What Happened to the Poker Boom Legends?
People have been playing poker since the early 19th century, when gamblers enjoyed the game on Mississippi riverboats. Poker has since withstood the test of time and cemented itself as one of the most-popular card games ever.
But at no time was the game ever more popular than in the mid-2000s, when it spread to the masses thanks to internet poker and increased television coverage.
This time period also saw a number of prominent players become celebrities. These Poker Boom legends made a killing at the table and through sponsorship deals.
Of course, the Poker Boom days are long gone. And some of the celebrity players who experienced rises during this period have also faded from the public eye.
What happened to these pros? Were they simply not good enough to hang with younger players who had better skills?
Find out as I discuss the Poker Boom, some of the notable players during this era, and why some of them are no longer successful grinders today.
When Was the Poker Boom?
The heart of the Poker Boom is generally considered the period between 2003 and 2006, when poker experienced a huge jolt in popularity.
A number of catalysts contributed to poker’s rise, including the following:
- Online poker sites, which initially launched in 1999, were finally gaining popularity.
- PokerStars began offering World Series of Poker (WSOP) prize packages.
- Chris Moneymaker, a simple accountant from Tennessee, used a prize package to win the 2003 WSOP Main Event.
- TV networks started airing poker shows and transforming top players into celebrities.
- More poker tournament organizations and online sites launched in order to capitalize on the boom.
Many consider Moneymaker winning the 2003 Main Event, along with $2.5 million, to be the spark that ignited the Poker Boom. But you can see that a number of other factors were at play during this time too.
From an overall perspective, people who rushed to poker loved how they could use skill to win and potentially become a rich player. Online poker only fueled these dreams as the tournament prize pools and cash game stakes reached dizzying heights.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the boom ended. I mentioned earlier that 2006 is generally considered to be the point when it stopped.
But the growth period didn’t officially halt until April 2011. This is when the US Department of Justice cracked down on the world’s largest poker sites for violating money laundering laws.
Therefore, some players whom I’ll discuss began their rises in 2007/08, shortly after the most-lucrative poker years ended.
Who Are the Poker Boom Legends?
Prior to the Poker Boom, the game had always carried a seedy, underground feeling. Professionals were viewed as degenerate gamblers by the masses, rather than skilled players who could consistently win over time.
This viewpoint was fueled by the fact that poker games took place in casinos, warehouses, and underground clubs.
Outside of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and L.A. card clubs, players had few legal options to enjoy the game. Therefore, much of the action took place in illegal settings that were potential targets for robbers.
Doyle Brunson’s early poker years perfectly exemplified this situation. The “Texas Dolly” was robbed several times throughout the 1950s and 60s while playing games in back rooms.
The Poker Boom, combined with growing acceptance of the online version, helped legitimize poker and the players involved. It also paved the way for a number of pros to become famous.
Here are notable players who shined during the boom years:
- Patrik Antonius
- David Benyamine
- Andy Bloch
- Brad Booth
- Doyle Brunson
- Johnny Chan
- Victoria Coren
- Di Dang
- Hac Dang
- Tom Dwan
- Annie Duke
- Eli Elezra
- Antonio Esfandiari
- Ted Forrest
- Sammy Farha
- Chris “Jesus” Ferguson
- Jamie Gold
- Phil Gordon
- Antanas “Tony G” Guoga
- Barry Greenstein
- Gus Hansen
- Jennifer Harman
- Dan Harrington
- Phil Hellmuth
- Phil Ivey
- Phil Laak
- Erick Lindgren
- Mike “The Mouth” Matusow
- Michael Mizrachi
- Carlos Mortensen
- Annette Obrestad
- Ilari Sahamies
- Huck Seed
- Erik Seidel
- Greg Raymer
- Jennifer Tilly
- Brian Townsend
- Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott
These players gained recognition through a variety of ways, including TV shows, online winnings, and/or huge tournament victories. Here’s a quick look at the different routes that players took towards fame during the boom.
Participants on Poker TV Shows
The easiest way to become recognized as a poker player was to appear on popular TV shows. I use the word “was,” because these shows have largely dried up outside of streamed programs.
But the Poker Boom featured a large number of poker TV shows, including High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark, Late Night Poker, and televised tournament broadcasts.
HSP was especially popular during poker’s growth spurt. This show launched towards the tail end of the boom in 2006 and ran on and off until 2011.
Hosted by AJ Benza and Gabe Kaplan, HSP saw the world’s most-famous poker players compete against each other in no-limit Texas hold’em. This program showcased the personalities of top players like Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, Barry Greenstein, and Mike Matusow.
Poker After Dark, which aired on NBC from 2007 to 2011, was the second-most popular poker show. Presented by Shana Hiatt with voice-over commentary by “Ali” Nejad, Poker After Dark was an hour-long program that pitted top Texas hold’em players against each other.
Late Night Poker, which predated the boom by launching in 1999, helped spread the game to European players. It also made stars out of Dave Ulliott, John Duthie, Andy Black, the Boatman brothers, and Vicky Coren.
Late Night Poker was also instrumental in introducing the hole cam, which allows viewers to see Texas hold’em players’ hole cards. Prior to this, viewers merely had to guess what each player had based on their betting actions.
Old Time Poker Legends
Some players didn’t have to use the Poker Boom to build their reputation. Instead, they were already famous before the 2000s.
Brunson had already been playing poker for decades up to this point. His legend had grown through underground cash games and by winning the 1976 and ’77 WSOP Main Event titles.
Thanks to his gritty cowboy image and poker skills, Brunson offered natural marketability for poker companies that needed stars to promote them.
Phil Hellmuth is another example of a player who was already well known up to this point. Hellmuth won the 1989 WSOP Main Event and used his brash “Poker Brat” image to draw attention to himself and the game.
Johnny Chan became notable for winning the WSOP Main Event in 1987 and ’88. The “Orient Express” was also the first Asian player to become highly successful in tournaments.
For good measure, Chan is featured in a famous scene of Rounders. The 1998 drama shows a television clip of Chan beating Erik Seidel heads up to win the 1988 Main Event.
Early Online Poker Stars
Online poker didn’t develop many famous players until towards the tail end of the boom. The reason why is because big nosebleed stakes didn’t really exist in the early part of poker’s growth years.
But by 2007, Full Tilt Poker developed a thriving high stakes scene. Players like Patrik Antonius, Di Dang, Hac Dang, Niki Jedlicka, and Phil Ivey used this stage to build their wealth and prominence.
Ivey won over $20 million in online cash profits during the boom, while Antonius earned over $10 million (he’s won more since then). The Dang brothers and Jedlicka each won several million dollars.
These pros represent just some of the grinders who won big through the online nosebleeds. Plenty of other players reached seven figures in profits too.
WSOP Main Event Winners
Certain poker players used WSOP tournament victories to catapult themselves to fame and fortune.
Moneymaker is no doubt the best example, because he became an instant star after winning the 2003 Main Event. PokerStars used Moneymaker as the prime example of how anybody — regardless of their skill level or experience — can win big through the game.
Ensuing players who became famous after tournament wins include Greg Raymer (2004 WSOP Main Event), Joe Hachem (2005 WSOP Main Event), Jamie Gold (2006 WSOP Main Event), Annette Obrestad (2007 WSOP Europe Main Event), and Jerry Yang (2007 WSOP Main Event).
Why Did Many Poker Boom Legends Fizzle Out
In the introduction, I posed the question of whether boom legends faded simply because they couldn’t match wits with younger, more skilled pros. And this is certainly one reason why some players who became famous in the mid-2000s are no longer active in the game today.
But there are a host of other reasons why boom legends are no longer poker successes, which you can see below.
Lack of Playing Volume
When online poker came along in 1999, many players thought that the idea of depositing their money on a website was crazy. Furthermore, the general public was unaware that they could even play poker online.
These two factors combined to create barriers for internet poker. But Moneymaker’s victory combined with PokerStars’ marketing helped change the game’s fortunes.
Of course, older grinders who started with live cash tables and tournaments were slow to adapt to the online version.
Contrast this to players who began playing in the early 2000s. These rounders saw online poker as a convenient way to make money from their college dorm or parents’ basement.
Little did these same players realize that they were also distancing themselves from live players who refused to adapt.
The great thing about online poker is that lets people see far more hands than live tables. After all, the software deals cards and collects chips much faster than a human dealer.
Furthermore, internet poker sites include a timer that only gives players 15 or so seconds to make decisions. Add in the fact that one can also multi-table online, and it’s possible to play several hundred hands per hour.
Seeing such a large volume of hands allowed younger boom players to quickly develop experience and increase their profit margins. Live players who resisted the online poker movement missed out on these advantages and the ability to earn greater profits.
Lack of Skill
The point above leads into how many boom legends were simply surpassed by younger players.
The boom not only brought more money and players to the game, but it also encouraged a higher level of strategy. Poker players flooded forums to discuss strategy concepts with fellow grinders.
They also consumed numerous internet articles and poured overbooks to increase their knowledge. Training sites, which offer poker strategy videos from experienced players, also helped push the game’s collective skill to a new level.
None of this is to say that players who were good before the boom couldn’t survive during and afterward. But pros who rested on their laurels and did little to improve were left in the dust.
