There is a YouTube channel that I enjoy watching called Entertain the Elk in which they give critique and commentary of some of the most beloved shows on television. In one particular series they analyze certain shows in order to ascertain the exact moment the show figuratively died and began its descent towards eventual cancellation. While watching one such video, "The Day The Office Died", it gave rise to a thought in my mind that poker was also ripe for such critique and made me wonder if such a moment exists in regards to the poker boom. I think most players would agree that we are long since past the apex of the boom and while it may not be completely finished, we are certainly closer to the end than the beginning. Many may disagree as to the moment when this contraction began, but I do think that when all things are considered we can easily point to Joe Cada's win of the Main Event of the World Series of Poker in 2009 as the point when the poker boom died.
While the seeds of the boom began with the release of the movie Rounders in 1998, it did not fully take off until Chris Moneymaker's win of the WSOP Main Event in 2003 for $2.5 million from a $40 satellite entry. This was of course a perfect storm of events when a man with that name happens to win the most prestigious event right when hole card cams were beginning to be a thing in televised poker. Moneymaker made the every man feel and believe as he could accomplish the same feat and win it all. And those that would follow as champions in the next few years continued this trend. Certainly players such as Greg Raymer and Joseph Hachem did enjoy some tournament success prior to their big wins, but the winners from 2004 to 2007 were still largely looked upon as amateurs by the general public. But most importantly they were not the introverted internet players that would dominate the final tables in the years to come. And while figures such as Jamie Gold and Jerry Yang were polarizing to say the least, they were still big enough personalities that brought much publicity to the game and still advanced the cause of the recreational player. This began to change in 2008 when Peter Eastgate, a 22 year old internet player from Denmark, took down the Main Event for over $9 million. But this appeared to be a mere blip in the trend when in the following year, a larger than life figure by the name of Darvin Moon entered the final table as the chip leader with over 30% of the chips in play.
Moon, a self made logger from the panhandle of Maryland, looked like a literal lumberjack and as if he had just stepped out of a Brawny Paper Tower commercial. Many would come to criticize his playing style and his lack of experience, but these were exactly the factors that endeared him to the public and made him the people's favorite to win the Main Event. Other than a brief moment he basically held the chip lead throughout the entire event and entered the final table as the leader, even knocking out the likes of Phil Ivey. Moon would make it to heads up play on the final table and had he won, he could have done much to right the ship from the previous year for amateur players and continue the trend of poker being a popular and romanticized game among the masses. But when Joe Cada's 99 held up against Moon's QJ suited, it was not meant to be and the course of the World Series and poker at large would change and never revert back. In contrast to Moon, Cada was more of the introverted internet player that I spoke of earlier. Outside of an appearance on Good Morning America the following morning after his big win, I cannot recall a single interview that Cada did to promote the game of poker during his 1 year reign as champion. The ensuing years would be an endless list of "who is that" of internet players that no one outside of poker playing regulars had ever heard of. When they did stick out and made others pay attention, it was usually for questionable and generally douchey behavior on the felt, culminating in John Cynn's slow roll on the final hand of the 2018 Main Event when he tanked after flopping trip Kings heads up. It was true that the winners in the first few years of the boom were no strangers to such behavior as well. There were many that were not thrilled with Jerry Yang evoking god on every single hand and Jamie Gold's table talk during his run was also much criticized. But somehow it was different when the public thought the players in question were no better than they were. In contrast it felt different and less appealing when the player was a 12 tabling internet pro. The former inspired others to think that these players were beatable and that they too could win the event, while the latter just made the game feel less accessible.
None of this is to say of course that this is Cada's fault. His coronation was simply a marker of a change in the poker climate and as much as Moneymaker was at the right place during a perfect storm, Cada came at a time when everything in the game was shifting towards a much different paradigm. Had Moon won the Main Event I imagine that the following year would have been quite different and that it would have extended the air and inspiration of the boom that started in 2003. After Eastgate's win in 2008 the poker media was looking to crown a new people's champion and they would have done much to spread the story of a self made logger who won nearly $9 million without really even knowing how to play. But that would have worn off eventually as well and even a personality like Moon would not have been able to stem the tide of online poker, coaching sites, preflop charts and the rise of artificial intelligence in the game. And speaking of online poker, what once served as a gateway for so many recreational players to be introduced to the game and even make their way to events such as the WSOP, was now becoming more niche as it became increasingly difficult for the average player to get money on and off of the sites. The final nail in the coffin would come in 2011 on the infamous day that most now know as Black Friday when the domains of major sites were seized by the FBI and online poker largely disappeared from the American landscape. Poker sites pulled out of the American market, some folded and once prominent TV shows sponsored by such were all taken off the airwaves. Some networks remained to service the American market, but what remained was often sketchy and barely resembled what players were familiar with in the past.
If Black Friday was the nail in the coffin, than the lowering of the casket came in late 2020 when Poker Stars dropped Chris Moneymaker from it's lineup of sponsored pros. The man who started it all now also signaled the end. I was a bit surprised that more was not made of this news, but now being 17+ years removed from his win in the Main Event, I fear that we have already reached a period in which players have not only forgotten the man but more importantly the legacy and significance of what he started. But still as I look around the poker landscape today, I am encouraged by a new generation of players that seem intent on creating new media content for the game and modeling their own paradigm. But I am still a bit discouraged when I see such content filled with technical discussions and hand analysis using programs such as Odin. I wonder if they truly think about just exactly who it is they are trying to reach? One of my favorite movies of all time is Moneyball in which Brad Pitt's character says towards the end of the film, "How can you not be romantic about baseball?" This is exactly how I feel about poker as romanticism born out of inspiration is what enables the game to grow. In the end I am not sure as to how much of a difference Darvin Moon winning the Main Event in 2008 would have made. But what I do know is that when Joe Cada did win the event instead, that was the day that the poker boom died.