Post-Gazette sports reporter Paul Zeise blogs about the world of sports, and Pittsburgh sports in particular, with an assist from Seth Rorabaugh and his Morning Links. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulZeise and Seth @emptynetters.
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The other night I was flipping through the channels and came across the World Series of Poker on ESPN. It was the Main Event from this year and it made me pause to reflect on what has happened to poker in the last nine years since Chris Moneymaker won it in 2003.
That was nine years ago and it – along with a release of the movie Rounders to DVD – changed the world of poker as the game boomed and reached an all-time high in popularity. Suddenly, every Tom, Dick and Harry thought they were Doyle, Ivey and Hellmuth and every game you found was full and robust and action was really good.
And those were the days before the casino boom across the country so the games were mostly all home games held in the back room of restraints, hotel conference rooms, vacant store fronts – anywhere someone had enough room to host multiple tables and of course, since those games were technically not legal, anywhere they could be held off the beat and path and out of the authorities mind.
I’d say that the boom – especially with regards to Texas Hold ‘em and tournament play - really was about 2005 or 2006 and in those days, you could show up at one of these games and there’d be five, six tables full of a variety of games and if you went to one of the casinos scattered throughout you could find 25 or 30 tables going and long waiting lists to sit.
It seemed like poker was going to thrive and become one of the most popular past times but a funny thing happened – the poker boom slowly but surely has turned into a poker bust.
Maybe bust is a little strong as there are still plenty of people who play poker and the game is still relatively healthy but people don’t watch it nearly as much as they did, people don’t talk about it as much as they did and thus they don't play it as much as they did and you have to search long and hard to find good games and action and frankly, the games are much tougher to beat now than they used to be.
So what has happened?
Well, in my opinion and in talking with some of the guys who are among the strongest and most consistent players I’ve gotten to know over the years, there are a lot of factors and if you want to beat the games now, you have to do things a lot differently than even five or six years ago.
Here is what I have observed as a guy who loves to play poker. I just love the game, the competition, the psychology of it, the strategy of it and the mystery of each hand. It is a hobby of mine and people who don’t play it seriously don’t understand – if you play it right you aren’t gambling and you have a chance to win. It is not the same as blackjack or any of those table games – those games you are playing against the house and have no chance in the long run to win as they are all set up with a large edge to the casino.
But poker is a strategy game and yes, there is a luck involved, but in the long run it is about playing the right cards the right way and beating your opponents, who all have the same chance to win as you do. And for guys who are competitive, it is the ultimate way to quench that need to compete as every hand is a battle. That’s what I love about it, even when cards don’t fall your way.
Anyway, perhaps some of you poker players out there have some feedback or some other ideas as to what has happened to poker and how the game has changed….
1.) The fish and “I watched poker on TV and want to take my shot at it now” players have all either gone broke, got tired of losing, figured out it wasn’t as easy as it looks on TV and quit or lost their interest as it was a fad. That’s a bad development because it means there isn’t as much dead money out there and there are far more players capable of taking advantage of it. In other words – the supply of dead money is way down, the demand for it is way up. Oh, there are still bad and clueless players and newbies but not nearly as many as there used to be.
I can remember sitting down at tables five or six years ago and quickly realizing six or seven guys sitting there had no idea what they were doing and better yet – they thought they did. Those days are gone. Now, you may get one of those guys or two perhaps but for the most part everyone you sit with knows or has some idea what they are doing. In those games you didn’t even have to be lucky to win, the cards didn’t even matter. Those days are no longer.
And the dead money now comes mostly in this form – these loose action maniacs that call every bet, make gorilla raises for no reason and chase every flush or the ultra-tight player who isn’t looking to gamble but he likes to play cards and is looking for a few hours away from the wife and or his life.
The difference is – both of these types of players, in general, have lots of money and thus they are hard to beat in a no limit game where stack sizes and pocket sizes matter.
The first group – loose action nutjobs --- are just hard core gamblers and thus they can turn your lights out quickly when they are hot and you can’t really play poker against them because they are going to call you down regardless of what you have.
So now, you just have to be patient and wait until you have strong hands – and those hands withstand the chasing efforts of the loose action wacko. In general, this guy is good for the game as he puts a lot of money into the tables and someone is bound to get it but he can also clean out five or six guys in the process. I saw one guy a few months ago go on a hot streak and send about seven or eight players, most of them good players, walking out the door talking to themselves.
