February 08, 2021
Mo Nuwwarah

Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, positions, or official guidelines of PokerNews.com.

Back in 2016, which at that point looked like half a life ago, I took on a PokerNews tradition that was started by old-timer Rich Ryan and contains forecasts for the coming year in the poker industry. There were hits and lots of misses, but everyone was having fun – me when I was trying to guess the craziness in this crazy culture and the readers when they laughed at my breath.

This year this tradition has to come to a sad end. This piece will start normally when I go through last year’s calls, but after that it will get a new look.

Specific predictions for the coming year 2021 seem rather pointless as pretty much everything depends on the balance between COVID-19 and the availability of vaccines for this coronavirus. As far as I know, we’ll all be vaccinated in six months and shoot away as usual, though I sincerely doubt it.

Instead, I’ll take a more free-flowing look at where the industry is headed in the next 10 months. And I’m going to close with a crazy prediction that I’ll totally ignore for future purposes unless it actually happens.

First, let’s see how it all came out of 2020. All I know is that I will rate these on a very generous curve as I had barely heard of the coronavirus when this was written in January 2020. Of course, like most, I had no idea how radically the world would change.

  • 1. Phil crushes the Galfond Challenge – Sooo. Rough start to this one. I definitely didn’t expect Phil Galfond to drop close to a million dollars before storming back. But he did Sturm, and he has so far set a flawless record and even won mini-challenges against tough competition. I said Galfond would win seven numbers and he’s already there after devastating Chance Kornuth.
  • 2. The WSOP Main is growing, the PSPC is shrinking – Well, the PokerStars Players Championship has certainly shrunk. It went from $ 26,455,500 in the prize pool to nothing at all. Will GGPoker be listed in the Guinness World Records for the largest online poker tournament of all time, dubbed the WSOP Main Event at the time before a late bait and move?
  • 3. Someone on the Board Wins WSOP Player of the Year – I thought a formula change would open things up great here, but well, the WSOP as we knew it didn’t happen so the usual points hunt fun was on Table.
  • 4. Phil Ivey falls off the money list Top 15 – COVID-19 has switched off live poker, so this admitted long shot had no chance. Ivey, apparently leaving his legal troubles behind, means this one is likely off the board for future use.
  • 5. Legislation prepares for breakthrough year (but it’s 2021) – This year is on the way home, although it actually got a boost from coronavirus. Legislature is now more inclined than ever to pass online gambling bills, and the possible end of the Wire Act reinterpretation that threatened to shut down online poker in the U.S. means exciting things could be brewing. Give me another loan here.

Where do I see the progress in 2021?

Not hopeful for big live events

2020 saw unprecedented changes in the poker world, as it has in pretty much every industry.

The most noticeable thing, of course, was the complete lack of large live poker tournaments. The European Poker Tour was basically missing apart from a Sochi event, which is not easily accessible for most players. The World Poker Tour held only a handful of events before going live for the year in early March. And the World Series of Poker has basically rescheduled its entire online schedule, save for a surprise hybrid main event at the end of the year.

Unfortunately, at this point in time, there isn’t much reason to be optimistic that things will be back to normal for 2021.

COVID-19 remains a significant problem in most of the world despite the emergence of a vaccine.

In some regions, poker operators have chosen a soldier. Look no further than the WPT event taking place in Florida this week. It made headlines for a heavy turnout of 1,573 submissions. No doubt this might encourage some to have a big event. Hell, the Venetian has another WPT just around the corner.

The WPT packed the house in Seminole (Photo by WPT)

However, this is likely to be more of an oddity than the norm for the foreseeable future, at least.

While the educational potential of the vaccine is exciting, the pace at which it is being distributed doesn’t make me hope it will have any noticeable impact this year. Less than 2% of the US has had full vaccination at the time of writing. I know that in the state I live in, no one I know under 70 who doesn’t work in healthcare has even had a first dose.

Aside from the Venetian event mentioned above, the WPT has nothing on the agenda other than online content.

