Thanks to cleverly subtle emotional blackmail, my girlfriend persuaded me to watch a new romantic TV series called Bridgerton. If you haven’t seen it yet, the program is about high-class love scandals in late 18th century England. Not my usual tipple, but hey-ho.
In truth, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly enjoying all the bourgeoisie and banter. But what I like most about Bridgerton is how it highlights just how much things have changed over the last 100 years or so.
Everything, from how people dress and talk to how they dance and party, is worlds away from what we know today. It’s a subtle reminder of one of the unavoidable truths in life –
- Everything changes.
- Poker is no exception either.
Even with its relatively rigid set of rules, the game has witnessed significant changes over the last few decades. We’ll examine those changes in this article.
Table of Contents
Old School Poker Faces
One of the most significant changes in poker relates to the people at the tables. While cardrooms feel pretty safe and welcoming these days, things used to be far different.
Thanks to mutual friends, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a few beers with the late Dave ‘The Devilfish’ Ulliot on several occasions. The Devilfish is a legitimate poker legend who played when poker was far more dangerous than it is today.
As high-stakes player and casino owner, Rob Yong, commented in a 2019 documentary, Dave ‘loved to be the centre of attention’. So, it’s no surprise that the times I met him were dominated by outlandish tales of his wild poker career.
Not that anyone minded; the Devilfish had a natural talent for storytelling. So, we happily sat around like toddlers at story time, hanging on every word.
He told us of his run-ins with concealed weapons in underground casinos, mirroring his 2008 description of the poker grind as, ‘A James Bond lifestyle without the bullets. [Although] we used to have the bullets as well!’
In an old Devilfish documentary, he described the poker community as a bunch of ‘liars and back-stabbers’. He recalled using a snooker ball in a sock to defend himself from muggers outside the casinos.
These tales mirror the stories told by Doyle Brunson in interviews. These anecdotes paint a picture of a wild, unsafe poker community riddled with mobsters and menace.
New School Poker Faces
The Poker Boom changed all that. Thanks to the advent of online poker (along with Moneymaker’s Main Event win), people’s attitudes towards poker changed. People could play far more hands and hone their skills in far less time than previously in a brick-and-mortar casino.
The use of online strategy forums surged too. People began sharing cutting-edge strategies and ideas. As with most things, practice makes perfect. With so many players pooling their ideas, the standard rose sharply.
This influx of young, high-level players completely changed the landscape of poker. Almost 20 years later, these new-school players dominate the card rooms.
- The average age is far lower than before.
- The typical persona is more studious than intimidating.
- Flip-knives and shotguns have switched to formulas and solvers.
- Players are more likely to crunch numbers in PIO than noses in a car park.
Hollywood’s portrayal of poker means that many still synonymise the industry with a gangster-style community. But the reality is that people playing poker today are far less criminal and much more timid.
It’s ironic as the games themselves are far more aggressive from a strategic perspective.
Safety First, Evolution Second
The advent of online poker changed a lot too. You could be knee-deep in a game, at whatever stakes, from the comfort of your home. No gangsters, no shotguns, and no danger… unless you were still using dial-up, of course!
As the big poker sites monopolised the industry, access to good live poker games became far easier. Playing in big, underground games was no longer necessary. And taking the risks that came with playing in them became almost non-existent.
People could leave their snooker balls at home, safe in the knowledge that they were unlikely to be robbed. They could have any winnings wired directly to their online poker or bank accounts.
Even the venues themselves made the game more appealing: Casinos were regulated, had their own security teams, and used cameras to prevent cheating. The whole industry feels far safer, encouraging more new-school players to take their shot.
Today, the industry has become a safe and regulated place to play.
The Bellagio cardroom is my favourite in Vegas. As well as being inside one of the most beautiful and famous casinos on the strip, it’s run pretty well. And the atmosphere is excellent.
I can still recall my first session, not that I got to play much poker. Hit with a long waiting list, I was banished to the fringes. As I mooched around, I noticed a plaque on the wall listing the House Rules.
Along with identifying the casino’s usual, boring rake and regulatory terms, the plaque clarified that ‘check-and-raise is permitted.’
This ruling seemed pretty bizarre. Not because check-raising was allowed, of course. But the casino felt that this needed to be confirmed. It seemed like saying you’re allowed to wash your underwear or walk your dog. As I saw it, check-raises were a regular part of poker strategy.
