2019 WSOP Main Event is second-largest in history

WSOP Main Event Attendance Trending Toward 2006 Record; Poker Not Dead After All

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When news of his passing reached his ears more than 100 years ago, Mark Twain famously quipped something along the lines of, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

The game of poker could make a similar proclamation in 2019. After exploding in popularity during the “poker boom” of the mid-2000s, the buzz surrounding Texas Hold’em has waned in recent years.

Or has it?

WSOP Main Event as a bellwether

The World Series of Poker is far and away the biggest event on the annual poker calendar. That makes it a good barometer for the game’s overall health and popularity.

A whopping 8,773 players entered the WSOP Main Event at the high-point of the poker boom in 2006. At the time, most expected the unrivaled growth that began in 2003 to continue indefinitely — to 10,000 entries and beyond.

Then fate intervened.

The passage of UIGEA and the subsequent exodus of online poker sites from the US accompanied by the disappearance of direct satellites caused attendance to plummet. There were just 6,358 entrants the following year, and 2007 wasn’t a one-off. Turnouts remained relatively stagnant for a decade.

Not only did attendance fail to approach the record again in the ensuing years, it cracked 7,000 players just once in the decade following that 2006 WSOP Main Event. With an assist from the 2008 recession, the ongoing prohibition of online poker in most of the US kept the field size down for years.

The drop in attendance, coupled with the disappearance of poker rooms in Las Vegas and beyond gave rise to the “poker is dead/dying” narrative.

WSOP attendance trending in the right direction

Over the last three years, however, WSOP attendance has undergone a paradigm shift.

Participation in 2019, 2018, and 2017 rank as the second-, third-, and fifth-largest Main Events respectively. And this year’s turnout was just 204 entries away from returning to the record level of 2006.

Charting attendance back to that big year paints an encouraging portrait of poker’s health.

Sustained, steady growth over the last four years is a positive sign. Compare the recent trend to the period from 2006-2016, when Main Event attendance never increased in two consecutive years.

Direct satellites causing a spike?

The rise in attendance is likely a combination of several factors.

One is the increase in direct-buy-in satellites in the US thanks to WSOP NV and WSOP NJ. Those brand-affiliated online poker sites are responsible for sending hundreds of players to the Main Event, including more than 150 this year.

Evidence is visible in the breakdown of attendance by players from Nevada and New Jersey.

Despite a population of less than three million, Nevada sent the second most players to the 2019 Main Event (698) according to data from the WSOP. Only California (1,057) sent more. That’s a significant increase compared to the 519 Nevada players last year but not too surprising considering the number of pros who reside in Las Vegas.

But the other online poker state also punched above its weight. New Jersey ranks 11th in population, yet it sent the sixth-most players (240) to the Main Event. That almost certainly has to do with online satellites.

It’s worth highlighting that US participation is growing in line with the overall field size in recent years:

  • 2016: 4,985
  • 2017: 5,218
  • 2018: 5,758
  • 2019: 6,110

It’s the economy, stupid

While important, direct satellites account for a small percentage of the total increase. A bigger factor likely has nothing to do with poker: the economy.

As poker and DFS veteran Joseph Bunevith noted on Twitter, several economic indicators helped predict the size of this year’s Main Event.

WSOP Main Event attendance since 2013 has mimicked the stock market in all but a single year (2015).

When more people have more money to spend, WSOP Main Event attendance increases. Who’d have guessed? And this year, roughly 8,500 people were happy to spend $10,000 to play in a poker tournament.

- Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus for OPR is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.
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