From Pros to Proles: Online Poker’s Epistemic Shifts

When the first ever online poker site went live back in 1998 it caused a ripple that would eventually turn into a tidal wave.

Indeed, from relatively humble beginnings, the online poker industry has since blossomed into an empire that now spans the globe and serves millions of players on a weekly basis.

Unsurprisingly, like all major industries, online poker has undergone a number of epistemic shifts over the years. From a novel underling living below the live poker world to a behemoth that’s now influencing brick and mortar poker rooms around the world, online poker has both shaped and been shaped by the social spheres around it.

Small Steps with a Professional Focus

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Back in the early days of online poker, developers were purely focused on recreating a fair representation of what they saw in a live casino. Much like the developers of Pong taking their first tentative steps into the world of computer game programming, the very first online poker programmers focused on a single game and didn’t concern themselves with overly complex structures.

In fact, for anyone that ventured into the industry back in 1998, a lone game of $3/$6 Hold’em was on offer. A far cry from the slew of games modern online poker players expect today, this relatively high stakes games (high stakes for novices) was the first chance people had to play poker on the Internet. Unsurprisingly, this game became a hit and as more sites joined the online poker market in 1999 the number of players bluffing on the Internet hit 1,500+ per day.

However, despite this growth, the selection of games remained limited during this time and that meant the industry was mainly tailored towards experienced players. Without online tutorials or magazine literature aimed at beginners, very few people unfamiliar with poker were confident enough to ante-up online.

Online Hold’em for the Masses

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This trend continued for the next four years as the number of online poker sites continued to expand. Software developers and network providers began to spring up in various locations around the world and this proliferation of sites naturally caught the attention of the masses. As the number of players grew, so did the number of games on offer and Hold’em quickly became the order of the day. Limit Hold’em at varying stakes started as the vogue but this was quickly surpassed by No Limit Hold’em.

The action and excitement of the game piqued the interest of the casual player thanks to the combination of luck and skill present in the game, and this potential was manifested most strikingly in one man: Chris Moneymaker. After seeing adverts to join an emerging online poker site, PokerStars, the trained accountant Moneymaker decided to play the latest innovation in the virtual world: satellites. Offering a cheap way to play in some of the largest live tournaments in the world, satellites offered the “dream” shot at fame and fortune for novice players.

The Moneymaker Effect

Although the advent of satellites marked an epistemic shift away from games focused on experienced players to an industry where novices could thrive, it was Moneymaker who took it into the mainstream. After qualifying for the WSOP Main Event through a $39 satellite on PokerStars, the young American went on to win the tournament, beating some experienced pros in the process, to claim the title and $2.5 million.

Naturally, the media lapped up this story as the embodiment of the American dream and the poker boom was started. Almost overnight the masses flooded to the online poker world and site became the playground for thousands of players on a daily basis. Naturally, this increase in traffic led to an increase in prize pools and the money in the industry as a whole; in fact, it was at this point in 2003 that online poker truly became an industry.

The Rise of the Grinder

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As with all businesses, the mentality of those involved had to change and as sites became more corporate, the culture shifted once again. Although casual players were still catered to in the form of freerolls, bonuses and low stakes games, the rise of the professional online grinder began to take shape. Thanks to high stakes players such as Taylor Caby and Brian Townsend, the first major online poker training site was launched in 2005.

With novices now able to learn how the pros did it, the skill level of the average online player increased dramatically between 2005 and 2010 and the industry found itself very much at the mercy of the hardcore player. Rakeback deals, tracking software and a proliferation of training sites took the focus back towards the seasoned player and operators responded with more high stakes tournaments such as the Sunday Million. These then involved into larger online festivals such as the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) where players could win millions of dollars in prize money online for the first time.

Social Poker for All

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Although it took a few years, real money sites soon started turning their attention back towards casual players. Tracking sites and HUDs were gradually being phased out and sites such as Full Tilt were experimenting with new formats such as Rush Poker.

Launched in 2010, Rush Poker added a new element of dynamism and chance to the game and unlocked the door more “lottery style games.” Indeed, platforms such as PokerStars gradually embraced this new trend and in 2014 Spin and Go games gave novices a cheap way to ante-up, get a thrill and potentially win hundreds of thousands. An element of gamble had now crept into the game and that naturally led to the inclusion of casino games into poker platforms.

The Great Online Poker and Casino Merge

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(Image Source: pokerfuse.com)

Maintaining its position as an innovator, Full Tilt launched their casino introducing online blackjack, roulette and slots back in 2014 and that menu was quickly replicated by PokerStars and many of the industry’s other major players. With more casual players entering or wanting to enter the online poker world, operators have been forced to diversify and offer a complete gaming experience. Taking a page from the brick and mortar casino world, casino games and poker have since been put side-by-side and that’s now given rise to singular platforms able to cater to all players at all times.

Indeed, where the iGaming industry was once fractured into poker and casino, all the top operators are now consolidating their assets to create super platforms. Into 2015 and beyond the focus is very much back on the casual player and that’s sparked another boom similar to the one seen in 2003. Although there may never be another Moneymaker effect, the movement towards integrated gaming has helped reinvigorate the online poker industry and make it a pursuit that everyone can now enjoy via their desktop or mobile device.


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