During Day 5 of the 2015 World Series Main Event, a face-off was unfolding at the felt between Neil Blumenfield and Upeshka Da Silva. Out of nowhere, the younger Da Silva brashly asks Blumenfield: “How much did you start with?” to which the older gentleman quietly replies: “Right around 2.” In a beat, Da Silva raises his bet to $200,000 and the commentator explodes: “You politely answer a fella’s question and then he check raises you. It’s an unruly, unholy, uncouth new world out there!”
The online poker boom between 2003 and 2006 saw the playing pool double each year and was one of the key driving forces behind a brand new breed of poker players. Although there has been much speculation that the Millennial generation doesn’t gamble, industry expert Mason Malmuth identifies among the 21 to 36-year olds a league of math-minded careerists who radically stand out from the more instinct-based old-school players, a view that David Sklansky confirms in his book The Theory of Poker: “A new breed of poker player has come to town – the young, scientific, analytical type -and they are the best and most successful players around.”
They Play Aggressive
Gone are the days of T.J. Cloutier’s mantra “early in the tournament, tight is right.” Today’s player will easily draw big stacks even at the start of the tournament, showing a cavalier readiness to bust out early if needs be. And it’s not only the money that is speaking volumes these days: it comes hand-in-hand with a more brazen, forward attitude that many old-schoolers who play quiet and conservative find hard to bear. But rather than being characteristic of the show-and-tell Facebook era, Blair Rodman believes the new probing and often outrageous table talk is a shrewd means of intimidating, bullying and bluffing other players, all of which Rodman says, are standard weapons in the arsenal of the new school
The Average Age Has Lowered
The advent of online poker proved an enormous boost to the popularity of the game, to the extent that the disposable income of regular households is now driving the demand for casinos. But gone is the cigar-chugging sixty-something player of the yesteryear; instead there’s now a hoodie-wearing bright young spark fresh out of Yale. Indeed, the average age of a poker play today is currently estimated at an impressive 23-years old.
There are many reasons why poker has become a young man’s game and now caters to the zippy-short Millennial attention span (with the release of mini-games among other new formats), but the commitment to this audience is impacting positively on poker in two ways: firstly, it does away with the industry’s air of exclusivity and secondly, perpetuates its appeal and accessibility to a whole range of new audiences.
Certain players like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth (who might be considered “old school” purely by their age) are examples of players who have successfully transitioned into the new school. They have Twitter accounts, broadcast on Twitch.tv, regularly reach out to their fans and shameless self-promote. Every last detail of their lives is on show for public scrutiny. And perhaps the most interesting part of their transparency is hearing their uncensored views on burning issues, such as Negreanu’s criticism of Hellmuth for not being progressive enough: “What’s missing from his blog is LTPB – Learn to Play Better,” Negreanu writes candidly. “You should learn from the younger generation who have spent countless hours breaking down the game. Why NOT learn from them?”
They Tend to be Specialists
New-schoolers tend to choose limit games in order to protect that bankroll – a move frowned upon by the old guard who would tend to play more daringly when the stakes were higher. As former professional Steve Badger argues, the one-dimensional player has a better chance of excelling. It is the kind of talk that Johnny Moss famously rallied against when he complained, “you have to play all games to be a professional gambler.” The new breed disagrees. Although they typically explore a variety of games, their interest is determined first and foremost by financial pragmatism. For example, former player Bryan Devonshire explains that it is “nearly impossible to be a tournament specialist unless playing high stakes. … If you want to be a tournament specialist, move to Mexico and grind online. If cash game has holes, it’s time to plug them.”
They’re Doing the Job They Love
Whereas the likes of Doyle Brunson got involved in poker when injury cut his sports career short, today’s players perceive poker as a viable profession on a par with consulting, tech and law. Gone are the days of old Texas road gamblers escaping poverty by playing cards for dollars: young professionals from middle class homes and Ivy League schools such as Vanessa Selbst, Jason Strasser and Andrew Seidman are actively devoting years to studying the game online in preparation for a full-blown poker career. The vast majority of pros below the age of 30 have a common story: they’ve worked extremely hard to purposefully get to where they are today. An ever bigger surprise is that money really isn’t the ultimate goal for them, as 29-year old Seidman explains: “As I moved up in stakes I became numb to the fact that the money was significant. It was nothing other than a way to keep score of the game. Getting over the money is a huge part of breaking through as a poker player.”
With easier access to both games and information online, the overall quality of players has sharply increased, and the game itself has unquestionably caught the attention of those born into the Internet era. Their study of poker in infinitesimal detail has birthed a new kind of player that is more of a specialist and also more likely to excel into what they consider to be their chosen profession, not for the promise of a lucrative career but for the fulfillment of the game that is their very lifeblood.