With late registration now closed, the 2023 World Series of Poker Main Event has set a new attendance record with 10,043 entries. In doing so, it has ended a 17-year slump and shown that even if online poker’s glory days are over, the live game is alive and well.
Late registration was available until partway through the second day. By the end of the final starting flight, the previous record of 8,773 participants had already fallen. However, the final field wasn’t fixed until 4:30 p.m. PT on July 8, and the number was only released the following day. With over 10,000 players each paying $10,000 to play, the event has a prize pool of $93,399,900 after the deduction of tournament fees. The eventual winner will take home $12,100,000.
WSOP Main Event History
The $10,000 No-Limit Hold’em Championship, colloquially known as the “Main Event,” has grown by a factor of about 2000 since its first run in 1971. Just six players participated that year, with Doyle Brunson squaring off against Johnny Moss, Jack Straus, Puggy Pearson, Jimmy Casella, and Sailor Roberts. Before passing away earlier this year at 89, Brunson had been the last surviving member of that inaugural field, making this year’s attendance record all the more poignant.
Just over a decade later, in 1982, the Main Event passed 100 entries for the first time. In 1998, when the world’s first online poker website opened for business, there were 350 players.
The invention of online poker soon kicked the game’s popularity into overdrive. In 2003, Chris Moneymaker qualified for the Main Event for a mere $86 on PokerStars and went on to win it for $2.5 million.
Moneymaker’s miracle journey and equally fortuitous name captured the public’s imagination. Main Event attendance roughly tripled the following year, from 839 to 2,576 entries. It doubled again to 5,619 in 2005 before surging to 8,773 participants in 2006, setting the record that stood until yesterday.
Over the years, Main Event winners have included legends of old like Brunson and Moss, top pros of the internet era like Jonathan Duhamel and Martin Jacobson, entertaining amateurs like Qui Nguyen, and even one of poker’s greatest villains: notorious cheater Russ Hamilton.
A 17-Year Slump in Main Event Attendance
Disaster befell online poker in 2011 when the US Department of Justice cracked down on offshore sites in what came to be known as Black Friday. By that time, however, the game had already begun to lose some of its luster.
After the massive field of 2006, attendance in 2007 fell to just 6,358. Although slower, perhaps more sustainable growth followed, Black Friday put an end to that. Until 2016, fields hovered in the 6,000 to 7,000 range.
Changes in the series starting in 2015 sparked renewed interest. Once again, online poker was part of the equation, with the first-ever online bracelet event taking place that year on WSOP.com. Series organizers also began making more of an effort to attract recreational players on a budget. The Colossus was another innovation that year, with what was then the lowest-ever buy-in for an open-field bracelet event at $565.
Main Event attendance started to rise again, only narrowly falling short of the 2006 peak with 8,569 players in 2019. If not for COVID-19, 2020 surely would have been a record-setting year, but the pandemic brought live poker to a screeching halt. For the first time in the WSOP’s history, no live series took place that summer and the makeshift online version of the Main Event got a mere 1,379 entries.
In 2021, the live series was back on, but in the fall rather than its usual timeslot. It wasn’t until 2022 that things were truly back to normal, or as normal as they could be, with the series having moved to a new home at Bally’s and Paris rather than the Rio. That year, the Main Event came closer to besting the 2006 field but again fell short with 8,663 entries.
Is This a Silver Age for Poker?
Now that the record has fallen, is poker entering a period of rejuvenation? Perhaps.
Online poker traffic numbers are not what they were in 2006 and likely will never be again. However, legal online poker has been returning gradually to the US, and Michigan recently became the first new member of the Multi-State Internet Gaming Agreement since New Jersey in 2015.
However, poker operators’ efforts to cater separately to recreational and professional players have begun to bear fruit. And online live streams of in-person poker games have proliferated in the social media era.
Poker is undoubtedly more of a niche product than it was in 2006. But with the qualitative changes we’ve seen and the WSOP back to setting records, it might be fair to call this the game’s Silver Age.