Of course, I also watched a new group join the game and they took the loose action guys stack from him as his luck ran out yet he still fired away on just about every turn of the cards.
The second group – the ultra tight recreational player – is tough to beat because he isn’t going to put his money in the pot unless he has a very strong hand and he isn’t likely to throw money away by chasing hands and chasing cards. And if he is calling you on the river, most likely, he has a monster hand and you are beat. This guy usually doesn’t book big wins but he doesn’t take big losses either.
2.) The economy has sunk and people don’t have nearly as much disposable income to play poker (or golf, or go to movies, or dinner…..) as they used to. And while Barack Obama talked a lot about bringing the economy out of a funk when he was first elected, it has actually gotten worse on his watch and as a result there are even less people out and about – much less playing poker and risking losing. Times are hard everywhere and if you talk to casino managers they are all feeling the crunch. People simply don’t have money to play with and thus they don’t.
3.) There are too many casinos now and the play has become diluted. I can remember going to Turning Stone and finding a full room with full waiting lists on a typical Friday or Saturday and a variety of games spread. It was an action junkie’s heaven, that poker room, but now, it is dead. The last few times I have been there you couldn’t find much more than the standard 1-2 no-limit game (it is either 1-2 or 1-3 in most places).
Same can be said for Foxwoods, though you can still find some good action there as well as the Borgata. Those were generally considered the three best poker rooms on the East Coast and while the Borgata and Foxwoods are still pretty good – though not nearly what they once were -- Turning Stone is not.
The reason is simple – Turning Stone used to be the only game in town. Now, if you live in Buffalo or any part of Eastern New York – why drive there when you can go to any number of closer casinos. Same thing happened here – Wheeling Island and Mountaineer Casino used to be rocking when they first opened. Now, there are casinos in Pittsburgh, Erie, Cleveland, Cincinnati and the Meadows – why exactly would anyone drive to Mountaineer to play (it is hard to get to) or Wheeling - all of the action is in either Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or Cleveland.
And of course, the casino opening in Cincinnati – and I believe Columbus is either open or will be – will likely destroy the Hollywood casino and other riverboats in Lawrenceburg, Indiana because, why drive there when you can stay in the big city and play?
Foxwoods used to be the only poker game in town – then the Mohegan Sun opened a poker room ten miles away --- and the Borgata now has competition from casinos in Philadelphia.
Heck, when Rivers Casino first opened its poker room a few years ago you couldn’t sit down and there were games of all shapes and sizes being spread. Now, there are times when I may stop over there looking to play for a few hours and have to leave because there isn’t anything going on and during the week, the games actually sometimes break up all together for a few hours until the morning crowd comes in.
This outbreak of casinos – politicians are all trying to jump on the gravy train but they, not surprisingly, have no understanding of the business – has watered down the poker games because there are too many options for players now. I predict that not only will some poker rooms will begin to close as casino managers look for ways to cut costs, you will start to see some of these casinos go bankrupt because there just aren’t enough players and gamblers – especially in this economy – around any more.
In fact, in talking to some poker room managers it has already begun to happen.
4.) The fad is over and it is no longer “cool” to watch or play poker much less talk about it. Like I said, when it reached its height in popularity, everybody watched poker and everybody could talk about the episodes of the World Series of Poker because they were must see TV. People who didn’t even play could tell you about guys like Doyle Brunson, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, Chris Moneymaker – etc., etc. because people watched it all the time. Now, it is background noise, especially since there are far too many different poker events televised these days. I mean, you can turn on the TV and see a tournament that features a bunch of jamokes you never heard of playing a format that is hard to follow. It just isn’t really that interesting any more and frankly, the less people who watch it means the less people who will want to play it. And more importantly, that has meant less new blood and younger guys seem to be playing these days and that’s bad for the growth of any industry or sport. You need new players to continue to discover the game but now that poker is no longer cool, well, they are finding other things to do. Poker as a fad has certainly faded, that much is clear.
I will say this – if there is one good development with all of this it is that because so many of the “fad” or “I watched it on TV” crowd has gone, there are far less incarnations of “Poker Guy” at the tables and the games are far more peaceful and enjoyable.
