WSOP Main Event Draws Third-Biggest Turnout Despite Crackdowns

July 12th, 2011 Poker

No one expected a record turnout for this year’s World Series of Poker tournament, which takes place just weeks after a round of federal stings on high-profile poker sites. But the 6,865 players who showed up to the main event–the third largest turnout since the first event in 2000–is still a pleasant surprise, a sign that players aren’t quite ready to pack up their chips that yet.

On April 15, a day the poker world has dubbed “Black Friday,” the U.S. Department of Justice formally accused the founders of Absolute Poker, Full Tilt Poker, and PokerStars with money laundering, bank fraud, and illegal gambling, and forced them to stop hosting games in American jurisdictions. The events dealt a heavy blow to the WSOP’s following and threatened to close this year’s tournament.

As it turns out, the effect was the opposite. Only two previous tournaments–2006 with 8,773 players and 2010 with 7,319–had a bigger turnout. This year’s prize pot? Just a little over $8.7 million.

The event’s biggest year so far, in 2006, took place not long before the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was passed. The following year the WSOP was forced to remove the widely used third-party registration system, resulting in a 30% drop in registrations to 6,358. Little change was observed in the next two years, thanks to the recession. The numbers only broke the 7,000 mark in 2010, when 7,319 players joined in.

This year’s tournament drew only 400 or so fewer players, which is encouraging considering the bankrolls at Absolute Poker and Full Tilt remain inaccessible. Only PokerStars has so far refunded its American players, sparking ire both among the general playing public and a few high-profile players, such as Phil Ivey.

Experts pin the game’s remarkable resilience on the rising popularity of online poker, particularly across generations. The crackdowns themselves also helped fuel the popularity of the game, but that was more of a short-term spark. Over the years, online poker players have been getting younger, and some of the top earners are barely out of their teens.

The WSOP has proven that it can weather tough legislation, recessions, and all manner of controversy.  If online poker becomes legal, then the tournament has nowhere to go but up and bigger. Otherwise, it will depend largely on how determined its young market is–and while 2011 was a promising year, the real effects of Black Friday may not be clear until the 2012 event.

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