Saturday, June 12, 2004

The World Series of Poker

Consider the number of entrants in the WSOP for the past three years:

2000 - 512 entrants
2003 - 839 entrants
2004 - 2576 entrants

For the past two years, the winners have been Internet poker players with little or no prior "live" game experience. This year an estimated 40% of the players in the tournament won their seats from online tournaments and promotions -- that is, more than participated in the previous year's tournament. It's hard to say how many other players were energized about poker via the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour (cable TV and the "hole card cam" being another dimension of electronics), or the by the more general cultural buzz about poker (and here the rise in gambling has an electronics dimension (for more see "Speculative Capital").

The presence of so many players, and so many Internet players has changed the character of the WSOP. For one thing, Internet play is different -- Internet players bring a different playing style to the tournament. Since play is so much faster online, "the experience of playing thousands of games in roadhouses and casinos is being eclipsed by a cyborg-like intelligence produced by humans weaned on machine play," per Peter Wayner in a fascinating New York Times article "The New Card Shark" (7/10/03, only the abstract is available for free now). Some other changes in playing style that Wayner notes:

"The changes in the nature of the game are both subtle and striking. The advantages of some well-understood strategies are being tuned, and others are being abandoned. Some online enthusiasts, for instance, are even suggesting that the value of any information gleaned from watching the opponent's body for telltale tics or gestures is overrated. These so-called tells are too easily manipulated. More information comes in the pattern of bets, raises and calls. The money, they say, talks.

"The biggest factor propelling change may be the speed of technology. Players do not wait while someone shuffles and deals. Chips do not need to be counted or watched. Computers handle the accounting, often finishing hands in as little as 30 seconds."

The growth in the number of online players has been dramatic -- some 2.8 million as of last October, and that was triple the number of the previous April. Many online sites offer cheap tournaments that allow players to try for a big prize of an entry to events like the WSOP; according to one guess (I think this is from John Vorhaus's blog on the tourney, but I can't find the actual post now) said that some 12,000 Internet players had participated in tourneys leading up to the final event. These tiny rivulets and streams are gathered together in the giant watershed of the Internet into a torrent of new players.

These numbers mean more money going into the event, which expands the prize pool, which attracts more people, and expands the attendance which ... -- in the end first prize at the WSOP this year was over $5 million.

All of these players though, well, like Nobel laureate Phillip Anderson said in a famous 1971 paper, "more is different."

"Veteran poker pros -- who originally pegged all these newcomers as easy marks -- now are shuddering at the notion of a field so huge that it will take an eerie run of luck for anyone to prevail. 'It's going to be pretty random,' says 70-year-old Doyle Brunson, a two-time winner of the World Series championship in the 1970s. 'To win it now would be like winning the lottery.'" ("Up Against a Full House Amateurs Pack Poker Tourney, Changing Odds for the Pros; Just $10,000 and a Dream", Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2004.

While poker is more or less a game of skill, the random dimension -- luck -- looms large. That is, as the numbers increase, the statistical "shit happens" has more opportunity to happen.

No comments: