Back when I lived in Las Vegas I remember a night of playing $1-$3 NLH at the Treasure Island Poker Room. I was on a table with a close friend and we happen to get into a fairly big pot heads up. I had bricked my draw by the river but when he checked I decided to put in a huge bet to try and take the pot anyway. He tanked for a minute and then made the call with top pair. Upon losing the hand another player at the table, who as it turned out was a poker coach, remarked that I had really polarized my range with the sizing on my river bet. When hearing this my friend immediately asked the floor for a table change. I asked him if he did not want to play on the same table as a friend to which he replied that he simply did not want to be in a $1-$3 game where players were talking about polarizing ranges. This was back in 2009 and it was the day I realized that it was the beginning of the end for No Limit Hold’em.
Back when I started playing in 2003 my friends and I were printing money. Online sites were filled with recreational players that never seemed to mind shipping it in constantly with marginal hands. When we moved out to Vegas in 2005, live games were just as easy as I would often joke that I could walk through a poker room blindfolded and come out with at least a few hundred dollars. But as the game grew, especially online, data collection and the proliferation of software made the game increasingly difficult to play as players were constantly improving and even recreational players became familiar with advanced principles. All one has to do is look at the list of the winners at the Main Event of the World Series of Poker since the boom in 2003. Names like Chris Moneymaker, Jerry Gold and Jerry Yang represented the “every-man”, making many believe that truly anyone can win at the game of poker. But since Joe Cada’s win in 2009, the list of winners has been filled with younger players in their 20’s who all made their way up in the poker world through online sites. And if one does decide to jump online now to try and fulfill their poker dream, they will be faced with players who have played at least a million hands in their lifetime, all using software and many who study daily. And even lower stakes live games are now populated by those with much experience that used to play bigger, now playing smaller in order to survive.
All poker rooms, both live and online, are now riddled with promotions in order to attract players. But all that everyone is doing is recycling the same old players and what most are failing to do is the one thing that might save the game, namely the creation of new players. I see it all the time on my Facebook feed as agents for online poker clubs travel the world over to sign up this player and that player. But these guys were just playing on a different site previously and now they are just going to make the games on some other network much tougher. But creating new players for no limit hold’em is very difficult to do as the game is no longer as attractive as it once was. It is not as ubiquitous on television as before and the lack of participation by huge markets such as North America has depleted the player base of new players. And it does not take even recreational players long to realize that they are completely dominated once they sit down at most tables. Not only are they facing much tougher players with every resource available to them, but hold’em is not a game that lends itself well to newer players. When most of the money gets in the pot for big hands, equity does not run all that close in this game and recreational players often find themselves on the bad side of domination.
The more established players do not help their own cause in this regard. No Limit Hold’em is a game that has become increasingly more difficult to play over the years and the tables are filled with those that are losing more, not winning as much and those that are barely surviving. My friend used to comment about one particular room here in Phnom Pehn that it was such a depressing place to be compared to years prior. The online environment has not proven to be any better as players using software and playing for massive amounts of rakeback have not made for great games. In addition, the online side of things creates its own unique set of problems such as the presence of bots that can now be programmed to beat games at most levels. And the presence of massive promotions that benefit regular players do keep the rooms busy, but in the long run will be the downfall of the game. Recreational players are not attracted by such promotions as it unfairly punishes them for being passers by. Poker is a game that is fed by tourists and those that do not play regularly in any one location. These promotions are always paid for by taking additional money to the rake and recs often figure out that they are being taxed for something that they rarely can benefit from as promotions such as freerolls and bad beat jackpots give a higher chance of hitting for those that play more regularly in one room. And if nothing else, the extra money being taken depletes the money of those that are already losing.
As regular players we have all noticed the proliferation or gaining popularity in recent years of different games apart from no limit hold’em. Games like pot limit omaha have steadily grew over the past decade and even newer games are proving to be popular in parts of Asia such as short deck poker. And while recreational players may not necessarily be conscious of why these games are growing, it is no accident why they are drawn to these tables. I won’t get into the technical intricacies of each game, but the fact remains that in a game with more cards such as omaha the equity runs much closer and bad players do not get their money in as often being dominated, as is the case in a game like no limit hold’em. We see this evolution on a micro level within omaha itself as 5 and 6 card versions are now gaining in popularity as the equities run even closer with the additional cards. Short deck poker produces similar results, although for the opposite reason as cards are now removed from the deck. In either case, the high variance that is created by the equities running closer is also a more attractive feature of the game for newer players. Whether online or on a live table, there is perhaps nothing more boring than sitting in a no limit hold’em game with tight players, most of them chasing some promo offered by the room. These newer games provide a much more conducive environment for gamblers, those that want to play the game for every right reason.
I doubt there will ever be anything like the poker boom again, but it does appear that these newer games represent the future of poker. Fewer players are being attracted to poker today and the price to pay for getting them in very well may be adjusting to play these games. After all there has to be some give and compromise as we cannot expect recreational players to just hand over their money in an environment where regulars have most of the edge. I made the adjustment to omaha myself about a year ago and recently switched to 5-card games. As 6-card variants are now being offered I will probably have to adjust and switch to that game as well eventually. The numbers never lie and the point that I am making here can easily be seen on the tables. When playing these different games, those that have a high VP$IP can regularly be spotted whereas they are rare specimens on the hold’em tables. I do not see anything in the near future that can possibly change this trend. I know many point to the popularity of poker in parts of China as a sign of hope, but I have already covered in previous articles how the way in which the Chinese run their poker rooms is not conducive to the game’s growth. And it just so happens to be that the game of short deck was born out of games in Macau and is already quite popular there. Perhaps if America were to legalize the game again on a federal level and everyone had easy access the market can see an upward spike. But given how legistlation has been slow to be enacted even on a state level, I cannot see that happening any time soon.
There is a phrase that poker players love to use, namely “GTO” which stands for game theory optimal. I absolutely hate this saying as it represents everything wrong with poker culture today. I understand that players want every possible edge and advantage, but without other players to provide that edge there will be no game and more importantly no money to be had. Poker has become a game in which 2% of the playing population win 98% of the money. How long can such an ecosystem be sustained? As players we have to give up some equity on the table itself in order to meet others at some sort of half way point to ensure the survival of the game.