The history of poker is filled with lots of ups and downs. And although the game has been played for generations, the most popular form of poker in America, called “no-limit holdem”, started gaining mainstream appeal after the the annual World Series of Poker began in 1970 at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas. The WSOP grew steadily over the next few decades, and by 2003, what started as a game for a handful of elite players, was now attracting hundreds of entrants from all walks of life from around the world.
By 2003, the game of poker was still fairly personal. WSOP main event entrants were still mostly populated with career gamblers, rather than your average Joe. But the advent of online poker dramatically changed poker’s popularity and how the game was played. Online poker opened up the opportunity for anyone to become the main event champion, and since the study of poker was not yet academic, much of the most popular poker strategies were still based on personal experiences rather than data.
Online poker changed the poker world. The Moneymaker affect showed us that anyone could become the main event champion. Poker’s popularity soared in the 2000’s because poker became accessible to anyone with an internet connection, worldwide. And live games benefitted from online’s growth too. By 2004, the number of WSOP main event entries climbed to 2,576 and reached a high of 8,776 by 2006.
As the popularity of both online and live poker grew, the study of poker was also advancing. The new technologies that made online poker possible, also fuelled the study of poker as the data generated online gave everyone the statistics and math they could use to improve their game. With the growth of online poker, a way to beat the game became possible and today a computer can consistently beat a human playing limit holdem and will soon be able to beat a human at no-limit holdem.
Today, we are witnessing the rise of bots, computer programs that can outplay their human opponents. How does this impact the game?
Almost all online poker sites such as Pokerstars and 888 discourage and ban bots. This makes sense for them in the short term. A good poker game for a card room is one that generates volume. The game needs both rec players and pros to feed the games, but if the rec players can’t win, they probably won’t play. We’ve already reached the point where rec players lose pretty regularly online. Its almost impossible for online poker rooms to completely ban bots since its a costly technological arms race that drains resources.
But the flip side of tough online games is the continued growth of live games. The 2017 WSOP recorded the third most number of entrants ever, and the trend in live games is up. As we become wealthier, and more experience oriented, I believe the demand for live poker will continue to grow. A nice side benefit of a live poker game is how players don’t need to fear bots. The advantage a computer has against humans at the poker table comes from the raw ability to crunch more numbers. A computer can process many more possibilities in order to determine the best play of every hand. Humans can’t calculate the data fast enough in their heads, so in a live game, they must rely more on instinct, reading opponents, and other types of strategies.
I think the future of poker is one where bots compete online. The online poker games that will have continued popularity in the age of bots are ones that include a greater element of chance, more like traditional casino games that don’t require any skill. Think about the growing popularity of games like “Spin & Go”. In this type of game, bots are subject to the same probabilities as humans with these types of games. Profit for the online card room can be baked into the random element along with a rake.
Although there may be some growth of online poker from new players going forward, especially in emerging markets, the online market in American & Europe is probably saturated. Rich knowledgeable players from wealthy markets will become increasingly aware of their particular disadvantage online, and so they’ll find other ways to play poker. Live games could see a resurgence. Live poker rooms can attract more players by improving their experience and making poker an entertainment activity that highlights the social elements of the game.
Is there an online poker room that doesn’t discourage bots? This might be another area for growth. Providing a place where programmers can pit their bots up against each other for real money. A kind of clash of machines. I’m looking forward to it.