Poker And Sports Betting: Lessons From The Boom

Poker And Sports Betting: Lessons From The Boom

Gina Fiore
Line Shopping
Professional Gambling
May 2, 2023

Chris Moneymaker plays poker, years before poker and sports betting started to show some overlap
(courtesy World Poker Tour)

In 2003, an unknown poker player named Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker Main Event for $2.5 million. Moneymaker qualified for his $10,000 Main Event seat by winning smaller satellite tournaments online at PokerStars. He spent $86 to get in.

To simply say Chris Moneymaker’s victory made headlines would be a crime. He changed history. An everyman accountant by day winning millions on TV against the best poker players in the world. His win will forever be known for The Moneymaker Effect. And now we’re seeing sportsbooks try to replicate it.

The Poker Boom

Poker quickly found its way into the American zeitgeist. When he won 20 years ago, Moneymaker bested a field of 839 players. The following year, the Main Event had more than three times that number of entrants. Since then the field has eclipsed 8,500 twice and routinely tops 6,000.

Poker became fashionable. Exciting. The Moneymaker Effect led to tens of millions of new players nationally and globally. PokerStars, Full Tilt and PartyPoker were the biggest poker sites in the world. There were commercials, mainstream magazines filled with their ads, billboards and TV shows displaying their logos. Weekly poker shows flooded the airwaves.

I’ve played 20,000 hours of poker in my life; the majority of those hours played the decade after Moneymaker’s win. The Bellagio and Commerce Casino in Los Angeles were my second homes when I wasn’t on the road playing blackjack – card counting and other advantage play techniques.

The poker stories on ground zero, in the card rooms, were different from what was shown on TV and in magazines. Every month a young, new player would arrive on the scene, from Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, wherever.


Wide-Eyed Optimism

Their backgrounds were all basically the same. They dropped out of college or quit the  new job that they had secured after college and moved away from family and friends to try their hand at being a professional poker player. And why not? If accountant-by-day Chris Moneymaker could win the World Series, and Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey – who didn’t even go to college – could successfully battle over six-figure pots on the show Poker After Dark, why couldn’t they?

Because it’s hard to gamble for a living. That’s why.

For every Negreanu and Ivey, there were 50 young guns who didn’t make it. Trust me, I did the math. One of these young, up-and-coming hopefuls would show up, ready to take over the poker world. They would be gone in 2-5 years. It happened over, and over, and over.

The hunger that shone brightly in their eyes turned to desperation and despair as they sank lower and lower in stakes – 10/20 to 5/10 to 2/5 and eventually 1/2 – until they went completely bust. They would go home looking as though they wished the Earth might swallow them whole. Or at least that’s the vibe I got. 

Not all went that way. Some went broke taking a shot at a high-limit game. Rather than die slowly over a month or two, they died in a night.

Besides losing all of their money, and sometimes other people’s money, these guys, and some girls, lost years of their young lives to poker. Their friends back home had graduated college. Others were finding success in their careers and personal lives. All the failed poker players had to show were gaps in their resumes. Maybe some debt, addiction, or both.


Peyton Manning, JB Smoove and Halle Berry in a Caesars ad

Repeating the Cycle

In 2018 the Supreme Court made a decision that paved the way for states to regulate sports betting without intervention from the federal government. It only took five years for 33 states to allow sports betting, with the majority of the offerings available online.

Poker and sports betting are converging in a way. Sportsbooks are trying relentlessly to imitate The Moneymaker Effect. The level at which they advertise is nauseating – television, radio, billboards, buses and bathroom stalls. They show off oversized winning tickets from amateur bettors – $10 bets winning six figures. Even a $20 bet winning $500,000.

If it could happen to them, it could happen to you, too. Sign up today!

The television shows and podcasts about sports betting today overshadow poker content. You cannot escape the reach of the sports betting marketing arm. 

And it’s working. Sportsbooks in the United States are bringing in billions of dollars a year. A lot of those dollars come from people who at one time or another have searched for “how to win at sports betting” content online.

Sports betting, like poker, is a skill; it can be learned. And like poker, most people will not learn to be winning bettors. More than that, a large percentage of the dreamers are the same age as the young poker players who left everything behind to try and strike gold during the poker boom and who instead lost years of their life and confidence in themselves.

The similarities between the poker boom and today’s sports betting bonanza bother me. I imagine a lot of people will get caught up in the dream of betting sports for a living and lose their years and self-worth to a fruitless endeavor.


