For 35 of the first 36 years of its existence, the World Series of Poker Main Event — the $10,000 buy-in tournament considered the annual unofficial poker world championship — set a new record for entries.
In none of the next 16 years did the Main Event attract a record field size.
But in 2023, finally, that streak ended. The all-time high established in 2006 was exceeded.
And not by a little bit. The record of 8,773 players that stood for 16 years is now second on the list by a margin of 1,370.
The number achieved this summer, 10,043 players, marks a 14.5% increase over the previous record, a 15.9% increase over the 2022 tournament, and a 17.2% increase over the last pre-pandemic Main Event.
The man who claimed the bracelet on Monday after two weeks of play, 35-year-old Daniel Weinman of Atlanta, pocketed a Main Event record $12.1 million.
Poker is huge again. Maybe it’s not as mainstream as it was about two decades ago. Maybe it’s not as “cool” as it was then. Maybe it’s not growing as exponentially — “booming,” you might say — as once was the case.
But purely quantitatively, poker has never been bigger. Which begs the simplest of questions: Why?
A series of fits and starts
Before we address that question, let’s pause to explain 16 years of “why not.”
The years 2003-2006 saw poker’s popularity explode and the Main Event field size increase more than tenfold, from 839 to 8,773, in just three years. But in September ’06, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act drove many online poker sites from the U.S. market, limiting the opportunity to qualify for a WSOP seat via online satellite.
Just when the numbers were climbing again, from 6,494 in 2009 to 7,319 in 2010, Black Friday shut down the remaining iPoker sites serving U.S. players and again caused the Main Event entry numbers to stagnate.
In 2019, the second-largest Main Event field to that point, 8,569 strong, assembled in Las Vegas, the health of the game apparently rebuilt to pre-UIGEA levels, with the record ready to fall. Then COVID-19 happened.
If not for UIGEA, Black Friday, or a once-in-a-century pandemic, a new record would undoubtedly have been established earlier than 2023. So to an extent, this was an inevitability delayed by government intervention and other external forces.
“If we didn’t have the UIGEA and all that bulls***, the record would have been broken in 2007 and then every year after that,” 2006 champ Jamie Gold, who made Day 4 and cashed this year, told US Bets shortly after presenting the bracelet to Weinman on Monday. “I’ve been excited for the record to break ever since I won. I’m so glad it finally happened.”
As for what moved the turnstiles not just past 8,773 but all the way beyond 10,000 in 2023, it appears to owe to a convergence of five significant factors.
1. Satellites and marketing
After coming just 110 players shy of breaking the record in 2022, WSOP organizers made a concerted effort to make 2023 a historic year with a series of qualifying events they called “Main Event Mania.” International online site GGPoker guaranteed at least 600 satellite entries, at least another 112 seats were assured via U.S. online qualifiers at WSOP.com, and poker rooms both domestically and abroad hosted coordinated in-person qualifying tournaments the weekend of May 20-21.
There was also the creative “Main Event for Life” promotion, whereby if the record fell, the WSOP would hold a drawing awarding one lucky player an automatic buy-in for each of the next 30 years.
“Even if you ultimately only have a one-in-10,000 shot, and it’s essentially a lottery ticket, that kind of thing still gets people excited,” observed veteran poker journalist Donnie Peters, a co-host of the PokerGO Podcast and the senior public relations and communications manager for the WSOP’s streaming broadcast partner, PokerGO.
Peters also noted a key 2023 scheduling decision by the WSOP that appears to have paid off.
“I think moving their mystery bounty tournament up to the front of the summer, that really starts creating the FOMO for a lot of people,” Peters said. “The World Series is seven weeks long. So if you start building that fear of missing out on something this huge very early in the summer, then it’s only going to grow as you get closer to the Main Event.”
2. Streamers, vloggers, etc.
In the early 2000s, poker found a new, younger audience through a snowballing combination of the popularity of the movie Rounders, the newly introduced online poker, and TV coverage of the game with hole-card cameras on ESPN and countless other channels.
Some 20 years on, a different medium has brought poker to fresh-faced potential players. On YouTube, Twitch, and beyond, streamers and vloggers are attracting eyeballs and getting brains churning by talking through their thought processes in real time and analyzing controversial hands that go viral.
Poker pro Doug Polk, for example, has 395,000 YouTube subscribers. If just one tenth of one percent of them find their way to Vegas to play in the Main Event, that adds 44 starting tables to the field.