Poker Guy – to borrow a bit from Jim Rome (who has done bits on Golf Guy, Softball Guy, NCAA Bracket Guy, Likes to Fight Guy, Gym Guy, Fantasy Football Guy – Go find them on Youtube, they are hilarious because we all know these guys from our own lives) –is the lame who rolls in and sits down wearing his I-Pod and sporting sun glasses and acting as if there are television cameras on so everything he does is exaggerated, as if he is under the spotlight of a camera. He takes unusually long to make his decisions, even easy ones and he acts as if he knows what everyone is playing. And every time he loses, of course, he got unlucky because he had a read on the entire table. These guys are usually easy pickings because they THINK they are very good but they have no clue.
But they make games really painful to play because they feel the need to go Norman Chad on us and comment on every single hand and every single play and they want to scold people for playing their cards wrong or making calls they believe were inferior.
Poker Guy also is the guy who knows all the poker lingo and odds (look, you better know the odds, but these guys want to TELL YOU they know the odds) – “I had the nuts” “I bet you flopped the nut straight but I’m still getting the odds to call here” or “I got top, top” and they act like their check raise, which you could see coming a mile away, is some sort of grand play.
Poker Guy also comes in the “Angry Guy” variety and that is the guy who swears, throws cards, berates players and dealers every single time he loses a hand. He also berates other players for making what he thinks are bad plays “dude, how do you make that call?” and swears he could win the WSOP if only he could put together $10,000 to get in it. He also believes the only difference between Phil Ivey and him is that Phil Ivey is luckier.
Like I said, although Poker Guy still exists in just about every card room I’ve ever been in, he is becoming far more extinct and mostly because people don’t watch it on TV as much and thus it is no longer cool or hip to act in this manner.
Anyway, I know this is off the beat and path a little bit but the game of poker is one of my true passions and I love to play it – though I don’t have nearly as much time or money to play it as I used to – but as I stopped on it the other night on TV I began to think about how the game has changed since Chris Moneymaker’s win and the main reasons for those changes.
My favorite "Poker Guy" story stems from a trip to the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa - back when Florida's laws prohibited anyone from making a bet of more than $2. So the games at the time were either 1-1 or 1-2 LIMIT (in other words, you could sit down with $40 and if you just used your brain a little bit could play all night and never go broke) and I was sitting at a 1-2 game and there were a bunch of drunk, obnoxious -- though in a funny way -- guys from Chicago who were having a bachelor party and a good time sitting at my table. There was also "Poker Guy" who had the sun glasses, the Full Tilt gear, the overcoat even and of course, the I-Pod or whatever the hell it is that kids listen to music on. So dude is acting like every decision is for the $5 million prize at the WSOP and it is irritating everyone because he is, of course, analyzing every hand and every play. And of course, drunk party guys are getting louder and drunker and having fun and making fun of him and throwing money away chasing cards and trying to bad beat each other - and everyone is laughing EXCEPT Poker Guy, who is too serious for this.
Well then it happened - Poker Guy looks at the drunks and says "hey, you mind keeping it down, you mind not being so loud and being more serious? This is my life, this is how I make money, this isn't just a game to me....."
First off, you don't try and reason with drunks who are feeling good and laughing, but second off, you especially don't go the "self-important and on soap box" route.
As you might imagine, the drunks all laughed at him and one even said "you play $2 poker for a living? What are you a homeless guy or something?" Of course, they all laughed and started making fun of dude and the rest of us at the table all got a kick out of it as wel.
And from that point on, every time Poker Guy bet EVERYBODY called and the entire focus of the game became "let's beat this moron" and we did. He couldn't make a raise, a bet or a bluff without every person chasing him down and since he could only bet $2 a card, he had no prayer of chasing anyone who had any chance of making a hand against him out of any pot.
From there it was just a matter of time and I'd estimate in about 30 minutes dude lost all of his money and got up with his tail between his legs to the cheers of the drunk crowd who taunted him the entire way out of the room. "Hey, dude you just lost your mortgage in that 100 bucks...."
One of my favorite sessions ever. I think I bought in for $100 and cashed out for $110 but the opportunity to see an obnoxious Poker Guy get humbled was priceless.
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