When 238 players logged on to PokerStars for the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) Main Event in July 2002, George W. Bush was in the White House, Nelly’s “Hot In Here” was at No 1 in the U.S. Billboard charts, and Austin Powers in Goldmember defied lukewarm reviews to gross $73 million on its opening weekend in U.S. theaters.
In the world of poker, there had only ever been one WPT event, the EPT did not yet exist, and Robert Varkonyi was the reigning WSOP champion. He beat a record-breaking field of 631 entries in the biggest poker tournament of the year.
PokerStars and Party Poker were only a year old and you’d be just as likely to have an account with Paradise Poker as you would with either of them.
It was, in short, a very different world. We were pre-Moneymaker, pre-Black Friday, pre-high rollers, pre-just about everything we consider normal about poker these days. A three-bet was still a re-raise; if there was a float you’d try flushing it again; and anyone talking about Twitch would find themselves in Mike Caro’s book on tells, released the next year.
In this era, it was quite a big deal that an online poker company put on a tournament with a $1,050 buy-in, and an even bigger deal that 238 players found the cash to play it. But although the tournament’s winner, Sweden’s “MultiMarine”, became one of the “Ghosts of WCOOP“, the series itself went absolutely nowhere.
This year, PokerStars players will contest the 20th running of what has become the most anticipated series on the online poker schedule. Here’s a quick look at how we got here.
There were only nine tournaments in the very first edition of WCOOP, with buy-ins ranging from $109, for the opening Limit Hold’em event, through $1,050 for the Main Event. All of those buy-ins would have been considered high at the time. WCOOP initially positioned itself as the series for online poker’s elite, and lower-stakes players would have to wait until 2017 — i.e., another 15 years — until a WCOOP tournament arrived costing less than $100 to play.
Back in 2002, the Limit event duly attracted the largest field of 565 the series (limit hold’em was still a thing back then), with the Limit Omaha Hi/Lo recording the smallest, of 135. The average field size through the nine events was 272, which is tiny by today’s standards. But the series went down as an enormous success and proved that the online game could sustain the kind of festival that was proving ever more popular in the live arena — particularly at the WSOP, which was one year away from the arrival of the magnificent Moneymaker.
After our accountant friend from Tennessee lit the blue touch paper in Las Vegas (after qualifying on PokerStars, of course) WCOOP’s popularity swelled in almost perfect symmetry with the WSOP’s.The boom reverberated both live and online in the first decade of the 21st century. The prize pools of the WSOP Main Event increased 11-fold, from $5.9 million in 2002 to a peak of $68.9 million in 2010. The WCOOP Main Event’s increase was even more dramatic: a $238,000 prize pool in 2002 became $12.2 million eight years later, by which time the buy-in was also five times as much.
That’s worth spelling out slowly: in 2002, there were 238 players paying $1,050 to play the WCOOP Main Event. In 2010, there were more than 10 times as many (2,443) even though the buy-in was now $5,300. It was clear that appetites and bankrolls had grown remarkably as the prize pools exploded.
That 2010 prize pool of $12.2 million, as well as Tyson “POTTERPOKER” Marks’ $2,278,098 first prize, remain a record for the WCOOP Main Event.
The events of Black Friday, in April 2011, put a stop to the incredible rate of expansion in poker and the WCOOP Main Event suffered a 33 percent drop in numbers from 2010 to 2011. American players had been by far the most dominant in the first nine years of the online competition, winning 136 of the 228 titles on offer during that period. (Remarkably, the United States still stands third on the overall WCOOP countries leader board and was only overtaken by the UK and Russia last year.) Most Americans hadn’t had a chance to relocate and re-open accounts before WCOOP 2011 started and their absence was always going to have a profound affect on overall numbers.Despite this setback, WCOOP again survived and numbers pushed up again through the next three years. By 2013, there were more than 2,000 entries again in the WCOOP Main Event and the prize pool was north of $10 million. It has never been less than eight figures ever since, thanks in part to PokerStars putting a $10 million guarantee on the showpiece event.
By now, WCOOP was considerably more than just that one big blowout. Again in common with the WSOP, the series had diversified, broadened and added many more tournaments to cater for players’ insatiable demand. Nine tournaments in 2002 became 18 by 2006. In 2009, there were 45 tournaments. There were 20 more by 2012 and there were 82 events in 2016.
Then in 2017, organisers experimented with a “low” buy-in version of WCOOP, putting on 82 events with buy-ins starting at $11 as well as 82 events in the “normal” $215+ buy-in range. By this point, there were also two $25K high roller tournaments on the regular WCOOP schedule and there were even a couple of high rollers in the “low” section, with buy-ins of $1,050.