The EPT has only one more event officially scheduled in Sochi. The highly anticipated second edition of the PSPC, which should take place in Barcelona in 2020, only contains the original announcement of the postponement as the final major update. It is unlikely that PokerStars will host the event if it can’t hold a candle on the first iteration. A never-before-seen spectacle has redefined what a $ 25K tournament could look like.

As for the biggest series of tournaments of all, the WSOP … well, usually PokerNews got the ball rolling when it comes to planning coverage for the Summer Bonanza. I can announce that this is currently not the case for 2021.

I know at least one major poker destination in Vegas has a big series planned for the summer, so I’m not ruling out a WSOP in any form. However, if it does happen, I think it will be very prone to online events with some mixed and unheard formats that the client cannot support, along with some large final tables. I’m not even sure if these smaller fields would be feasible with the current international travel situation.

I don’t expect anything like a normal schedule for large live tournaments until 2022. I could see some things returning to normal in the later months of 2021, but I feel like if something big was coming before that, we would have heard of it by now.

Mid-Major Tours Scattershot

While the live poker situation in Europe seems to be pretty much on hold with bans still prevailing and international travel somewhat limited and difficult, regaining traction is a little easier for smaller tours here in the US

Even so, everything seems to be more regional as the venues and operators carefully dip their toes back in. And even that will only be the case in certain states, as others are strongly opposed to large gatherings such as those that would be safe in a decent sized poker tournament.

Corel Theuma's pileBally’s did a couple of shows.

It looks like MO for now will be things like the Bally’s Main Event Mania from late last year – schedules of events that look like a WSOP circuit but have minor guarantees that are more geared towards local players.

This kind of thing can give venues a chance to raise a few dollars while whetting the appetite of local gamers without the poor visuals of thousands of gamers pouring in, potentially adding to the ire of local regulators and media.

As for the events that players can hope for, the Mid-States Poker Tour appears to have the most ambitious schedule that has something in mind as their normal number planned. On the other hand, on the Heartland Poker Tour, a planned event from last August is listed on the website. So one can only guess whether it will come back at all. The WSOP circuit seems to be content with moving things online where they can generate income without risk.

All of this means you might be able to find a reasonably decent series of tournaments somewhere nearby, but the chance to win six-figure amounts for a modest buy-in isn’t all that common.

More good news online

While things look grim for live poker both in the US and around the world, the online scene paints a very different picture.

With the lack of live poker available in 2020, online operators have offered some incredible series of tournaments. Hundreds of millions of guarantees have been made by international operators GGPoker, PokerStars and partypoker. Even domestic operators like WSOP.com with smaller player pools gave huge guarantees with six-figure prizes.

It looks like almost the same will happen in 2021. GGPoker is showing no signs of slowing down having just completed a whopping $ 100 million WSOP circuit series. Competitors will try to keep up and that means bigger prize pools everywhere.

Ad dollars shouldn’t be hard to come by either. PokerStars executives have already rumored to be putting more dollars into the business, promising “investments in poker” ($) that can only do good for players. Run It Once has just introduced what an industry expert has called “the most lucrative welcome package in recent history”.

Exciting events are afoot in the US as well, with the door wide open for further growth. Michigan went online thanks to PokerStars and will hopefully soon be amalgamating players with the other states.

Michigan not only brings with it a sizeable population of around 10 million people, it also offers a potential drive-and-play destination for people in the Midwest who previously had no such sanctuary, what with everything previously closer to the coast was located.

The US prize pools should be bigger than ever, and the options for the rest of the world should be around 2020 levels too.

Last crazy prediction

GGPoker will buy the WSOP. This is definitely not based on inside information or anything like that.

It just feels like this could be the year that after years of rumors, the WSOP is finally sold, but nothing really comes into play. Some employees appear to have been laid off and not replaced, and the future of the flagship series looks more uncertain than ever. 2021 was the last year anyone on the file said she would stay at the Rio.

Many have suggested in the past that PokerStars could be the ones to be fired, but GGPoker seems to make more sense at this point.

GGPoker and WSOP already have a close relationship with all bracelet and ring events held there. Additionally, there are some small indications that GGPoker may want to hit the live arena in the near future.

What better way than going all the way with your partners?

Hey you never know in this crazy industry.