He flips over Aces, and the crowd goes wild…

A game of skill or chance? The talk of the US government reversing their decision which effectively banned online poker for their citizens has brought the question back to the fore. Sod games of chance, the way poker is going, it’s turning into a full on sport.

I came to this conclusion when I was giving a talk to a group of non-poker players about how it is possible to make money from the game. I couldn’t have made it any simpler for them. Believe me, I broke it down; I mean broke it right down. We’re talking coin flips and dice rolls, good bets versus bad bets, the whole schmir. Maybe my speaking skills are in question, but I don’t think so. The truth is that when you talk about odds to a bunch of non-mathematical people, they run like the fleeing hordes in a Fifties B-movie.

I felt rather sad. Not at my failures as a teacher, but that I was standing in a room full of the poker opponents of yesteryear. There was a time when even quite high stakes tables were populated with players who had this view of maths. People who liked action but wouldn’t know their odds from their elbow. When that struck me I confess I became quite jealous, almost angry; why couldn’t I have been around to clean up at the time?

For sure, in the modern game the fish still populate the micro and small stakes pools, but at mid and high stakes most dead money doesn’t last very long. In fact, that classic poker metaphor of fish and sharks is rapidly becoming outdated. These days the fate of a bad player is more like an unsuspecting capybara paddling through a river teeming with piranhas.

That’s no surprise, either. There are now syndicates of poker players being staked to grind out profits in return for sponsorship. Tremendously sophisticated applications abound for the online player (my favourite of which is PokerAce – a bolt on for Poker Tracker which actually superimposes opponents’ statistics onto the table window like a head-up display.) Even the offline player can gain some kind of edge through technological change: I recently final-tabled a GUKPT tournament at the Vic and managed to check out all my opponents on the Hendon Mob database before the second day. How much money do we expect there to be in the game under these conditions?

Don’t get me wrong, Joe Bloggs will always be happy to lose a couple of hundred or so a month at the low to mid stakes. And there will always be a decent supply of errant millionaires who fancy themselves as a bit of Ian Fleming character at the high stakes games. Although the credit crunch will squeeze these types, it certainly won’t crush the life – or the desire for action – out of them.

However, where we push too hard, the system as a whole will shove back. It is a bit like an ecology in that respect: if there are too many predators, the prey will become sparse and the predators will start to go hungry; as the predators die off, the prey will start proliferating again, and so on – it’s self correcting.

Indeed, the poker world would have reached some kind of natural equilibrium between fish and sharks if it were not for one particular external force. In recent years, this force has added millions to the collective pot, and in so doing has made this ecology a bit too shark-friendly: enter poker the spectator sport.

Before the boom, almost all the money in poker would have come from the players themselves. Then, as the TV deals and sponsorships from internet sites came along, so the amount of money in the game grew. If it continues to grow, might it one day be more significant for the pros than the actual money from the punters?

If that seems difficult to believe, consider a couple of individual sports which involve players following circuits for prize money: golf and tennis. These games have evolved into billion dollar industries without being propped up by money coming from the players themselves. You can imagine that tennis and golf were once just playthings for the rich and infamous, and anyone who excelled at them would consistently trounce their opposition (a bit like the early days of high stakes poker, perhaps). Slowly, as the games evolved, the players got better, the competition got more serious, the revenues from spectatorship got bigger, and an upward spiral was created. The competition in tennis and golf is now furious – and only the top few hundred players in the world can afford to do it professionally.

Poker, of course, has the dead money from bad players to sustain it. But if it could prove as popular as other games on TV it wouldn’t even need the money from the so-called “donators”? Could it be that popular? For a while over recent years, there was certainly a mood that it could. Then a couple of things stalled the progress. First, the gaming law changes in the States swiped away thousands of US players, not to mention millions of dollars off PartyGaming’s market capitalisation. Second, the TV ratings dwindled and a few shows started getting canned.

Everything has a cycle. It wasn’t long ago, for example, that the Italian clubs were the toast of the footballing world. Yet recent fortunes have meant that the mighty Juventus are actually rebuilding their stadium to make it smaller.

But any fears that this is the beginning of the end for poker would be far too premature. I’d be inclined to believe that the recent lull is merely a sign of growing pains: the beginning of a cycle rather than the end of one. The major shows such as High Stakes Poker, Poker Million and Premier League Poker are still going strong – and they are paying their contestants more each year to appear. If anything, it is the coming years that will be the test of poker as a sport. Will it find its Barry Hearn or Don King? Will a stable such as Bad Beat or Black Belt Poker emerge as the new Man United? Time will tell, but if things do reach a tipping point where for a certain elite group of players, the dead money is no longer a major part of their income, it’ll be a whole new ball game…