“The YouTube scene, the vlogger scene, that plays a huge role in poker being able to reach new people,” Peters said. “It all ties in as part of the general marketing umbrella.”
3. Pandemic and post-pandemic behavior
In the spring of 2020, all of humanity was challenged to find entertainment without leaving the house. Online poker — whether via regulated sites, offshore operators, or “social” casino games — found a whole new audience and appealed anew to countless former enthusiasts who had drifted away.
That feeds, both directly and indirectly, into the WSOP Main Event.
“It’s not just the formal satellite system,” Gold said. “Someone can play online for $50 or $100 and they can turn that into $1,000, and they can turn that $1,000 into $10,000, and that can then buy them into the Main Event. The opportunity to participate online is huge, and a lot of people were doing that when they were in lockdown.”
Emerging from the pandemic, there’s now a double-pronged effect driving traffic to live poker rooms and tournaments: Those who missed out on months or even a couple of years of socializing can recover some of that at a tournament table at the Horseshoe or Paris Las Vegas, and living through COVID changed plenty of folks’ attitude toward making every moment count.
“I think the pandemic taught a lot of people, myself included, that you’re only going to be here for so long, so start doing the things that you really love,” Peters said. “Life is short. As much as people can tell you that over and over again, it doesn’t hit home until it really hits home. So, you see people traveling a lot, you see people getting back out there, and they’re just like, ‘You know what? Let’s just YOLO it like we got some money.’”
In 2020, there was no in-person Main Event. In 2021, masks, vaccine requirements, and travel restrictions limited WSOP attendance. In 2022, things were closer to “normal” but not quite all the way there. This summer was the first truly post-pandemic WSOP, and that goosed the numbers.
4. Financial factors
How’s the economy these days? The answer depends on whom you ask and, in many cases, on whose political agenda they’re pushing.
But one thing is undeniable: $10,000 isn’t as intimidating an amount of money as it was 20 years ago — never mind 50 years ago. Yes, that’s right, the Main Event buy-in has stayed the same since 1972.
Bust out your inflation calculator and you’ll see that $10,000 in ’72 is equal to $73,000 today. A $73,000 buy-in poker tournament in 2023 couldn’t come close to attracting 10,043 players; the $50,000 “High Roller” event at this year’s WSOP pulled in 176 entries, and the $100,000 tournament drew 93.
More pertinently, going back to 2003 and the start of the poker boom, $10,000 then would be $16,600 now, and $10,000 now would have been about $6,000 then.
Bottom line: The Main Event becomes a little more of an “everyman” tournament each year that the buy-in remains $10,000.
On top of that, the teens and twentysomethings who got swept up in the poker boom and were either too young or too poor to play back then are now in their 30s and 40s and, perhaps for the first time in their lives, hitting that point where they have disposable income. It overlaps somewhat with Peters’ “YOLO” point, but financially, the time is suddenly right for a lot of recreational poker players to take their shot.
Also, this one can go in both directions, but poker players and cryptocurrency investors have long been a Venn diagram with substantial overlap, and surely some folks in that subset are finding themselves in a position to toss out $10K without batting an eye.
5. General gambling legalization
Online poker legalization in the U.S. is not growing at the rate many had hoped for when it first became possible for states to regulate it in 2013. That year, Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware welcomed iPoker sites. In the decade since, only Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia have joined them.
Sports betting, on the other hand, has been expanding rapidly from the word “go” in 2018. And anything that gets people gambling has the potential to bleed into interest in another partial skill game like poker.
As certain stigmas are lifted from one form of gambling, all gambling verticals can benefit.
“I think just like cannabis, just like sports betting, these things that are considered vices — even though this is a game of skill — as legalization spreads, it really helps it grow and reach new generations of people,” Gold said. “Poker never stopped being popular, but now it’s really primed to have a natural progression and growth.”
A skill game, but …
Part of what has always drawn people to the WSOP Main Event is the reality that anyone can win if the cards break their way. Some players need more help from the poker gods than others, of course, but in the end, it’s possible for an average player to win poker’s world championship, whereas it’s not possible for a recreational-level tennis player to topple Carlos Alcaraz at Wimbledon.
Even the new champ, Daniel Weinman, will admit sometimes you need a little luck on your way to $12.1 million:
More than 10,000 people descended upon Vegas this month hoping they’d be in the right place at the right time to hit the right card. And every time someone spikes a miracle card on his way to an eight-figure payday, a new wave of dreamers is born.
Photo courtesy of Caesars Entertainment/PokerNews