Poker, the Great Survivor

A lot of folks are surprised that the World Series of Poker isn’t doing so badly this year. So far, about one-third of tournament events have had record numbers of participants. Back in April, many thought the Black Friday indictments would translate into a bummer of a summer for Caesars Entertainment’s flagship poker asset, but the tournament—like the game of poker itself—has proved to be quite resilient.

The online poker crackdown, some thought, would immediately hurt the Las Vegas tournament because many players built up their bankrolls playing online before trying their luck in the oldest and biggest poker tournament around. With the three biggest sites denied to U.S. players, a substantial chunk of money was taken out of the equation.

But this isn’t the first setback for poker; in fact, poker’s been a target of those who want to save players from themselves since the game started. In 1843, “reformed gambler” Jonathan Green, who made a nice living for himself denouncing gamblers after defecting from their ranks, published An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling. Under the guise of educating the public about how to avoid cheats, he sold a workable guide for cheating the gullible. On Page 59, in one of the earliest literary references to the game, he introduced his wide-eyed readers to poker:

“This is a game that is immensely destructive,” Green wrote. “The uninitiated need never expect to win anything. … No gambler depends on his luck, but on his skill in cheating.”

With such denunciations when the game was barely out of the cradle, it’s amazing that poker caught on. But it did. Maybe it became so popular precisely because it was so tempting to cheat. After all, anyone can excel at a game in which everyone’s playing on the level, but when you’ve got to chance being cold-decked, bottom-dealt and false-shuffled, you’re really showing your skill at cards. Poker became popular because it’s a sometimes-scary game, not a safe one.

So it’s no surprise that, about 170 years later, few players are looking to Congress or the Justice Department to tell them where to play. The poker sites targeted in the indictment have taken a hit, but players are finding other venues to play, and plenty are still eager to put up the sizable investment to play in WSOP events.

But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that the good WSOP numbers mean a setback for online poker is good for Nevada casinos. Las Vegas is in so much trouble now because when things were good, too many people took too much for granted.

How does this apply to online gaming? Over the past decade, the World Series of Poker and play in Nevada casinos in general have soared along with online poker-playing. While this year’s WSOP numbers might see a bump, ultimately poker needs significant online participation in order to grow. Otherwise, it will find itself back where it was in the late 1990s, when casinos around the country were ripping out their “unprofitable” poker rooms and replacing them with slot machines.

People have always changed their gambling habits to match the latest technological innovations. Whether it’s ground-stone technology making six-sided dice possible in the Neolithic era or the telegraph enabling remote betting on horse races in the 19th century, gambling has always kept pace with the rest of human culture. Online play is a similar such adaptation, and the ingenuity that players have shown in getting around funding bans proves that it’s got appeal.

So we should be cheered by the bounce the World Series of Poker is seeing, but it’s clear that the future of poker lies in online play. If Las Vegas wants to be part of that future, we need to press our legislators to pass laws to enable legal, regulated play in the U.S. Siding with the antis, whether it’s Jonathan Green or anti-online technophobes, is still a sucker bet.