English writer William Hazlitt once said, “When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a thing of interest,” and whilst that certainly applies in the modern world of reality television and misbehaving celebrities, it definitely doesn’t apply to online poker. This is an environment where the slightest controversy and the mere suggestion of doubt can end the hopes of any aspiring poker website. This is an industry that processes the financial details of million of players, and each of them are relying on that company to be safe, secure and, above all else, fair, so controversy does not suit this industry.
Despite that, these days it seems that poker rooms are not without their controversy, and the biggest ones have certainly had their fair share of that. Few poker players are unaware of Black Friday, for instance, an event named for friday the 15th of April 2011, when the biggest three websites on the market, Pokerstars, Full Tilt Poker and Cereus (who controlled Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet) were all indicted in United States vs Scheinberg. Until then online poker had been acceptable in the United States — sort of — but it was clear that the US government had never been happy about it and the events that followed Black Friday were seen as their way of finally banning their citizens from the game.
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After Black Friday all three of these poker sites stopped allowing US players to register, and those who had already registered struggled to get their money back. The Cereus poker network was closed down, as was Full Tilt for many months, but Pokerstars continued and eventually bought out Full Tilt, relaunching it some time later. It was the end of an era for some, but the collapse of these three behemoths of the poker world paved the way for a new generation of sites, ones aimed at US players, luring in those that had previously played at one of the big three.
For Pokerstars and Full Tilt it was the first time they had been thrust into the spotlight in such a manner, but Cereus weren’t entirely unfamiliar with bad press as both Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet had been involved in cheating scandals. For Ultimate Bet it began in 2005 and involved several members of staff who used their knowledge of the software to cheat, allowing them to see the hole cards of other players. The people at the top discovered the flaw a couple of years later and they refunded some of the players affected, but it is likely that the extent of the cheating was much more damaging than they led us to believe.
For Absolute Poker the issue also involved someone who could allegedly see hole cards, with a player known as POTRIPPER winning himself a reported $1.6 million over a period of forty days. This admission came from Absolute Bet themselves, but only after suspicions had been raised elsewhere. It was the POTRIPPER’s opponents who first picked up on his uncanny ability to win at every hand, and footage of his victories are still available online: http://youtu.be/FczbS7FiWSM
Another poker site that used to dominate the market but quickly fell flat, is Party Poker. It still operates to this day and it was not involved in the Black Friday indictment, but it used to be much more popular than it is now. Party Poker was launched in 1997 and became one of the first of its type, taking a huge share of the market over the years that followed. In fact, due to its generous affiliate system, and thanks to the “golden age of spam” Party Poker was one of the most common unwarranted popups and redirects on the internet, although through no fault of their own. Party Poker’s own legal problems came with the passing of the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act of 2006, which did to them what similar laws would do to its rivals a few years later, eradicating all US players from the site and causing Party Poker’s value to drop to an all-time low.
The Current Market Leaders
Pokerstars were the market leaders before Black Friday and they were also the ones that survived the event the most intact, with an estimated 50 million players on the site. US players are no longer allowed on Pokerstars, but the site is still going strong and it remains the biggest (and many would say best) place to play poker on the internet. There are thousands of tournaments on Pokerstars everyday and it is also home to Zoom Poker, the Spring Series of Online Poker and the World Series of Online Poker. In fact, many US players were unable to imagine a life without Pokerstars and therefore moved to Europe or Canada just so they could continue to play at the biggest online poker site of them all.
Full Tilt were a close second to Pokerstars and most players played at one or both of these sites, but after the collapse a lot of people lost faith in Full Tilt. Phil Ivey, who had served as their main spokesman for many years, even tried to sue them, before dropping his case later on. The purchase of Full Tilt from Pokerstars occurred in the summer of 2012, and the software was relaunched some time later, after sitting dormant for many months. It had lost a lot of credibility, but it ran a series of promotions in an effort to regain its significant player database and to this day it continues to grow, although it is some way off the size that it once was.
As we mentioned above, Party Poker used to be much bigger than it is now, but it still remains as the third most populous poker website of them all, behind Pokerstars and Full Tilt. The majority of its players were from the United States, and unlike Pokerstars it has always struggled to find a stronghold in the International market, but there are still many players that call Party Poker home and it remains as one of the oldest and longest running poker sites around.
Ever since the explosion in popularity after the millennium, when the Word Series of Poker and its million dollar winners guided aspiring gamblers everywhere into this exiting game, Poker has continued to grow year on year. It took a considerably hit following the law changes in the United States, but although the United States have always had the highest percentage of real money online players, there are still plenty of players elsewhere. There is a belief that after the United States, the majority of the poker players come from Russia, but this Eastern European giant is actually 4th on the list of biggest poker playing nations, with Germany and France ahead of it. In fact, even without including these two European behemoths, there are still over a million players across Eastern Europe, with Great Britain, Spain and the Netherlands contributing heavily to this number. Away from Europe, there are over a quarter of a million players in Australia and Brazil alone, and these are two of the fastest growing nations in terms of online poker, with Australia recently becoming one of the most popular destinations thanks to its hosting of the Aussie Millions, the Asia Pacific Poker Tour and the Australia and New Zealand Poker Tour.
This is an industry that makes a lot of money for the market leaders, but it is also an industry where none of those market leaders can claim a clean reputation. All experienced poker players have lost their faith in one poker site or another, and all are waiting to devote their loyalty to the next big pretender that promises them the ability to play their game in peace and without fear of cheaters or lawsuits. Some of the newest ones getting in on the act belong to the bookmakers, those that already have a good reputation and client-base, but there is a habit of using preexisting networks and software that the current wave of poker players are used to and tired of.
One of the ones that looks set to break the mold, however, is TonyBet. Not only is the website run by a poker player (“The Mouth” Tony G) but it also offers Open-face Chinese Poker, which promises to be the next big thing. A time will come when players leave the likes of Pokerstars and Full Tilt behind and head for pastures new, and when that begins to happen then those sites will expand and improve and once they do that then their numbers will grow even further. The darkness left by Black Friday is fading and a new light is poking through, but whilst Pokerstars and Full Tilt will hope that means a new beginning and a new chance for them, poker players everywhere will be hoping that a new pretender will emerge from the shadows and usher in a new age of poker.
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