Endangered Species

Are poker players an endangered species?

Some trends would say no. The World Series of Poker showed a 20% increase in entrants from the year before. The Main Event had more players than the year before. The NAPT is flourishing with over 700 players paying the $5,000 entry fee in a recent tournament. Online poker is still booming every Sunday.

But what is driving this recent growth? A lot of it is driven by the serious players. There are more professionals than ever before who specialize in sit-n-gos, MTT’s, or cash games with limits as low as $1-$2. Future growth will be driven by new players, and in today’s environment it is more difficult than ever before for new players to find success because the sharks are eating them alive.

Wikipedia defines an endangered species as a population of organisms which is at risk of becoming extinct because it is either few in numbers, or threatened by changing environmental or predation parameters. Several trends could eventually lead to poker players becoming an endangered species.

The big poker boom was driven by a huge influx of players. These players were found primarily in the USA and Europe. Their ages ranged anywhere from 18 to 65. In other words, most people who have the type of personality who would be attracted to poker have likely found the game already. So where will the new players come from?

Every year a new crop of kids around the world turn 18. Many of those will try out poker. But during the poker boom, we had new players from several generations, whether they were 18 or 65. There just won’t be as many new players from the USA and Europe trying out the game unless the laws are changed.

Growth in recent years has come internationally. Russia, South America, Australia, Asia, South Africa have all started to play poker. I’m not sure when, but eventually these markets will mature just as they have in Europe and the US.

So from a pure numbers standpoint, poker has its challenges in maintaining enough new fish into the overall pool. However, there is another problem that is hurting both the new fish and the players who have been around for a while but aren’t serious students of the game. The “predation parameters”, as Wikipedia describes them, have changed.

It used to be relatively easy for new fish to survive in the poker world. They would likely lose at first, but with just a little dedication they could find themselves break-even relatively quickly. Anyone who read a few poker books several years back had a big leg up on the overall competition. But in today’s world, at even low stakes a few poker books may not be enough. I recently played some $2-$4 online limit games for fun and they were as tough as the $30-$60 games from 4-5 years ago. The parameters have changed.

The players are so much more advanced now than they used to be. There is a huge influx of top-quality poker books. When I started out, there was pretty much just one decent book for limit Hold’em and no decent books for no-limit Hold’em. There are video sites where players can learn by watching the pros. There is software like PokerTracker to help players evaluate their game and the play of their opponents. But maybe even more importantly, technology now allows professionals to succeed like never before. Professionals can play 8-12 ring game tables with ease and make a good living at low stakes. Players can play even more sit-n-go tournaments and be successful. Combine this with the launch of rakeback sites, and now players who break-even playing poker can make enough money to live on simply from rakeback due to the sheer number of tables they are able to play. If you put this altogether, the games are brutally difficult for new players to succeed.

Not only does this make it tough for the new fish to survive, but the older fish who aren’t dedicated enough are being left behind and many of them are just giving up the game.

If we summarize the above, there are fewer new fish being introduced to the game and their life expectancy is decreasing at the same time due to a change in predation parameters. While technology and education have driven the boom of the professional player, these same things may eventually lead to their demise as well.

What can be done to stop the trend?

It really is difficult to say. It is like a gold rush where the poker sites and poker players are trying to get as much gold as they can while it lasts. Multi-tabling is both a blessing and a curse. It has been great for professionals, but at the same time it makes the games a lot tougher for new players. One idea would be to create tables exclusive for new players. This would give them a chance to get their feet wet against other new players rather than have to defend themselves against the influx of sharks waiting for them who are multi-tabling. I’m not sure if it would be a good business model, but a site which limits multi-tabling would help keep the professionals away and give new players a better chance at success.

Hopefully I am wrong. Several decades ago people talked about the end of oil supply and we seem to keep finding new deposits around the world. Hopefully we can do the same with poker, but the poker industry as a whole needs to start focusing on how to nurture the new fish, rather than try and eat them alive when they sit down to learn the game.