"It doesn't matter where we are from; we are all human beings. There should be one flag."
Those were the wise words of 888Poker Ambassador Bruno Kawauti during a tête-à-tête at 888Live Barcelona.
And those words are apt.
From the Alaskan glaciers to the searing Sahara Desert, humankind is currently experiencing one of its most complicated quarrels. Humanity seems so fractured; freedom so fragile. But there is one place where people of all colour, creed, and capability come together in solidarity.
I am talking about the dirty green baize of the poker table, and there is no better example of this unity than the World Series of Poker (WSOP).
The Greatest Sporting Events Always Unite
In 2012, London hosted the Summer Olympics. I live 150 miles away from the capital, but the feel-good factor hit my town like a supersonic wave. It was the same in 1996 when the UK hosted the European Championships.
It’s more than simply national pride. It’s an energy created by a strong humane bond. It’s the very essence of what it means to be human. When we emerged from the African dirt 1.7 million years ago, we didn’t ride solo. Back then, that sort of valour would have gotten you killed in a heartbeat. The early humans left that mighty continent in great tribes of people, who later became kingdoms, and today are connected globally via the World Wide Web.
The annual pilgrimage to the WSOP is another of the world's top sporting events that remind us of our birthright and founding values. It proves that humankind has the capability to drop their belief systems and unite under the umbrella of a unique game.
The World in the World Series of Poker
Ever since the WSOP began collating records in 2006, they have distributed 1,329 gold bracelets to poker players representing 42 different countries - 21% of the world's population.
The ancestral poker gene emerged from 10th Century China, but it was the riverboats of the Mississippi where the modern form of the game developed. So, it's no surprise that players from the United States dominate these charts, especially as the WSOP had always been held in Las Vegas since the first Shuffle Up and Deal in 1970.
The most hardened fans of poker in these Top 10 charts come from Australia, with players traversing 13,127 km, sometimes flying for 35 hours (including layovers) to get to the promised land.
James “AndyMcLEOD” Obst is ranked #2 in the Australian Global Poker Index (GPI) rankings. Obst has earned over $2.2m playing live tournaments, and millions more playing online. In July, Obst finished 13th in the WSOP Main Event for a $427,930 score, and this is what he had to say about making the trip.
"The WSOP just has everything a poker player could want. All the games, a buy-in range to suit everyone, diverse international fields full of top pros, amateurs and celebrities. Mainly though, it's just such a darned big series that represents a life-changing opportunity for everyone that plays."
The Rest of the World Is Closing the Gap
If we look at the number of bracelets dished out and compare with population sizes, then the USA still rule the roost, but the Scandinavian countries come to the fore.
888Poker Ambassador, Sofia Lovgren, is one of the greatest Scandinavian exports of modern times. The number one ranked Swedish female poker player in the world (GPI Rankings) has won close to $300,000 in live tournament earnings but spends most of her time playing in the live cash games in Macau.
Here is what Lovgren had to say about the impact Swedish players have had on the WSOP:
"The WSOP is such a multi-cultural event because the entire world knows it is the premier poker event of the year. Both recreational and top pros alike flock to Las Vegas competing for the most prestigious prize in poker. No matter where you come from, every player wants the WSOP Main Event bracelet.
"Sweden has many top contenders like Chris Björin and Martin Jacobson, and I believe we do well because of our focus, work ethic, and our continued passion and determination to perform our best. Watch out for the Swedes this Summer!"
But the gap between the USA and the rest of the world is closing. In 2006, the Americans won 80% of the bracelets compared to 67% in 2016. And back in 2006, only 39 distinct countries competed in the WSOP and today that number has risen to 131, an increase of 236%.
The WSOP Spreads Its Wings to Foreign Shores
It’s a tough sell to have a World Series of Poker when your tour never leaves a solitary country. In fairness to the team behind the WSOP vision, that has changed dramatically in the past decade.
In 2007, the WSOP brand decided to set up camp in Europe. For the first four years, London was the home of the World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE) before it moved to France for stints in Cannes and Paris before Berlin took over for a single year in 2015.
Last year, WSOP officials signed a new multi-year deal with the King’s Casino in Rozvadov, Czech Republic to host the WSOPE for the foreseeable future.
In the decade since the WSOP left the US shores, players from 29 different countries have won bracelets outside of Las Vegas:
- USA - 12
- UK - 5
- France - 4
- Denmark - 3
- Canada - 3
- Greece - 3
- Norway - 2
- Portugal - 2
- Italy - 2
- Germany - 2
The following countries have all won a single bracelet: Afghanistan, Indonesia, Spain, New Zealand, Sweden, Tunisia, Switzerland, Australia, Italy, Finland, and Uruguay.
Once again, it’s the Americans leading the way, despite the events being on European shores going to show the depth of the professional player base from that part of the world.
In 2013, the WSOP also decided to branch out into the Asia-Pacific region holding two events in Melbourne, and they generated 15 bracelets from five countries with the Australians predictably winning the most on home soil.
- Australia - 7
- USA - 4
- Canada - 2
- Malaysia - 1
- Germany - 1
When you look at the WSOP Top 10 Lists I don’t think it’s a coincidence that players from the host venues of the UK, France, Germany, and Australia feature heavily, such is the marketing muscle of the WSOP. It seems once the locals grabbed a glimpse of the WSOP bracelet they became hooked.
And it’s not just the WSOPE and WSOP-APAC festivals that act as bastions of WSOP branding. In recent years the World Series of Poker Circuit (WSOPC) has also gone international with the 2016/17 tour visiting 16 various locations around the world with Italy, Germany, Brazil, Australia, and France all featuring.
The media also has a critical role to play in the increase in popularity. The Internet means more people gain access to WSOP coverage than ever before. And online poker rooms continue to send people to the WSOP from all over the globe via online satellite qualification such as Fernando Pons from Spain who turned $30 into $1m by finishing ninth in the 2016 WSOP Main Event after qualifying via 888Poker.
The World Reach of the WSOP
It would be a valiant goal for the WSOP to try to find a player from every country, but poverty and belief systems will prevent that.
71 countries have still not graced the WSOP and walked away with at least a cent in profit.
Here they are listed by continent:
- Africa - 37
- Asia - 14
- Australasia - 9
- Europe - 6
- North America - 4
- South America - 1
The best-equipped countries to increase the global weight of the WSOP are:
The one area of land that falls within the parameters of a country that I don't believe will ever send a player to the WSOP is the Vatican City.
What This All Means for the Future of the WSOP
Whenever the world feels fractured, you can always look to a sport as the glue to unite humanity, and poker community serves the world well in this regard.
It is a monumental achievement for the WSOP to have turned their brand into a global behemoth that has attracted players from 131 different countries, but I can’t see those numbers shifting north anytime soon.
I can't imagine the WSOP setting up a WSOPE/WSOP-APAC style festival in Africa, and if it did, the only logical place to hold it would be in South Africa. The African continent is vast and beset by poverty, and so I can't see a dent in that number of 37 countries anytime soon.
Many of the Asian nations that have yet to send a player to the WSOP exist in the Persian Gulf where rules surrounding gambling are some of the strictest in the world, so again, I can’t see the numbers growing too much in the coming years.
Even if the numbers don't increase, the community won't stop in their bid to bond over a simple game of cards, and the WSOP will continue to do everything in their power to make the greatest festival of poker in the world into a truly global phenomenon.
One game; one flag; a festival that unites the world
- The data used to determine the number of countries came from this source (https://www.infoplease.com/countries-world)
- The information on the number of countries to participate in the WSOP came from WSOP.com.