The WSOP Video Game Series: A Relic of Poker’s Golden Age

wsop video game series

8 minutes

Last Updated: December 3, 2023

Despite what my parents and every woman in my life have told me for years, video games provide an amazing outlet for players to enjoy a leisurely activity that offers an escape from the harsh reality of the real world.

My 2007 Honda Accord may be on its last legs and I really should book my next dentist appointment, but for the next few hours none of that matters, as I must decide which side I will join in Skyrim’s civil war (it’s always the Stormcloaks).

Video games may seem trivial to those who do not partake, but if your two options are getting ahead on your taxes or playing Rocket League with the boys, we know I’m quickly grabbing my controller.

While it is by no means productive, video games not only offer mental reprieve but give you the chance to live out your fantasies.

As a skinny goof with a gluten allergy, I was not blessed with the genetic tools to have a successful career in the National Football League, but by simply turning on my Xbox, I can become a 6’3 scrambling quarterback who can eat all the Costco pizza he desires.

For recreational poker players, there was once a time when living the dream of being a professional poker player only required you to place a disc into your gaming console.

The World Series of Poker Video Game Series

The 2000’s, referred to by many as the Golden Age of Poker, offered a landscape that many seasoned players look back at fondly. Poker games were incredibly soft, ESPN aired commercials for online poker rooms, and Chris Ferguson was still a beloved member of the poker community (more on “Jesus” later).

In what may have been the all-time peak of poker’s popularity, the game experienced exposure like never before, resulting in events and products unheard of in the modern era.

Cashing in on poker’s growing popularity, the video game publisher Activison, most known for video games like Call of Duty, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and Destiny, partnered with the World Series of Poker (WSOP) to create the official WSOP video game.

Although not the first major poker video game to hit the market (World Championship Poker was released a year prior in 2004), Activion’s released the first WSOP video game in August 2005, not only beating out the World Poker Tour in hitting the market, but also capitalizing on the WSOP brand.

Even though poker video games had quickly become common as a result of the Poker Boom, the WSOP video game series was one of the first to include famous poker pros and celebrities into the game.

After creating your own avatar, players could immediately sit at the table with the likes of Scotty Nguyen, Chris Moneymaker, and Johnny Chan in a number of WSOP tournaments and cash games.

Offering nearly every poker variant including Razz, Seven Card Stud, as well as No-Limit Texas Hold’em, players could play a number of game modes, with the primary being career mode.

Included in all three titles of the WSOP video game franchise, Career Mode was the center-piece of each title, allowing players to live the dream of grinding the tournament circuit as a full-time pro.

While each variation of the WSOP video game approached career mode in a different way, each title had the basic premise of providing you with a couple thousand dollars for your starting bankroll and allowing you to select the WSOP tournaments you played in.

Of the three titles, World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions (released in 2006) was always my favorite due to the enjoyable nature of the career mode.

Revisiting World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions

Despite being released over 17 years ago, WSOP: Tournament of Champions has only grown more endearing to me.

With the Career Mode being based completely around the World Series of Poker Circuit and the Tournament of Champions, as a live reporter for the Circuit, I appreciate the recognition the game offered the newly created Circuit series back in 2006.

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Along with the promotion of the WSOP Circuit, the game’s emphasis on creating a narrative within the Career Mode makes it stand out amongst the other two titles from the series.

While the 2005 and 2008 editions of the game take you straight to the WSOP series, WSOP: Tournament of Champions requires you to travel the Circuit and acquire enough points to qualify for the Tournament of Champions.

WSOP Circuit grinders know that in real life, one must win a WSOP Circuit ring to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, but the point system included in the game offers a fun incentive to play Career Mode in its entirety.

When you create a character and start a new career, before you embark on the WSOP Circuit trail, you must first take part in a home game.

The game provides you with the following prompt: “Time for your weekly poker game with your friends Blaze, Doc, and Otto…”

While the colorful personalities of your fictional friend group make the home game already enthralling, a particular poker pro appears. Before the game begins, the poker pro informs you all that the winner of the home game will be taken under their wing and mentored as they play their way through the WSOP Circuit schedule.