Legal Barriers to Playing Online Poker
Internet poker is still a popular game that’s played by countless people around the globe. But it’s a wonder how much more attractive the game would be had it not been for certain legal events.
Online poker’s first major legal hit occurred in October 2006, when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIGEA) was signed into effect. This law includes banking restrictions that prevent American financial institutions from facilitating unlawful gambling transactions.
The UIGEA forced Party Poker — the largest poker site at the time — to exit the US market in 2006. It also had an effect on WSOP Main Event attendance, because fewer US-friendly sites meant fewer prize packages.
Main Event attendance went from 8,773 in 2006 to 6,358 in 2007 — a drop of 28%. Player participation would rise again, although it has since to reach the 2006 level.
Despite the crippling effect that the UIGEA had, it didn’t completely wipe out internet poker. Instead, other sites like PokerStars, Full Tilt, and UB & Absolute Poker (both CEREUS network) stepped in to fill Party Poker’s void.
All of these companies experienced a blissful period from 2006 to April 2011, when the “Black Friday” incident occurred.
Black Friday describes when the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York served indictments to the world’s top poker sites. These indictments alleged bank fraud and money laundering, violations that occurred as poker sites circumvented the UIGEA.
The fallout was massive since each company agreed to exit the US market. PokerStars is the only site that remains solvent, eventually purchasing Full Tilt as part of a $735 million settlement with the US government.
Full Tilt originally collapsed with around $360 million in player deposits unaccounted for after Black Friday. The CEREUS network followed suit by folding with $20 million in player deposits.
This poker economy’s loss of funds coupled with a lack of options forced US-based poker legends and regular players alike to exit the online game.
Some people continued playing at smaller US-facing sites. But this action was nothing like what PokerStars, Full Tilt, and UB/Absolute offered during their primes.
Lack of TV Coverage
All of the aforementioned TV shows were sponsored by prominent internet poker sites. Some of these poker rooms pulled their sponsorships following the UIGEA, while others did so after Black Friday.
Both events wiped out certain TV shows from the market. Going further, these incidents also put a major dent in poker’s popularity and removed recognizable faces from the big screen.
Other poker shows have emerged in the aftermath. But none of them have managed to capture of the popularity of High Stakes Poker, Late Night Poker, and Poker After Dark.
This isn’t to say that the lack of TV shows is what forced famous players out of the game. But it contributed by reducing overall sponsorship money in the game.
Some poker pros who became wealthy during the boom years have entered new careers and distanced themselves from the game.
Playing online or live poker for hours isn’t as entertaining as what’s portrayed in movies and TV shows. Therefore, some players become sick of the grind and look for new pursuits.
Other rounders eventually become disillusioned with how poker doesn’t contribute anything to society besides entertainment. Furthermore, they don’t like merely winning money off other people for a living.
Another reason why poker pros eventually leave the game is because they find more lucrative opportunities (covered in next section). This especially became fashionable after Black Friday and the slow decline in online poker traffic.
Phil Gordon, who was a prominent face of Full Tilt and featured on TV shows, quit to found run Chatbox.com. This site is a digital messaging and collaboration service for businesses and their customers.
Annie Duke left poker after earning a WSOP bracelet and over $4.2 million in tournament winnings. She now serves as a public speaker for corporate audiences.
Another example is Tony G, the loudmouthed, trash-talking player who’s generated some timeless YouTube clips. The Australian-Lithuanian poker legend now serves as a member of Lithuania’s European Parliament.
Other Business Pursuits
As touched on above, some pros merely leave the game for better opportunities.
Phil Ivey slowed down his playing volume considerably in the early 2010s and began concentrating more on business pursuits. These ventures include founding All-In Entertainment (promotional company), obtaining a medical marijuana dispensary license, starting the Ivey League training site, and launching PhilIveyDFS.
Johnny Chan exited poker at some point in the late 2000s and began focusing his energies towards the restaurant business. He still runs successful Chinese restaurants in Las Vegas.
The Poker Boom was a fantastic time in the game’s history that featured celebrity players, huge tournament prize pools, exciting online poker cash games, and popular TV shows.
But as with all gold rushes, this one had to end. The boom officially halted in 2006, while its reverberations continued fueling poker’s popularity until 2011.
I often wonder how long poker could’ve continued growing if not for the UIGEA and Black Friday. Perhaps the growth would’ve continued until 2020 or beyond.
Of course, we can’t change the course of legal history. And poker’s boom days are long gone as a result of major legal incidents.
Many players who gained fame and fortune during this time period are out of the limelight. Some voluntarily chose to exit the game, while others simply couldn’t hang with a new crop of skilled pros that arose in the late 2000s.
I’ll always miss the Poker Boom days. And I’m sure that the pros that benefited the most from these years miss them even more.