It was the match that lit the poker explosion, but as the game has evolved, the World Poker Tour has not burned out.
Aired in 2003 under the guise of a “tour” – but really just a TV show with stops in casinos worldwide – the WPT telecasts on The Travel Channel are credited with beginning the poker boom. Players around the nation saw people not that much different than themselves, playing poker and netting six-figure wins.
But April 15, 2011, “Black Friday”, when the owners of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker were arrested and their sites closed, effectively ended Internet poker in the United States. (The death of online poker meant a dearth of sponsors for TV poker, and the market flattened out.)
So the WPT, like many businesses, had to adapt. WPT, which began as a TV production company, added a free social poker site (PlayWPT), a paid membership site (ClubWPT), poker training (LearnWPT), a championship for pub poker (WPT League), an affordable international tour (WPT500) and a mid-priced U.S. tour (WPTDeepStacks), all while reaching out to almost every corner of the world.
“We’re a gaming and entertainment company,” says Angelica Hael, vice president of global tour management. “That’s what we’ve morphed into.”
Ourgame International Holdings, Ltd., acquired the company in June 2015.
“The acquisition has been a transformative time and we’re working on a lot of initiatives,” Hael says. “They are the type of parent company that allows you to spread your wings, brainstorm and execute. Never before could we test the waters out. Not only do they let us, they encourage us.”
Season 15, which began this month, has expanded into 18 countries.
“That’s one of things, for me, that I’m especially proud of,” Hael says. “It took some time and was done organically. It was the quality of the countries and the right partners that we had.”
Meanwhile, events such as the Tournament of Champions, held earlier this month at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, are being broadcast globally. Hael noted that the Seminole Hard Rock event was broadcast in seven languages.
She also sees growth in China. One livestream from a tournament in Sanya drew 9.6 million views, even though it was “not a field of huge pros and household names. It was like you and me.”
“We thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what do we have here?’” Hael says.