LAS VEGAS -- Things have gotten tough at the tables.
Many players entering the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event starting Friday in Las Vegas are hoping the game's richest tournament will help them make up for lost winnings.
Poker players say it has gotten more difficult to make a living on the felt the past two years, and not simply because of a down economy and tight regulations on Internet poker.
Fewer players are taking up the game these days, and those who have remained are smarter than ever, much to the dismay of pros who feasted on the amateurs who flocked to the tables and Internet sites a few years ago when poker's popularity boomed.
"I've never worked this hard and then my results aren't what I want them to be," said top pro Phil Hellmuth.
Hellmuth says he has been frustrated at this year's World Series of Poker, which started May 26 with the first of 57 various poker events. Entry fees range from $1,000 to $50,000, and winners for each event get cash and a gold bracelet, poker's most prestigious prize.
"I was hoping for something great to happen this trip but it just hasn't happened yet," said Hellmuth, who has cashed in four events this year for about $35,000.
Over the years Hellmuth has cashed 73 times for more than $6 million, and won the main event 20 years ago for $755,000. He has a record 11 gold bracelets.
Hellmuth said he's confident he and other top pros will use their experience to keep racking in the chips, but other players say several circumstances surrounding poker have made games everywhere more difficult -- meaning it's tougher to bring home a steady income.
"The edge is diminishing a little bit," said Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier, one of today's hottest players.
The 28-year-old French poker pro has cashed eight times at the World Series for nearly $165,000 and picked up $3.4 million last year for winning two other no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournaments.
"It's all about playing to evolve your game," Grospellier said. "Players are so much better now -- that's for sure."
If today's field faced players from five years ago, today's players would easily win because the games have grown more sophisticated, Grospellier said.
Peter Eastgate beat Hellmuth's record last year by becoming the youngest main event champion ever at age 22, topping a field of 6,844 players to win $9.15 million. Since then, he says he's had a losing year in cash games and disappointing results in tournaments, in part because he's still adjusting against new, motivated opponents who want to take down the titleholder.
"As it is right now, I'm not doing well in poker," Eastgate said.
Cardplaying has declined in commercial casinos along with gambling revenues in general, leaving fewer fish at the tables for cash-game grinders and tournament regulars.
Players also say Internet games have become tougher since the United States passed a law in 2006 that hinders Americans from playing online poker for real money.
"What the (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) has done has really taken a lot of the recreational players out of poker," said Barry Greenstein, a three-time gold bracelet winner who has roughly $2.26 million in earnings at the series. "What you're left with is really just mostly people who are trying to make a living."
Hellmuth said some Internet players lost millions in winnings in high-stakes cash games because they weren't good enough to keep winning against better players.
Participation rates in poker have been falling steadily since 2005, according to the American Gaming Association. The industry group said in its 2009 State of the States survey on casino entertainment that 11 percent of Americans played poker at a casino or on the Internet in 2008, compared with 18 percent in 2005.
Today, Internet poker sites are growing by focusing mostly on overseas customers in Europe and Asia.
Greg Raymer, who won $5 million and the main event title in 2004, said poker was more popular on TV four years ago, attracting new players to the game. He says that while there's no longer a poker boom in the United States, those who got into the game then are still playing.
Books, DVDs and poker Web sites give anyone who's curious access to a library of no-limit Texas Hold 'em knowledge that wasn't commonly available 20 years ago.
"That means those people that are playing are getting better and better every day," Raymer said. "It's just everyone's getting better and we don't have new, inexperienced players joining our ranks."
Greenstein said that at the same time, many players have found themselves with less money to spend because of the economy. That means that when they do play, it's often at lower stakes that offer smaller returns, he said.
"Of course my bills in a lot of cases -- I have three kids in college -- my bills haven't gone down so it means more work, that's all."
Greenstein said he has lost millions himself in the stock market and real estate, which in turn has affected his decisions on how he manages his money at the poker table.
"There will occasionally be games where I think it's a good game for me to sit at but my cash flow isn't what it was," Greenstein. "I'll look at a game and I'll say, 'Do I really want to risk putting up a couple hundred thousand, because that's a lot of money right now."'
Four-time bracelet winner Daniel Negreanu disagrees that an economy crunch has hit poker, pointing to this year's World Series of Poker as an example.
The series has seen capacity crowds in tournaments with lower buy-ins, and slight decreases in entries for tournaments with higher fees. Series officials project they will see roughly 60,000 entries this year, compared with 58,720 last year in two fewer events.
A $1,000 buy-in no-limit Texas Hold 'em tournament dubbed the "Stimulus Special" attracted 6,012 players, the largest field ever at the world series for a non-main event tournament. The series' most expensive tournament, the $50,000 buy-in mixed game H.O.R.S.E. event, had 95 entrants compared with 148 last year.
Raymer, Greenstein, 2003 main event champion Chris Moneymaker and others say they are finding better odds playing other games besides no-limit Texas Hold 'em, which uses five community cards and two hole cards per player with relatively simple rules.
Some other games are considered more difficult to master.
Negreanu, who said he makes up to 40 percent of his yearly poker-playing income at the world series each year, said he considers no-limit Texas Hold 'em the most "boring" variation of poker.
"Being a one-game wonder has always been a sort of a death certificate for poker professionals," Negreanu said. "You have to learn to play other games, otherwise it'll be tough to make it."
"The biggest actual games in the world have always been mixed games and that's not going to change," Negreanu said.
Moneymaker, who famously parlayed a satellite buy-in into $2.5 million for the 2003 title, said he still thinks the $10,000 main event is the best tournament around for pros because it is filled with thousands of amateurs there for the experience.
"People are getting better but there are still bad players out there," he said. "The main event is the easiest tournament of the year by far. ... If I could play at the main event every week, I would."
Poker Players Finding Tougher Game At World Series
LAS VEGAS -- Things have gotten tough at the tables.