano,” as well as Harrah’s New Orleans and the Grand Vic in Chicagoland.
According to Sandau, Agua Caliente’s three locations in Rancho Mirage, Palm Springs and Cathedral City “still get a decent tournament draw, and there are players who want to play just tournament play only.”
He says the tournament demographic is “just a different animal” than casual players, in the sense that most tournament players are very businesslike when it comes to their bankroll and time, and it’s best to let them be rather than push them too far and risk losing them altogether.
As opposed to other, simpler games like blackjack, poker players are often very particular about what they like and dislike, and as Dalton says, “you have to understand these players—don’t try to fight their fickleness, just try to understand it.”
Of course, that’s not to say that bigger markets can’t play their part, too. MGM has also emerged as one of the game’s biggest proponents in recent years, and Sean McCormack, director of poker operations at Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, is excited for the future of the game, especially with regards to the expansion of BetMGM-sponsored events.
“We just concluded our first of many BetMGM/Aria poker tournaments,” says McCormack. “BetMGM ran qualifiers on its site with the opportunity to win a travel and lodging package, inclusive of buy-in ($3,500), for our million-dollar guaranteed prize pool event. I’ve been in the business 20 years and usually know a number of players at these buy-in levels. It was refreshing to see new qualifiers for this event while giving us the chance to cultivate online and live action.”
McCormack says the event hosted over 300 players, and overall, “feedback was extremely positive, and I see a lot of opportunities for growth not only at Aria but our sister properties as well.”
Twenty years ago, a large percentage of players engaged in both live play and tournaments, but as time went on, the two factions slowly separated, and it’s important to keep both alive in order to cater to all types of players.
“In the early 2000s,” McCormack says, “the player bases were very integrated between cash and tournament players; today, most are in one camp or the other, although we do still see some crossover.” In some ways, the gradual decline in poker rooms overall throughout the city has been good for those who have managed to hold on thus far, and he believes that “having fewer rooms has now strengthened business for the remaining rooms who, more recently, are seeing record turnouts.
“I believe we will continue to see growth in the rooms that are currently open, by adding tables, events and staffing over the next 12-18 months.” Everything about the game lends itself to patience, both for players and operators.
Going the Extra Mile
As gaming becomes more accessible around the country seemingly by the day, player retention becomes a top priority, especially for poker. That means operators have to find ways to include the game in their ever-expanding suite of promotions and player rewards, because players, despite how fickle they may be, will always gravitate toward the best incentives—they want to know that they have a seat at the table alongside slot players, crap shooters and sports bettors alike.
“A lot of players who come to play in my room, they like the promotional aspect of playing a live game,” says Sandau. “So on any given day, there are different hands that they can make to make progressive payouts and promotional payouts… They want the promotional draws, and our players do gravitate to when we offer promotions, which we do most all the time. That’s a draw that brings them in the building.”
Conversely, big-name operators have the benefit of seamless integration into their existing rewards systems, which have been around for years and often encompass properties around the world, not just singular locations. Stewart notes that “every participant in the World Series of Poker gets the same Caesars Rewards as they would for any other activity at Caesars resorts,” which is extremely convenient, and ultimately leads to better acquisition and retention rates.
On the MGM side, “Aria is no different,” with “comps for rated play per hour, special hotel rates, tier upgrades after a certain time played, and more,” according to McCormack. The MGM Rewards program is also extremely robust and longstanding. “We offer our MGM Rewards members opportunities to enjoy our casual dining outlets as well as special hotel rates,” he adds.
By and large, the ebb and flow of the game of poker seems to have settled into a somewhat comfortable place, neither record-breaking nor catatonic. For a while, it looked as if it had reached a point of no return, but slowly and steadily it made its way back to shore. The fact that companies continue to find new ways to invest in the game is extremely encouraging, even if it never returns to its previous levels of relevance and popularity.
Overall, it’s played the hands that have been dealt, and it’s not folding anytime soon.