The 2003 World Series of Poker is credited with kick starting what would later be dubbed the “poker boom.”
But by the time Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 WSOP Main Event, poker’s popularity had already been trending upward for several years.
The mini poker boom of the 1990’s
Poker’s star began rising in the late 1990’s, thanks in large part to three factors.
More places to play
Casino expansion in the early and mid-1990’s brought new poker venues to the Northeast (Foxwoods), the South (Mississippi), as well as other sections of the country.
By the late 1990’s, casino poker was widely available beyond the usual locales of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and California’s card rooms. For the first time, vast segments of Americans were being exposed to the game.
Fans flock after flick
In September of 1998, Rounders was released, and while the film was well received, it was a box office flop. However, the movie quickly caught on when it was released in DVD format, causing a rush of young Mike McDermott wannabes to flood poker rooms across the country. Or, to try their luck at some newfangled idea called online poker.
Poker goes cyber
On January 1, 1998 Planet Poker launched the first real-money online poker site in the world. By the turn of the century multiple sites were offering online poker.
New tournament series are born
The game’s rising popularity caused several casinos to ponder the idea of hosting their own WSOP-style tournament series, and one of those casinos was owned by Donald Trump, who was known for pulling out all the stops when he was in the casino business.
In 1996 Trump created the United States Poker Championship or USPC for short. With Trump marketing the series, the USPC quickly became one of the most prestigious in poker, and was one of the first outside of the WSOP to be filmed for television.
The USPC was a bit ahead of the impending poker wave, and with a $500,000 guarantee for the winner of the $7,500 buy-in Main Event tournament (which boasted just 100 entrants) had an extremely top-heavy and off-putting prize-pool.
Ken Flaton pocketed $500,000 for the win while the third place finisher, Phil Hellmuth, took home just $63,000.
The tournament wasn’t held in 1997, but returned triumphantly in 1998 and was one of the most prestigious tournaments in poker for close to a decade.
The 1999 USPC: the most important poker tournament pre-2003
Prior to ESPN’s coverage of the 2003 WSOP, the 1999 USPC was one of the most important tournaments ever seen on TV as it showcased some of poker’s biggest personalities and was rife with drama. It also introduced anyone watching ESPN at 3 AM to one of poker’s future stars, Daniel Negreanu.
The final table featured six very solid players, and the 1999 USPC came down to a dream matchup between two players, grizzled pro John Bonetti and a 24-year-old up-and-comer named Danny Negreanu – who in addition to using the name Danny, also appears to have been sponsored by Nike at the time.
Negreanu would go on to win the tournament (gambling for all his chips with just a flush draw in the final hand) and the legend of Kid Poker was born.
Thanks to the thrilling finale the 1999 USPC was a mainstay in ESPN’s late-night rotation.
The USPC during the poker boom
When the poker boom hit, the USPC – like most series – saw a dramatic rise in attendance.
In 2002 John Hennigan won the USPC Main Event and $216,000. By 2005 the USPC Champion was pocketing over $800,000.
The USPC was also known for the slew of big names that won the tournament or made multiple final tables in the Main Event:
- Ken Flaton (1st in 1996)
- Daniel Negreanu (1st in 1999)
- Men Nguyen (1st in 2001)
- Phil Hellmuth (3rd in 1996 and 2003)
- John Juanda (2nd in 2000 and 2001 and 6th in 2002)
- Erik Seidel (2nd in 2002 and 2003)
- John Hennigan (1st in 2002 and 4th in 2003)
Despite its exposure and the big names performing well, the tournament series was never able to break into the elite tier of tournaments, failing to hit the multi-million dollar first place prizes awarded at some of the bigger WPT stops.
Part of the problem may have been the USPC’s decision to remain independent of any poker tour or affiliations throughout its existence, a decision that prevented it from gaining the television exposure of other tournaments (the USPC was broadcast by ESPN) and a move that almost certainly stunted its growth.
After a strong decade-long run, the USPC nosedived in 2008.
Like the poker boom, the demise of the USPC was brought on by several factors.
The tournament took place in October of 2008, when the entire country was in panic mode over the Great Recession.
Secondly, the impact of UIGEA was starting to rear its ugly head, crippling parts of the poker economy, most notably cutting off the flows of advertising dollars from overseas operators for poker programming.
In the new post-UIGEA climate, ESPN decided to stop televising the event.
Without TV cameras, attendance dropped from 164 in 2007 to just 52 in 2008. The decline is even more precipitous when you consider there were 261 entrants in 2006.
The USPC soldiered on for two more years, but the 2010 USPC was the last running of the event (the tournament buy-in was reduced to $5,000, and drew just 96 entrants), ending the popular tournament series’ 15-year run.
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