Rise of online poker at the WSOP

WSOP.com will play a big role in this year's tournament. David Sherman/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS -- Online poker has had an undeniable impact on the game in general and the World Series of Poker in particular.

From teaching a whole generation how to play, to Chris Moneymaker qualifying online en route to his watershed 2003 Main Event title, to helping spur the game's worldwide popularity, online poker has forever altered the gaming landscape.

And the convergence of the real and online worlds will never be more apparent than at this year's WSOP, which starts this week at the Rio.

As mentioned last week in our WSOP preview, the first online bracelet will be awarded in an event that starts July 2. But that's just the most public manifestation of this relationship. If you walk through the Rio, it will be much more common to see people playing poker on their smartphones and tablets while also playing live at the tables in cash games, satellites and the WSOP itself. (And it will be interesting to see how often the ESPN cameras catch this phenomenon.)

Caesars Interactive Entertainment Inc. -- which owns the WSOP and the WSOP.com platform that is legal in Nevada and New Jersey -- is allowing (and encouraging) players to play the game online while participating in the WSOP. Caesars is making sure players know there is free Wi-Fi in the ballrooms at the Rio. And Caesars is recruiting players to sign up for WSOP.com, which started in 2013 and, while initially marketed primarily to Nevada residents, now heavily promotes the fact that out-of-staters can legally play while in Nevada.

Last year, WSOP.com and its desktop app were available during the World Series, but players had to use a laptop. Caesars, the Rio and WSOP obviously have a vested interest in getting poker players involved in as many hands as possible, and Bill Rini, WSOP's head of online poker, insists the timing is in reaction to player demand.

"We really see the evolution in terms of giving players more of what they want," Rini said. "Live games, especially big tournaments, can run slower than many online players are used to. They get bored. They start emailing, texting, surfing the Web or whatever, so why not allow them to play online poker? Obviously, we're pushing the envelope in this area, in terms of actively promoting it and having the dealers and floor people accommodating it, but WSOP has always led the way in innovation.

"It's hard to say how many people took advantage of the online experience while playing live last year, as we didn't have a mobile product in [Nevada] at that time," Rini continued. "However, we did see a lot of people posting photos on social media of themselves with laptops playing WSOP.com and playing in a live game, so we know it was a popular decision on our part."

Greg Merson, who first became known as an online poker pro and then won the 2012 Main Event, agrees that people mixing live and online play is inevitable.

"It will definitely be bigger with the younger crowd," said Merson, 27. "Online players are used to playing multiple tables, so it's not going to slow down live games."

Merson agreed it's no more detrimental to the pace of live play than people checking their email, sports scores, stock prices, Facebook or whatever else they're doing with their phones in between and during live hands.

"I played online during two $1,500 events in last year's World Series, and there were no issues," Merson said. "One was the Shootout, and I won $1,000 online, and then won my table, so I think it helped me. [But] I think you'll see it more at smaller events like that. It won't be as common in bigger games, as you're already playing big."

Obviously, players won't have a choice but to play online for Event No. 64, the $1,000 WSOP.com online no-limit hold 'em event on July 2. The field will play down to the final six, who then will play live at the Rio on July 4 for the bracelet.

"Adding the online bracelet event to the WSOP schedule was something we had been discussing internally for quite a while," Rini added. "While we wanted to recognize the fact that online was an integral part of the poker experience, we also wanted to make sure we were putting on an event that was truly worthy of a WSOP bracelet."

That probably wouldn't have been the case when the vast majority of WSOP.com users were Nevada residents. But with the expansion of the app to everyone visiting town (and the addition to the WSOP schedule to further increase awareness), it should be a bracelet-worthy field.

"We've had so many players tell us they've been waiting for something like this on the schedule," Rini said. "From a regulatory standpoint, it was a fairly smooth process. We ran online to live events in 2013 when we launched, so both us and the regulators had some experience with the concept."

But again, the bracelet event is just the beginning. In addition to daily cash games that players can get involved in, there is a full menu of exclusive online satellite events at which WSOP players can earn seats to upcoming events.

"Our plan is to run nightly satellites at 6 p.m. [Pacific time] for most events and then special satellites for the Colossus, Millionaire Maker, Seniors, Ladies and the Little One for One Drop at 4 p.m.," Rini said. "Of course, Main Event satellites are sprinkled throughout the series, so whatever event you want to play, with exceptions for some high-roller events, we'll have a way for you to get there on WSOP.com."

It's going to be interesting to see how the online and live poker worlds work together, but it's clear they are intertwined and will continue to grow.