Tracking the Growth (and Shrinking) of Professional Poker Stakes

2 weeks ago
Tracking the Growth (and Shrinking) of Professional Poker Stakes
11 Jan

Poker tournaments are incredibly popular all over the world. With ever-increasing blinds, no buy-in, and a winner takes all mode, they offer excitement that ordinary cash games simply cannot match. Come to think about it, modern “battle royale” video games like Fortnite and PUBG are incredibly popular because they share the same DNA as tournament poker!

The high stakes involved are what truly makes tournament poker stand out. Winners cash in big time, leaving the tournaments as multi-millionaires. Winning a poker tournament is like winning the lottery or jackpot, but with more skill involved. The odds of winning one of these million-dollar pots are pretty good compared to the odds of winning the biggest online slot jackpot, Mega Moolah.

But was this always the case? Did tournament poker start with such eye-watering stakes? Let's take a quick look at the history of stakes at professional poker tournaments. 

The Tournaments That Matter 

When it comes to high stakes poker tournaments, the World Series of Poker (WSOP) has no equal. One can even say that poker tournaments as we know them today began with WSOP, in the early 1970s. Their annual main events occupy the top slots in the table of largest tournaments in poker history. 

Then there are the one-off events, like the Big One For One Drop, held in partnership with charitable causes. Organized by WSOP, these recent tournaments have also broken some records in poker buy-ins and stakes. 

Other tournaments that have come up over the years include the Triton Super High Roller Series, Super High Roller, and Poker Stars main events. But when it comes to tracking the growth of poker stakes, WSOP is what we need to take a look at. 

The Early Decades of WSOP – 1970 to 1990 

There was no prize money awarded in the first-ever WSOP main event where the pros elected one winner. The tournament started giving out prize money to winners in 1971 after the buy-in no-limit Texas Hold 'em format was adopted. That year, Johnny Moss won $30,000 in a tournament that had just 6 players. 

The prize pool grew steadily as the number of players increased in the $10,000 buy-in tournament. By 1980, when the legendary Stu Ungar won his first bracelet, the prize money was $375,000 with 73 players. 

1990 was the last year when a WSOP main event had a six-figure cash prize for the winner. When Mansour Matloubi won the event beating 193 other players, he took home $895,000. In the first two decades of WSOP, the stakes had steadily increased. 

The Million-Dollar Decade - 1991 – 1999

In 1991, Brad Daugherty became the first-ever poker pro to win a million dollars at tournament poker. The total number of participants in the WSOP main event also crossed the 200-milestone that year. 

Throughout the 1990s, 1 million dollars remained the top prize in WSOP main events, even as the number of players slowly crept up to 300 and beyond. The decade was memorable for the return of Stu Ungar, who came back from nowhere to claim his third winner’s bracelet in 1997. 

The Poker Boom – 2000 – 2007

If the 1990s were all about stagnation in terms of prize money, the next decade was something exceptional indeed. Tournament poker truly took off in popularity in the 2000s, thanks to increased coverage on ESPN and the early days of online poker. 

From 2000 to 2003 the number of participants in the WSOP main event nearly doubled to over 800. The stakes also saw a jump, reaching over $2.5 million for Chris Moneymaker in 2003. But that was nothing compared to what came next. 

As the number of participants exploded to over 2500 in 2004, the prize money also doubled to $5 million. The peak was reached in 2006 when Jamie Gold beat 8,773 other players to win a massive $12 million 

A Minor Blip in 2007

By 2006, WSOP had hundreds of satellite tournaments which gave players a chance to qualify for the annual main event. Many of these events were online and they took a serious hit when the US Government passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. 

That event, which led to the “Black Friday of Poker,” knocked all major online poker sites out of the US market - PokerStars, Full Tilt, Ultimate Bet, Absolute Poker. But while online poker suffered, offline tournament events like WSOP continued to prosper. 

A Recovery Story – 2008 – Present

It would take WSOP more than a decade to come close to the records set in 2006. In the intervening years, the number of participants in the main event fluctuated between 6000-7000, with the top prize staying around the $8-million mark. 

In 2019, when Hossein Ensan won the main event and a cool $10 million, the total prize pool was $80 million with 8569 players. Though still a few million-shy of the high set in 2006, poker stakes had shown stable growth. 

If you look at the 15 biggest tournament prize pools, WSOP main events hold the top 5 slots and feature in all but two slots. In 2019, the Triton Million event finalists got a combined $36 million. The runner-up Bryn Kenney pocketed $20 million, 4 million more than the winner Aaron Zang – due to a prize splitting deal between the two during the finals. 

The decade also saw The Big One for One Drop – with a record $1 million buy-In, the 2012 WSOP special event winner Antonio Esfandiari took home a massive $18 million while the runner up Sam Trickett pocketed another $10 million. Part of the prize pool went to charitable causes. 

As you can see, the story of poker tournament stakes has been one of steady growth, with just a few minor hiccups in between.

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Writer and semi-retired poker pro from Edinburgh (UK).Read more


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