The Moneymaker Factor
Poker’s popularity boom may someday overcome that—even in the Beehive State.
Long part of American culture, poker began its ascent in 1970, when Texas moonshiner-cum-Vegas gambler, casino owner and mobster Benny Binion hosted the first World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe.
The inaugural tournament produced poker’s first stars, including “Godfather of Poker” Doyle Brunson. In the late ’90s, online poker infinitely increased the game’s accessibility. Soon after, “hole-cam” technology turned poker into a spectator sport, allowing television audiences a peek at players’ cards. TV poker made players like Brunson, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey into virtual pro athletes. Then there’s the Moneymaker factor.
Poker’s universality and level playing field—compared with pro sports—means that anyone—regardless of age, gender or physical condition—can become a poker champion. In 2003, then-doughy amateur Chris Moneymaker exemplified this by winning the WSOP on ESPN after qualifying in an online satellite tourney. Consequently, every wannabe with the $10,000 buy-in elected to try his hand. To quantify the boom, compare Moneymaker’s prize—$2.5 million—to 2009 WSOP champ Joe Cada’s: $8.5 million.
On average, here in Utah, the WPT and UPT events attract 40 to 50 competitors, sometimes as many as 70 to 80. Zeller plans to add an additional 12 games to the WPT schedule soon, while Kopp opts for the slow build, keeping numerous suitor clubs at bay until he has sufficient staff. The men attribute the demand to the games’ ability to draw a dedicated, drinking crowd. The bars—who pay the poker leagues like they would bands or DJs—reap the rewards. The 40-odd poker players the WPT brought into Trails on Wednesday constituted roughly 80 percent of the club’s occupants, and they enjoyed the club’s services—food, drink, and “other.”
“We bring people in [on dead nights] and keep them there for five hours,” says Kopp. He claims the UPT increased drink sales 600 percent at Batters Up on Thursdays. It also pumped up Piper Down’s slow Sundays—owner Dave Morris reported record drink sales on March 28. In a down economy, and a famously sleepy Utah club industry, that’s good.
Nothing for Nothing
If the crowds at Trails, Habits and Batters Up are any indication of what Utahns want, the law may be unable to keep up with the scene. More telling is a 2005 Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll by Dan Jones and Associates that found Utahns’ attitude toward gambling shifting.
Four percent think gambling is “harmless entertainment.” Thirty-eight percent think it’s “acceptable” entertainment that “could present danger if not monitored closely.” Eleven percent consider it “acceptable for others.” Meanwhile, 43 percent regard gambling as “unacceptable,” potentially harmful.
Of course, playing a game of chance is still illegal, a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. So, how does so much poker go on in Utah without rankling authorities?
Piper Down owner Morris spent two years chasing a legal opinion. Bottom line, the state statute requires three elements must be present to prosecute: 1. people must risk something of value; 2. to play in a game of chance; 3. to receive something of value. So, Morris figured “keeping it free” made it kosher—no risk, no gamble, right? He, Kopp and Zeller separately consulted attorneys and all of them said it’s a gray area, but if nobody pays to play, the games are on the up-andup. “That’s why I try to stress ‘free’ in our advertising,” says Kopp, who launched the UPT two months ago.
This enables the poker tours to not only operate but also to offer nightly prizes ranging from swag to gift cards to cash, and monthly/ quarterly prizes like championship bracelets and seats in bigger tournaments. And although players go in for the competition and camaraderie, the prizes are nice—and cash still seems to be a primary motivation. WPT champion Strong even opted to cash out his prize, a $1,000 seat at the World Series of Poker: “Mama raised me that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Since players receive these somethings for nothing (not counting optional dealer tips), poker still fits the LDS Church’s definition of a game of chance. Kopp begs to differ. “[Nobody pays] to play or is forced to risk anything … [and] this really isn’t a game of chance.”
Bluffing Is a Skill
That’s the rub: Is poker a game of chance, as popularly perceived and defined by gambling laws? Or does skill determine the outcome?
In Texas Hold ’Em, players are dealt two cards, face down, and try to make the best five-card hand from these plus five community cards, revealed on the “flop” (first three cards), “turn” (fourth) and “river” (fifth). Players bet at each stage and can choose to go “all-in,” risking everything.
At Trails I, my strategy was to bet aggressively and steal pots. I finished 11th in a field of 40, so the tactic worked reasonably well. That’s skill. However, at Lumpy’s, I pulled pocket kings (a 110-to-1 occurrence) twice in the first six hands, and got them a third time before the game was over. That’s luck, but so is losing big each time and still finishing ninth.
Then there’s Strong’s winning WPT hand. He held a weak 2-4 of hearts against opponent Terry Huffman. The flop helped neither player, although Strong picked up a heart. His best outcome was to hit “runner-runner”— consecutive hearts on the turn and river—to make an unlikely “backdoor” flush. The skill in bluffing is to stoically stick to the lie, convince your opponent you’re stronger than him. Strong went all-in.
It backfired; Huffman called instantly, showing ace-9 offsuit. With high-card ace, he was a 3-to-1 favorite. “Well, I’m caught,” Strong said before making a birthday wish and dedicating the hand to Zeller, who likes to bluff with 2-4. “It was totally out of my hands … all about luck.”
The hearts hit; Strong won. The consensus among poker players is that the game involves luck, but mostly skill. That’s why Monson and his buddies spent years poring over poker books and videos on Tuesday nights, delving into mathematical probability, psychology and game theory. “It’s no different than the darts and pool leagues found around town,” says Jack S., in that billiards and darts players use geometry and physics to gain a competitive edge. Kopp and Zeller agree. “I’d be willing to bet that if I played 10 of my games that I’d make the final table five of those times,” says Kopp.
“Any given night someone can be lucky or unlucky,” says Zeller, “but over time, the ability to consistently win shows skill.”