PCA 2015: From 'Hold Me Darling' to Twitch
"I feel like we're right at the cusp of something tremendous happening".
WSOP bracelet winner and internet sensation Jason Somerville is speaking with the passion which has made him so successful, both as a player and as a broadcaster. "We know how hard it is to keep an audience's attention for more than two minutes. My average Twitch viewer watches for 45 minutes. And these people are not hardcore players, these are people who are asking me in chat, 'What's a button? What's an ante?'".
We're in a side room off the main tournament area at Atlantis, mere feet away from Day 1A of the PCA Main Event, discussing the evolution of the game that so many have come here to play. To Jason's immediate left is Team PokerStars Pro Barry Greenstein, while next to Barry sits celebrated poker writer Jim McManus, whose recent book Cowboys Full attempts to tell the complete story of poker, from its earliest incarnations in Persia, Spain and beyond, to the days of the Mississippi steamboats and on to the era of the internet pro. If one were feeling Dickensian, one might think of McManus, Greenstein and Somerville as representing the ghosts of poker past, present and future. While the word 'ghosts' may not be quite accurate - the trio are very much alive and kicking - it's fair to say that they're far more than qualified than most to explain where the game's been, where it is and where it's going.
McManus starts, appropriately enough, at the beginning, discussing the early forms of poker, through to the days of draw and stud, until the fateful moment in the 1930s when more than seven ranch hands decided they wanted to play seven card stud at the same time, with just the one deck of cards. The age of the community card was born and 'Hold Me Darling', or Hold'em, came into existence. You've probably heard of it.
"Where I lived, in Illinois, we didn't see Hold'em 'til the early 70s," Greenstein chips in. "Then in the late 70s we had this game called 'Juarez', like Omaha but with three cards instead of four. It was a hustlers' game: you'd use two cards, four spades would come down and some guy would have the ace of spades and think he'd have the nuts and he didn't, he'd lose. They'd play that game until everyone knew they'd have to use two cards. Then they'd play something else".
Hearing Greenstein's tales about the cheating that went on in Vegas back in the 70s makes you realise just how far poker has come. Forget random number generators - in those days you'd have to overcome everything from spyholes in the ceiling, players receiving signals via hidden wires strapped to their legs, and rampant collusion to make a profit at the tables.
Greenstein goes on to discuss the early days of televised poker, and his first appearance on the show 'Poker Superstars', where US viewers could see players' hole cards (although as James Hartigan is quick to point out, TV viewers in the UK were already used to such privileges thanks to 'Late Night Poker').
"Eight people were chosen to play, but no one knew who I was as I didn't play tournaments in those days. The producers said to me, 'What are we going to put under your name, that you've won a lot of money at poker?' I said, 'When is this going to air?' They said six months. I said, 'give me six months'...by the time it aired, they could put under my name that I was a WPT winner and a WSOP winner". Now that's how you build a resumé.
No discussion of televised poker would be complete without mentioning the huge impact of EPTLive, from the initial final-table-only webcasts to the introduction of the one-hour delay that enabled cards-up coverage. The panel agrees that the concurrent growth of televised poker and the online game helped to make Hold'em the world's game of choice, but where will the next chapter take us? Back to Jason Somerville.
"One of the things we could learn a lot from as an industry is e-sports, the world of professional videogames. Sites like Twitch have sprung up that allow videogamers to stream themselves as they're playing. Twitch now accounts for something like 2-3% of the entire traffic on the internet. Globally speaking that's more traffic than Facebook or Twitter. Treating poker more like an e-sport is the key to the industry. We have this 18-35 year-old demographic that loves to play videogames, that is now looking at poker again. It's going to be a big year for poker on Twitch, I think that's going to be the next wave".
Whatever the next stage in the game's evolution may hold, it's clear that there's lots more poker to be played - especially for the players over the hall in the Main Event, where the antes have just kicked in. Let's just hope they all know what one is.
Adam Hampton is a copywriter for PokerStars.