Can Pennsylvania Online Poker Help Grow The WSOP Main Event?

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The 2019 World Series of Poker Main Event drew 8,569 players, the second largest turnout in the history of the tournament. The 2006 Main Event, which ran just months prior to the passage of the infamous Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, attracted 8,773 players.

This year wasn’t an anomaly. The event has been trending up, with four straight years of growth. There were 7,874 players in 2018 and 7,221 in 2017, the third and fifth highest, respectively, of all-time.

Unlike other events at the annual poker tournament festival, the $10k buy-in No-Limit Hold’em Championship does not allow re-entries. There’s one player attached to each buy-in in the prize pool.

International players played a key role in the growth in 2019.

  • In 2019, the breakdown was 6,110 U.S. players (71.3%) and 2,459 international players (28.7%).
  • In 2018, the breakdown was 5,758 Americans (73.1%) and 2,116 non-Americans (26.9%).

Still, there was also growth in terms of American entrants. And that’s a trend that’s set up to continue.

The state of the states

Pennsylvania is home to nearly 13 mm people. A total of 157 of the Main Event’s 8,569 players were from PA (1.8%), according to WSOP figures provided to Penn Bets. That was on par with France’s participation (151 players). In comparison, the WSOP had 240 Main Event players from NJ, or 2.8%.

NJ has about 8.9 mm people.

Both PA and NJ participation were down compared to 2018, when NJ had 263 and PA had 166. This summer was better than 2017, though, when NJ had 212 and PA accounted for 148.

NJ’s regulated online poker industry, which began more than five years ago, has struggled mightily in terms of revenue (rake), and the Garden State’s Main Event participation is a reflection of that. Other forms of online gambling in the state have exploded in betting volume, while peer-to-peer poker has languished.

Nevada, home to only 3 mm people, accounted for 698 of the Main Event entrants, or 8.1%. Proximity to Las Vegas is important, and thus online poker will be able to bring the WSOP closer to folks in the Keystone State. The floodgates won’t open in PA with online poker, as we can see with NJ. However, it wouldn’t be surprising to see PA Main Event participation equal or surpass NJ’s.

That would still keep Pennsylvania significantly behind the state of Texas, which saw 442 players in this year’s Main Event, according to the WSOP. The Lone Star state is home to nearly 29 mm people, and its Main Event representation benefits from it being within a reasonable driving distance to Las Vegas. The Texas “social poker” boom in recent years has likely played a key role in the state going from 340 Main Event players in 2017 to this summer’s relatively impressive total.

Despite PA’s relatively lackluster participation, the state being equipped with online poker could help the tournament inch closer to breaking its participation record.

West Virginia, home to just 1.8 mm people, only accounted for nine players in the 2019 Main Event, one of the least represented states in the tournament. The Mountain State could also soon be sending more players to poker tournament festival, though not directly through the WSOP platform, which doesn’t appear to currently have a way of entry into the market.

Who’s online, and who will be soon

While about 350 more U.S. players entered this year than last year, the lack of widespread regulated online poker is still keeping growth slower than it could be.

Currently, just Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware have regulated, real-money online poker. There’s liquidity sharing between them. WSOP online bracelet events are not confined to only people physically located in the Silver State. Two players from within NJ won WSOP online bracelet events this summer.

In 2019, Pennsylvania and West Virginia took major steps toward the regulation of real-money online poker. On Monday, the former green lighted its first online casinos to launch and take bets. Unlike slots and house-banked table games, online poker wasn’t available right away. It is expected to kick off sometime later this summer or early fall, either through the existing operators or additional ones that come online.

Pennsylvania’s 2017 online gambling law allows for the state to enter into “interactive gaming reciprocal agreements” with other states that also regulate online poker. The agreements are negotiated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board and approved by the governor.

A spokesperson for the PGCB told Penn Bets that state regulators have not started working on negotiating liquidity sharing for online poker. One should not expect PA to have a reciprocal agreement in place ahead of next summer’s WSOP, which means no online bracelet access for poker players staying home.

West Virginia, which already has experience with online/mobile sports betting, could go live with online poker in 2020. Other states on the radar for online poker legalization are Michigan and Kentucky. The former is still debating an online casino bill on the table, while the latter wasn’t successful with a combo bill earlier this year that would have legalized the regulation of both sports betting and internet poker. Additional states will eventually consider online poker, thanks to the proliferation of legal online gambling in the form of sports wagering. The dam is slowly breaking.

Liquidity sharing is the name of the game, because without it Pennsylvania, and all the new online poker states, won’t have the player pool necessary to move the needle on their own.

Satellites

Harrah’s Philadelphia in Pennsylvania will at some point launch online poker, powered by 888, under the WSOP banner. The poker platform will offer satellites to WSOP tournaments, which should provide a slight boost to the Main Event field. Of course, the casino’s live poker room, also branded as a WSOP room, is already able to offer satellites, but an online component will bring poker to more people.

It’s not known what percentage of Main Event participants were able to secure the funds necessary to enter through a qualifying tournament, whether online or in-person at a gambling facility somewhere in the country. Non-WSOP affiliated poker rooms can run their own independent satellites.

The momentum is there for the WSOP Main Event to continue to grow thanks to satellites in all forms. The first-place prize was $10 mm this summer, only the third time in WSOP history that the top payout was worth eight figures. That should help draw more entrants, whether via satellite or direct buy-in, in the years ahead.

Online poker is still a ways off from pouring jet fuel onto the tournament, like it did during the poker boom years. The record of 8,773 players in 2006 was a whopping 56% gain over 2005. Online poker needs to be available in more states — and they need to all pool players — in order for the game to generate the same buzz it once did. Pennsylvania going online is long-awaited progress, but it’s not yet enough.

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Brian Pempus

Brian served as a senior reporter and online content manager for Card Player Magazine for nearly a decade before joining USBets in October 2018. He is currently focused on legal and regulated sports betting and online gaming. He's an avid jiu-jitsu practitioner in his free time.

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