The decision to admit players with smaller bankrolls wasn’t to everyone’s taste, and PokerStars copped a good deal of flak from players who considered the WCOOP brand to be devalued by including lower buy-in tournaments. But the numbers spoke for themselves. In 2016 there were 122,310 total entries across WCOOP’s 82 tournaments. In 2017, there were 662,529 in 164 tournaments. The total prize pools for the series increased from $91.4 million to $99.6 million.
Through this period, WCOOP’s close cousin, the Spring Championship of Online Poker (SCOOP), had proved a great success with three buy-in levels for all events — low, medium and high. It was only to be expected that WCOOP would do something similar, and so it proved from 2018 onwards.
The three price point series is now a fixture in most major PokerStars series, and will be repeated again for WCOOP this year.
Over the years, players from 67 different countries have won WCOOP events, and there are almost certainly at least 20 other countries whose players have competed but haven’t yet claimed the top spot. (Unfortunately, full participation records no longer exist. We only have the winners to go on.)During those boom years, poker spread far and wide across the globe, and it is never more clear than by examining the distribution of WCOOP tournament winners. In the first year, only four countries could claim champions: the United States, Sweden, Canada and France. Over the next five years, even as the schedule grew to feature many more tournaments, only Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Denmark and Ireland joined them. This was still a game played predominantly in North America, Scandinavia and western Europe.
However, 12 different countries won titles in 2009. There were 16 in 2010, and 24 in 2011. By 2016, when WCOOP was still only “high” events, there were winners from 30 countries. It peaked in 2018, when players from 41 countries claimed titles.
Without doubt, the rise of Latin American poker — particularly in Brazil — and the emergence of Russia as a poker force has been most dramatic. There wasn’t a Brazilian champion in WCOOP until 2009, and there were only 12 winners from Brazil from 2002-2016 inclusive. However, Brazilians won 21 titles in 2017, 23 in each of the next two years, and 35 last time out. That’s the most ever won by a country in a single WCOOP series.
As for Russia, the eastern Europeans had to wait until 2010 to secure a first champion. (They won four tournaments that year.) But by 2017, Russia and Brazil tied top of the countries leader board, with 21 titles apiece, and Russia now has the most of all, with 156.
Meanwhile Brazil sit tied fourth in the all time countries leader board, and will probably leap above the United States this year.
Here’s where WCOOP titles have headed between 2002-2020:
156 titles – Russia
144 – UK
136 – USA
114 – Brazil, Canada
87 – Germany
67 – Netherlands
52 – Sweden
48 – Finland
41 – Austria, Norway
39 – Mexico
33 – Poland
27 – Ukraine
26 – Hungary
22 – Romania
18 – Denmark, Bulgaria
17 – Lithuania
14 – Belgium
13 – Argentina, Australia
12 – Ireland, Malta
11 – Belarus, Greece
10 – Czech Republic
9 – Latvia, Uruguay
8 – Chile, Costa Rica
7 – Croatia, Cyprus
6 – Estonia, France, Switzerland
5 – Japan, Taiwan
4 – China, Lebanon, Slovakia
3 – Georgia, Luxembourg, Peru, Portugal, Spain, Thailand
2 – Armenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Ecuador, Israel, Macau, Moldova, Morocco, Panama, Serbia, Slovenia
1 – Colombia, Faroe Islands, Gibraltar, Jersey, Kazakhstan, Monaco, Philippines, Turkey, Turkmenistan, UAE.
The 2021 WCOOP is the 20th edition, and the series has settled into something of a pattern. Every event now has three buy-in levels, as has been the case since 2018. The “high” Main Event again has a $5K buy-in and a $10 million guarantee.
At 306 tournaments (i.e., 102 events), this is the biggest WCOOP there has ever been, and the $100 million series guarantee is also the highest. The high probability is that the guarantees will be comfortably eclipsed.
WCOOP is also now a fixture on the streaming channels, with live cards-up action being broadcast every Monday through Wednesday of the series this time around. You can watch it live on the PokerStars Twitch and YouTube channels, where James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton will be joined by a host of expert summarisers to talk you through the action.
No doubt, the likes of Lex Veldhuis, Spraggy, Fintan Hand and Tonkaaa will be streaming their exploits live as well, so you can get a player’s eye view of the tables.
We are certain to round off this 20-year stretch in some style over the coming weeks, and here’s to the next two decades.
Full schedule for WCOOP 2021