Online poker first got started in 1998. That year seems borderline ancient in internet terms, and it’s almost hard to imagine that way back then there was a site facilitating competitive, real money games between real players. That was the case, however, when Planet Poker emerged, and in fact the site still exists today (though it’s pretty stripped down).
It’s difficult to say how online poker might have emerged, however, had it not been for the so-called poker “boom” that happened just after Planet Poker emerged. In the same year, Miramax Films put out the movie Rounders, starring Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovich in a high stakes poker drama. The movie earned middling reviews and wasn’t a noteworthy hit at the box office – but it’s proven to have had a major impact on the development of poker worldwide.
The true amateur poker boom happened in 2003, when amateur player Chris Moneymaker turned a $39 buy-in into $2.5 million at the World Series of Poker, leading other amateurs all over the world to take an interest in real money gaming. In a fascinating article about the tournament, Moneymaker actually credited Rounders with his interest in no-limit Texas Hold’em, which has become the most mainstream form of competitive poker. Brian Koppelman, who co-wrote the film, also commented on how it became a “cultural touchstone” for poker at the time, inspiring interest in Hold’em, as well as the idea of actually making money through cards.
With all of these factors combined, the early-2000s saw a spike in online poker activity, both in terms of the creation of sites and the volume of players. It may well be that Planet Poker would have sparked more interest in online poker either way. But with Rounders inspiring a generation of amateurs to turn professional, and those amateurs’ success inspiring millions more, competitive poker became a much more popular activity. And the easiest way for people to play was online.
In the time since 2003 we’ve seen massive growth and evolution in the industry. Poker sites have become more sophisticated by leaps and bounds, though particularly in the U.S. they’ve also been outlawed at times. Where legal, however, online poker has essentially become a business. Plenty of people still play just for fun, but more competitive players will seek to make a living through games, winning tournaments, securing grand prizes, etc. There’s a ton of money changing hands, and with the pressure of dealing with this kind of volume, more sites have emerged with legitimate certifications and regulatory activity behind them. In other words, mainstream online poker sites have become more professional and more reliable.
More recently, however, the actual game has begun to change online, as sites have sought to provide a more realistic experience. The emergence of live casinos online is offering an alternative by which players can enjoy the presence of a real life casino dealer, viewed through a video feed. The dealer is usually in an actual casino environment, dealing real cards and managing the game for all competitors to see. It’s like sitting at an actual table in Vegas, only you’re viewing it all through your computer screen.
Inevitably, we’ve also seen the introduction of a casino game on VR, called (somewhat uncreatively) “CasinoVR.” Designed for the Oculus Rift, it’s supposed to make players feel as if they’re really sitting in casinos handling cards and stacking chips, while playing against other live opponents. Right now this game is actually not a real money experience so much as a video game compatible with online multiplayer. But given the popularity of live casinos coupled with the capability of VR, it’s fairly easy to see where this is all going.
Overall, the online poker business has evolved from a crude adaptation of a table game, to a popular, booming industry, to one that’s beginning to simulate real life in incredibly satisfying ways. It’s hard not to imagine that it will simply continue to get more popular from here.