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Alex Dreyfus penned a very interesting editorial last week in the Huffington Post sharing his thoughts on the current state of poker. With the glory days of the poker boom a distant memory at this point, the discussion about how poker can adapt to the changing realities of gaming and entertainment is – correctly – a focal point for anyone (player or operator) who takes an interest in the game.

As the mastermind behind the Global Poker Index, and the first ever American Poker Awards held last year, when Alex speaks it’s important to listen.

Now that we’ve all had time to digest his ideas, I wanted to offer a few of my own observations about what he had to say.

How Should We Define Poker?

The heart of the piece seeks to define poker as a sport, a game, and entertainment. I appreciate that framing poker in this way is meant to present the game as dynamic. The insinuation is that an activity that can be different things to different people has huge marketing potential.

In closing his piece, Dreyfus argues that, “Poker has a large but fragmented global fan base that needs aggregation, innovation and disruption to be re-activated. I believe we need to enhance the game, create proper fan engagement – that doesn’t exist anymore – and build content to fulfill an existing appetite.”

I don’t disagree. However, I would suggest that what I think is the most powerful way to do this was actually buried within the text. Dreyfus uses the word “compete” in one form or another no less than five times. Instead of being something within any category, it needs to be a category.

In fact, this idea of poker as competition is where I feel that proposals for the best way to exploit the complexity of poker need to be focused.

Reconsidering What Makes Poker Popular

Competition is the common thread between the structure that Dreyfus presents of poker as game, poker as sport, and poker as entertainment.

Poker as a Game

The Moneymaker effect is the prime example of poker as game. A game is something you do casually and for fun. The 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event said, “Hey, you too can become a millionaire if you play poker. All it takes is one time.”

As a game, poker is the idea that winning a single competition can make you rich.

Poker as a Sport

As that idea gained a foothold in the public consciousness, it transitioned into the digital space. Once there, online poker quickly became serious and competitive.

The math kids (as I affectionately and jealously refer to them) started data mining hand histories and crafting Nash equilibrium strategies with them. The humanities oriented people like myself began thinking about how to approach the game optimally from an emotional and psychological point of view.

The cumulative effect is that you no longer study or learn poker so much as you train for poker if you want to play it seriously.

What started as a game had turned into a sport. A long, grinding competition for who could train hard enough to become a winning player.

Poker as Entertainment

Then there are those in the poker atmosphere who just like to watch a good show. Sure they’ll play a bit, and maybe even pick up a few strategy tips. But what they really love, is the atmosphere that pulsates around poker.

These poker enthusiasts sweat Daniel Negreanu doing pushups on the floor of the Rio, watch Jason Somerville make a run at a PokerStars WCOOP title, or stare in awe as hundred of thousands of dollars go into a pot on High Stakes Poker.

As entertainment, poker is a competition which has personalities, rituals, and prizes. It’s not any different in this sense than watching the Olympics.

Conclusion

No one has a better track record with marketing poker to a mass audience than Dreyfus. Presenting poker as malleable from a marketing perspective is spot on.

But as the industry continues to search for the right buttons to push, it’s important to be clear about what the bedrock is that actually makes the game popular. I personally feel that thinking of poker as a game/sport/entertainment is an over-simplification. Poker is competitive. Marketing it needs to center around matching consumers with the level of competition they are looking for.

If we embrace the common essence of the game we will do much better in selling it to the masses.

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Bradley Chalupski

Bradley Chalupski made his first deposit onto an online poker site in 2009 and has been paying rake and following the poker scene ever since. He received his J.D. from the Seton Hall University School of Law in 2010.

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