In his thought-provoking book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell writes that "the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends ...or the phenomena of word of mouth ...is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do."
The tipping point, then, Gladwell explains, is "the name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once."
Surely Texas Hold 'em is one such epidemic. Five years ago, when Gladwell's book was released, poker appeared on just one channel (ESPN) and it scored anemic ratings. During a recent one-week span, one could have watched poker on nine different channels -- you can imagine that a Poker Channel is not far off. At the Travel Channel, which introduced the "lipstick camera" that allows viewers to see a player's hole cards, the World Poker Tour draws 3 to 5 million viewers weekly, making it the network's highest-rated show.
The numbers are staggering: Two years ago, according to pokerpulse.com, the industry watchdog for online poker, $11 million was bet daily on Internet poker sites. Today, more than $190 million is bet each day. The number of active online players in that same period has grown from 83,000 to 1.9 million.
In 2000, again, the year of The Tipping Point's release, 512 people ponied up $10,000 apiece to enter the Worlds Series of Poker (WSOP), the game's most prestigious event. By 2003, that number had risen slightly to 839. But in '04, it more than tripled, to 2,576. This year's tournament (held in June) may reach 5,000 entrants (contestants can buy in almost as late as they please -- all you need is 10 large and you're in).
So what was the tipping point for poker?
"The boom started in 2003," says Lou Krieger, author of Poker for Dummies. "You can just about measure the date when it began."
While 2003 was also the first year ESPN produced the World Series of Poker (previously, ESPN had aired a variety of poker events as one- and two-part shows), the Worldwide Leader's association was only part of the story. The larger story was the the triumph of Chris Moneymaker in the '03 WSOP Main Event.
Chris Moneymaker. That's his real name. Two years ago, Moneymaker was an anonymous, slightly paunchy, goateed 27-year-old accountant from Nashville, Tenn. At that time, he had been playing Texas Hold 'em online on pokerstars.com for three years. He had never played in a live game before.
Moneymaker, in a story that almost every premier player under the age of 30 also tells, was inspired by the 1998 film Rounders (see our story on the cult classic, in which a law student portrayed by Matt Damon takes down a top older Russian player, portrayed by John Malkovich, and then moves to Las Vegas). He anted up $39 to play in a satellite tournament against 17 other players. A satellite tournament works on a pyramid-scheme level. If you cannot afford the WSOP's $10,000 entry fee, you play in a satellite. If you win that, you move on to another satellite. In short, a number of players are combining to pay the 10 grand, but only one will go.