In 2003 an anonymous Tennessee accountant with the unlikely name of Chris Moneymaker invested $100 in an online poker tournament in which the first prize was a $10,000 entry in the annual World Series of Poker championship in Las Vegas.
Moneymaker went on to win the World Series championship bracelet and $2.5 million, igniting the spark that fueled an astounding three-year boom in the business of tournament poker. The combination of widespread television coverage (made possible by the invention of the "hole card" camera that enables viewers to see each player's hidden cards as the play of each hand progresses) and Internet poker, led millions of new players to enter the tournament arena, hoping to duplicate Moneymaker's success.
The simplest way to measure the explosion in tournament poker in the United States is by the number of contestants in the annual World Series of Poker championship event. During its 33-year history prior to Moneymaker's win, the average number of contestants was 181. Three years after Moneymaker appeared on the David Letterman show to talk about his leap from small-stakes online player to world champion, 8,773 players put up $10,000 apiece to compete for the 2006 world championship bracelet and $12.5 million in first-prize money.
Nearly 80 percent of them won their seats by entering inexpensive online tournaments.
A high proportion of the newly minted Internet players are in their 20s and early 30s. Whereas the World Series field used to be composed of grizzled veteran professionals, during the last few years it has been dominated by young neophytes playing in only their first or second World Series competition.
The huge explosion in tournament poker generated a mass market for poker-related products and services. Poker books and television shows proliferated. My TiVo — which is set to record all shows relating to "poker" — used to record a few shows a week. Now it records dozens.
When Greg Raymer won the World Series championship in 2004 after qualifying in an online tournament on PokerStars, he promptly quit his job as an in-house lawyer at Pfizer. PokerStars signed him to an exclusive marketing contract that paid him much more than his law job.
For the last few years, Greg has been featured in PokerStars' television and print ads, encouraging the rest of us amateur players to indulge the fantasy that if we play on PokerStars and win a seat in the World Series, we, too, might be able to quit our day jobs, play poker full time and sign a lucrative endorsement deal with a company marketing to the expanding population of worldwide poker players.
All of this came to a screeching halt last weekend, when an unexpected confluence of political events led Congress to stick a provision into a port security bill at the 11th hour — one that's designed to shut down Internet gaming in the United States.
There were no hearings and no debate in the Senate, originally created by the Constitutional framers to be the "world's greatest deliberative body," where the potential passions of the mob as expressed by the larger, more populist House of Representatives, would be slowed down and moderated by the careful consideration intended by the rules of the Senate.
Not this time.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., concerned that his involvement with the discredited Jack Abramoff (lobbyist for Indian gaming interests) might jeopardize his re-election prospects in November, instructed the House leadership to pass a bill restricting Internet gaming in the United States — no matter what it took. The House did just that.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who would love to run for President in 2008, was eager to do the same in the Senate to show the vocal Christian right wing of his party that he shares their aversion to gambling. (Remember the Reagan days, when the conservative wing of the Republican Party won elections by railing against big government meddling in people's lives? I guess those folks will have to vote Democratic now.)