Be Realistic

My advice to anyone who wants to quit their job, leave their girlfriend or drop out of school to become a professional sports bettor is: don’t do it. Almost certainly it won’t work out. 

However, I am lucky to know a small percentage of the population who actually do win betting sports in the long term and I wouldn’t discourage anyone with a passion to learn, or give it an educated try. Just don’t pack your bags and leave your nine-to-five life behind.

Poker and sports betting are also activities that people partake in purely for entertainment. They bet to enhance their NFL Sunday, or to turn the dial up on the enjoyment they’ll get from going to see a game in-person.

If you go to the casino once a week and buy in for a few hundred dollars but don’t know basic poker strategy, you’re going to get destroyed. If you bet a few hundred dollars a week on sports and don’t follow a few basic rules, you’ll have the same result. By the end of a year, your hobby will have cost you five figures.


What You Can Learn from Poker’s Gold Rush

There’s more to poker than playing the hand you’re dealt, and there’s more to sports betting than picking a side.

Line Shop 

A poker player’s win rate correlates to how good the games are in which they play. When choosing a table to sit at in the poker room, the one with the weakest players is the obvious choice.

In the same vein, if you decide to bet your favorite team no matter what, spend five minutes to get the best price. If you have the option to bet at 12 different sportsbooks you’ll inevitably find one has a better price than the rest. You can look at a list of bets being offered from different sportsbooks in real time with an odds screen, or you can log into the websites available to you and see what’s being offered.

If you aren’t playing with an edge to begin with and you take -125 when -110 is available, you’re going to lose your fun money faster than if you took the time to line shop.


Stick to Straight Bets

Some poker rooms offer jackpots in the event of a longshot occurrence happening. A player might earn a $500 high-hand bonus if they make a royal flush. “Bad beat” jackpots can reach the tens of thousands if you lose with a hand like four-of-a-kind or better. Jackpots are designed to look like perks, but bleed the game.

Poker rooms charge the players $1 or $2 every hand to build the jackpots. It may be 1 in 100,000 or more to lose with four-of-a-kind. The added cost does not justify the unlikely payout.

Poker players and sports bettors should usually aim for the least involved propositions that are offered. Don’t chase unlikely, but inflated, payouts. In sports betting, you want to stick to single bets that rely on one thing to happen for you to win. The Yankees to win outright, the Lakers game to go over 230 points, the Braves to win by three runs or more. One outcome.


Tread Carefully Around Parlays

Sportsbooks love to push bets that rely on multiple things to happen in order for that bet to win. Four teams to win outright, two teams to win and one game to go over the total. The odds of winning multiple outcomes are higher than that of winning a single bet. The sportsbooks advertise long odds as if they are a likely prize to be won rather than the unrealistic outcome that they are.

If the casual bettor is making negative bets in which the house has an advantage, those bad odds are going to get stacked on top of one another and as Captain Jack Andrews once said, the recreational bettor can start drowning one leg at a time.”  

Bets that rely on multiple outcomes will also cause your swings up and down to be more dramatic, and likely take the innocent fun out of your betting hobby.

Avoid Online Casinos

If you play poker casually or for profit, avoid the pit. Don’t play blackjack, craps or any of the other games offered. The casino has a house edge that can not be beaten by table selection or bluffing. 

If you bet sports online, unless you have an edge (think bonuses), never play in the online casino. If you’re a casual bettor however, my blanket advice is simply to not go to the casino side of the online sportsbook no matter what. Don’t do it.

The odds in the casino are worse than they are betting on sports. The sportsbooks know this. They’ll try and seduce you with bonuses and ads – daily emails promoting the casino’s hot new game. The sportsbooks think if they give you one hit for free, you’ll come back for more. And most people will.

The online casino is dangerous and you should avoid it. It’s more enjoyable to lose $100 betting on the Jets than it is to lose $100 playing roulette while waiting in line for coffee.


The Bottom Line on Poker and Sports Betting

Sportsbooks and casinos are bringing in money hand over fist. Their marketing pushes the consumer to make the worst bets possible.

If you’re going to casually bet, make the sportsbooks do some work to win your money. Line shop, make single bets and stay away from the slot machines. 

If you want to put the time and effort into being a winning sports bettor, I support that. But don’t quit your day job.

Good luck. 

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