Three years ago Tuesday the federal government shut down online poker in the United States, accompanied by projections the game's popularity would quickly fold.
Well, numbers from this week's World Poker Tour/Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown indicate otherwise.
A record number of entrants -- 1,795 -- took a shot at a $1 million-plus first place prize at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. That's the most ever for an event in the 12 years of the World Poker Tour.
A quick note here, to be fair: The tournament formats have changed in recent years, allowing eliminated players to rebuy. So an untold number last week re-upped another $3,500 after losing all their chips the first time.
"Still, ultimately they have to pay the money," WPT President Adam Pliska says.
Poker's outlook seemed bleak back in April 15, 2011, known as "Black Friday" to online players. That's when the U.S. Justice Department raided the three most popular poker sites — PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker — and summarily shut them down, seizing about 76 bank accounts in 14 countries and five domain names. Those sites drove the industry by buying advertising on TV poker shows and in poker magazines, and young pros amassed winnings playing on their home computers that funded their entry into casino card rooms.
Some poker shows did indeed go under, the but the World Poker Tour, which has its own free online site, ClubWPT.com, wasn't hurt, Pliska said.
"Our numbers went up because the other shows were really online commercials," he said. The first airing of each WPT show, which is spread across several networks, now draws about 1 million viewers, he said. (The World Poker Tour is essentially a production company, taping and editing tournaments at casinos worldwide then selling the rights.)
Seminole Hard Rock officials had promised players a prize pool of $5 million, and they needed 1,551 entrants to avoid tapping into their own funds to fulfill the guarantee. The 1,795 entrants mean that $5M barrier has been smashed, and players will split $5.7 million.
The Seminole Hard Rock made news when it guaranteed $10 million last August for a non-WPT tournament, charging $5,300 to enter, and that tournament created a buzz for players to play here, said Ray Stefanelli, the Seminoles' director of poker marketing.
"It's just a testament to the growth of Seminole Hard Rock Poker and the continuing evolution of poker not only at our Seminole properties but for poker in Florida," he said. The WPT's Pliska noted that the WPT has 10 events scheduled for Florida this year, including in Jacksonville, as well as the Seminoles' Tampa and Coconut Creek poker rooms.
Poker has boomed in Florida since July 1, 2010, when laws were eliminated that limited buy-ins for cash games to $100 and poker entries at $800. The largest tournament so far is believed to be at Palm Beach Kennel Club, which attracted 2,607 entrants to a $555 buy-in tournament in February 2012.
Among the top names the Seminole Hard Rock tournament drew were Scotty Nguyen, Phil Laak, Jennifer Tilly, Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi and Jason Mercier. They've all been eliminated, but several Hard Rock regulars remain.
The final table taping, with commentary from Mike Sexton, is at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Hard Rock Live. Admission is free, but there aren't many seats, and sometimes fans have to wait outside and watch via closed-circuit TV until a spot opens up.
Get live updates on the tournament at WorldPokerTour.com or SeminoleHardRockPokerOpen.com.