A History of US Poker
If you thought the history of poker in the United States began with a few $10 Sit ‘n’ Gos on a computer monitor in a bedroom somewhere in Nevada, California or New Jersey, think again.
While online poker has certainly provided the US with the greatest gambling revolution ever seen, the game itself has been part of the country’s psyche since early French settlers brought over the game of ‘Poque’.
The name became Anglicized and the game stuck, and soon poker became a national pastime in backrooms and saloons from San Francisco to Atlantic City. However, it wasn’t until the gambling Meccas of Reno and Las Vegas embraced the game – brought there by the legendary 20th Century road gamblers – that Texas Hold’em, 5-card Draw and Omaha entered a wider consciousness.
The World Series Of Poker
Las Vegas’s deep-seated love of poker culminated in the inaugural World Series of Poker in 1970. Although dominated by the old-school road gamblers in its early years, the advent of television coverage – as well as the introduction of the first live satellites – ensured that aficionados' numbers grew every year. Where the inaugural WSOP Main Event (with a $10,000 buy-in that still remains today) had just 7 entrants, by 2004 – one year after Chris Moneymaker's infamous takedown – the numbers had jumped to 2,576 entrants, tripling even over the year before.
The Birth Of Online poker
While live poker in the USA remained the preserve of Las Vegas residents and tourists from across the country – or home games wherever they could flourish - it was the possibilities afforded by the Internet that sent poker into the stratosphere.
The first online poker sites open to US players appeared in 1998, with the now-defunct Planet Poker offering Hold’em games for real cash. Rivals with a wider range of games and better software soon followed and suddenly, Americans were able to enjoy poker online from the comfort of their own living rooms.
The Boom And The Moneymaker Effect
Moneymaker's win was such a turning point for poker in general and especially for the online sites, the term “the Moneymaker Effect” was born. It wasn’t until the first online World Series of Poker qualifiers appeared that event entrants really began to skyrocket.
When Chris Moneymaker won the event in 2003 for $2,500,000 – having qualified online for less than a hundred bucks – numbers had reached 839. But with more online sites offering US players cheap satellites into the live WSOP events – and the dream of winning millions of dollars for a small outlay – the following year saw a staggering 300 percent rise in entrants. Greg Raymer – a lawyer and amateur poker player – took down the 2004 event, besting that field of 2,576 to take down the first prize of $5 million.
The Government Crackdown
Whether or not Moneymaker was instrumental in the boom in poker across the USA, what is not arguable is that poker was on an exponential rise in the country.
While the newfound interest in poker enabled the WSOP and other tours like the World Poker Tour (WPT) and European Poker Tour (EPT) to spring up and offer multimillion dollar prize pools to players – plus significant TV time – online sites were also able to offer huge prizes in regular guaranteed tournaments.
Poker sites based overseas cleaned up during the period of boom in the USA, but the industry as a whole remained largely unregulated. Subsequently, several scandals broke out in the mid-2000s – not least the ‘super-user’ scandal at UB.com/AbsolutePoker.
The site – once valued at tens of millions of dollars – suffered the ‘POTRIPPER’ scandal when CEO Scott Tom was discovered to be playing the site under ‘God Mode’ and spying on other players’ hole cards.
UIGEA Comes To Town
As Congress debated the SAFE Port Act in 2006 – a law designed to stem the flow of cash through websites to various terrorist outfits – a Republican Senator, Bill Frist of Tennessee, together with Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, helped force through a last-minute bill calling for restrictions of financial transactions made to online gambling websites.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was passed in October 2006 and many of the large poker sites that had taken US customers up to that point pulled out of the US market altogether.
Some remained, however, and although it was harder for Americans to enjoy Hold’em and Omaha online for real money, they continued to do so in defiance of the new US law.
Black Friday And The Aftermath
Things came to a head on April 15, 2011 - known as Black Friday - when the offices of three of the largest poker rooms left operating in the USA - Absolute/UB, PokerStars and FullTilt - were raided by the Department of Justice (DoJ) and several online poker CEOs and payment processors indicted on money-laundering charges.
Players’ funds were seized (in some cases, both US players’ as well as Europeans’), and it took months for some players to get access to their funds. What Black Friday revealed, however, was that Full Tilt’s bosses had not kept players' funds segregated from operational costs – much of which had been embezzled - leaving those winnings largely unpayable.
The upshot was that some $300 million had gone missing, and US players were left to apply directly to the DoJ to get access to their funds.
The Green Shoots of Legalized Online Poker in America
It wasn't until the world's biggest online poker site, PokerStars - (also one of the rooms online indicted in the Black Friday raids) - took over Full Tilt itself that everything settled down a little. And things took another turn for the better - or should that be 'bettor' - when the DoJ relaxed the stipulations of the 1961 Wire Act in December 2011, effectively green-lighting the playing of poker online in the USA.
That move allowed states like Nevada and New Jersey to forge ahead with legalized online poker and gambling to residents within state borders.
Nevada issued its first gaming license in 2012, and the first regulated poker room online in the US - UltimatePoker.com - opened its virtual doors in 2013. New Jersey, meanwhile, also went legal in November of the same year, with many of the world's biggest gambling sites partnering up with existing brick-and-mortar establishments in Atlantic City to provide NJ residents poker online.
What Will the Future Hold?
As of 2023, only Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey offer residents totally legal online gambling, and with early profits steady - if unimpressive - we could expect to see more intrastate deals forming over the coming months. Nevada and Delaware have already signed one such historic pact.
Keep an eye out also for more states to start passing their own legislation over 2023. Some observers predict California to go next - and two bills were proposed in February.