While the inclusion of this poker pro as the player’s mentor has certainly aged poorly, I’m sure we can all agree it is somewhat humorous in hindsight.

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Yes, that is in fact who you think it is, and taking a note from an incredibly popular children’s fantasy novel, throughout the rest of this article Chris “Jesus” Ferguson shall be referred to as He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Regardless of how you finish in the home game, He Who Shall Not Be Named recognizes your poker skills and guides you as you travel the WSOP Circuit, accruing Tournament of Champion points and eventually competing with some of the best in the world in the prestigious event.

Playing World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions

Although the game does not feature every single location from the old WSOP Circuit, it does include some of the Circuit’s premier stops from the 2000’s.

As your character, nicknamed “The Rookie,” travels the Circuit with He Who Shall Not Be Named, they compete at the Grand Casino in Tunica, Mississippi (now a Harrah’s property), Harrah’s Rincon in San Diego, California (currently named Harrah’s Resort Southern California), Harrah’s in New Orleans, Louisiana (I was just there!), and Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Once your character has earned enough points to qualify, they travel to the Rio in Las Vegas, the former home of the WSOP summer series, to compete in the WSOP Tournament of Champions. 

While the sequel to WSOP: Tournament of Champions (WSOP: Battle of the Bracelets) has the best roster of pros amongst the three titles in the series, Tournament of Champions still boasts an impressive roster, allowing you to face off with Jennifer Tilly, T.J. Cloutier, Eric Seidel, Scotty, Nguyen, and WSOP Main Event champion Joe Hachem to name a few.

Although the computer AI is not reflective of the players it tries to emulate (Phil Laak three-bet me with 8-3 offsuit in Tunica), the inclusion of pros along with their voices and catchphrases adds additional charm to the game.

An added benefit to WSOP: Tournament of Champions is the commentary provided by legendary poker broadcasters Lon McEachern and Norman Chad. Despite how terrifying their avatars look, the duo’s banter makes the game even more fun.

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Outside of the career mode, WSOP: Tournament of Champions gives players the chance to play Heads-Up Tournaments with fields made up entirely of poker pros.

Although the game no longer supports online multiplayer, WSOP: Tournament of Champions once provided a great way for players to play with friends.

Looking Back at the WSOP Video Game Series

If you were to scour the internet and access old reviews of the WSOP video game series via the Wayback Machine, much like all other poker video games that came out at the time, one term appears frequently in each review: cash grab.

Leveraging poker’s surge in popularity by quickly creating a video game that relied on name recognition, premier poker tournament series that ventured into video game development were met with critical reviews, with the WSOP games getting the worst of it.

Many reviewers cited that each game in the series should have lived up to the WSOP brand, and provided a polished game that wasn’t designed to be simply bought and not enjoyed.

The objective part of me sees where these reviewers were coming from, especially when playing these games as I worked on this piece, but at the same time, I feel that in 2023 these games should be looked upon more favorably.

Yes, the opponent AI sucks and some of the career mode dynamics fail to properly emulate the career of a professional poker player, but if you are looking for opponents with refined strategies and want to actually embark on a realistic poker career, I’m sure you can find a poker room near you on Poker Atlas.

Some readers may accuse me of falling victim to “nostalgia blindness,” but I firmly believe the WSOP video game series should be celebrated.

At their core, the WSOP video games are not “must plays” for poker fans, but they do serve as a testament not only to the Golden Age of Poker, but the culture and poker pros that inspired us to embrace the game.

In 2006 at the age of 11, I popped WSOP: Tournament of Champions into my PlayStation 2 and played the game for the first time.

Playing it now at the age of 28, not only does the game offer a fun reprieve, but it allows me to reflect on why I loved the game of poker at a young age, and how 17 years later that love has remained. I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve even had the opportunity to interview a number of players who appear in the game!

While the WSOP video games were not Mincecraft or Red Dead Redemption 2, they were titles that allowed poker fans to enjoy the game in a fun new way, and even inspired some of them along the way.

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