Why wouldn’t they be allowed?
To understand the rule, we need to clarify the age of the plaque. As the Bellagio’s cardroom opened in 1998, the casino likely hung the plaque then. While this might seem relatively recent, it means the plaque predates the Poker Boom.
It’s from a time when most poker players still had an old-school mindset.
As you may have gathered from comments made by more aged opponents, it was often considered polite and gentlemanly to ‘bet your hand.’
As a result, many believed check-raising (or sandbagging, as it was known) to be rude and dishonourable. People hate being check-raised at the best of times. The social offence of a chunky check-raise probably led to many ‘pistols at dawn’ types of arguments.
It’s a stark contrast to today’s games, where check-raising is standard. Many people see a check-raise-bluff as a pretty bad-ass play.
By today’s strategic standards, you’re unlikely to be a very good player if you are not check-raising enough.
The new stance on check-raising shows a considerable shift in poker attitudes. It’s indicative of a generation of players that aim to be balanced all around.
Any non-masochist is still finding being check-raised as annoying as petrol prices right now.
Modern, new-school players accept it as part of the game.
Team Pros and Sponsorship
Another thing that’s changed a lot in recent years is the prevalence of sponsored professionals and poker ambassadors. At the height of the poker boom, obtaining a sponsorship was simply a case of winning the right tournament.
- Patches of all shapes and colours littered the shirts of any player lucky enough to make a feature table.
- Operators threw around sponsorships as liberally as insults on a Jake Paul post.
So, the prospect of poker fame and fortune was a very realistic proposition. Many players set themselves these goals. Becoming a team pro was both obtainable and satisfying.
Securing a sponsorship seemed a great way to offset the financial instability in professional poker. That said, it wasn’t all about the money.
Your short-term results are often disconnected from the quality of your performance. Team Pro status offers validation and achievement that is rare in poker. Marketing campaigns glorified sponsored pros as heavyweights.
Their prominence on an online poker site encouraged players to log in and test their metal against them. Or they may have aspired to follow in their favourite team pro player’s footsteps.
Nowadays, securing sponsorship is far harder, and the market has changed. Less money is circulating online due to smaller skill edges and reduced popularity. Now sites are far more sensible about their signees.
Obtaining a Team Pro status these days requires more hard work than luck.
- You must remain marketable while grinding hard enough to compete with the game’s elite
- Or (ambitiously) commit tens of thousands of hours into building a following on Twitch, Instagram, or YouTube.
While this makes the title of Team Pro far more prestigious, it is far more unachievable for today’s players.
All Work and No Play
Poker has changed dramatically from a social perspective too. There will always be a small number of sore losers, know-it-alls, and Debbie-downers. The tables feel far less chatty in general these days.
At the highest level, players like Christoph Vogelsang are killing the game’s vibe by sitting in silence for 10 minutes before making their turn. Vogelsang might be a boss strategically, but he’s an awful advert for fun poker.
Compare his slow, lifeless style to players like Hellmuth, Laak, Negreanu, Esfandiari, and Tony G. Their interactions made poker look fun and appealing on TV shows like Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker.
Even online, many sites are replacing chat boxes with emoji wheels or removing them altogether. It seems that social interaction is not in vogue anymore.
But Why Don’t People Talk Anymore?
As we mentioned, the poker boom bought an influx of younger, more studious players. These players dominate the modern tables, and they didn’t come to chat.
They came to relieve you of your hard-earned so that they can bulk buy Red Bull and Adderall.
Online, most players typically play many games simultaneously, making chit-chat near impossible. Sometimes, it feels as anti-social as a rush hour subway ride.
Chatting online seems to have stopped being a thing.
The same is true in live games. Though you’re unlikely to find a table of Vogelsang’s, the games are becoming more serious. Especially as you move away from the micro stakes, which many (especially older) recreational play for social pleasure.
But the increase in player ability forces them to take the game seriously to survive. Thanks to myriads of streams and online content, even most recreational players are relatively solid these days.
There is a higher ratio of current or aspiring professionals at the tables than 10 or 20 years ago. Many private and high-stakes games often run around only one or two fish.
If you want to see how much the game has changed, compare the attitudes of older players to younger ones. The slightly older generation (say those in their 40s and 50s) are likelier to crack open a beer and throw a bit of banter around.
Things change - It’s something we have to accept.
Poker has changed a lot in the last 25 years.
Who knows what it will look like in 25 more!