Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Talking WSOP Tournament of Champions

2010 Tournament of ChampionsTonight ESPN will be airing a couple of hours’ worth of the WSOP Tournament of Champions, that $500,000 freeroll involving 27 players, most of whom got their seats via an online vote over on the WSOP website. Remember that one?

A decent amount of hype was built up around this event when it was first announced back in March, at which time the polls first opened. That initial momentum kind of faded quickly, though.

One reason for the waning interest was that by May most were beginning to notice that the 20 players who would be selected via the vote had essentially been picked within the first few days of voting. Although the WSOP didn’t send out specifics about voting statistics until after the polls had closed, they did provide a list of the top 20 vote-getters a couple of times prior to then -- once in April, then again in May -- and the names were all the same.

Those 20 players who got voted in were joined by five others who had received automatic invites. Annie Duke, Mike Matusow, and Mike Sexton had each won the most recent version of the TOC (2004-2006) and thus were given spots. 2009 WSOP Main Event winner Joe Cada and 2009 WSOPE Main Event winner Barry Shulman also received invites.

That left two more seats to be filled -- a couple of “wild card” or “sponsor exemptions.” One was secured by Andrew Barton of Dudley, England, winner of an online tourney on WSOP.com, a U.K.-only site. The WSOP Academy filled the other spot by holding its own freeroll invitational, a nine-player sit-n-go won by Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier. The other invitees to that freeroll were Andy Bloch, Liv Boeree, Don Cheadle, Tom Dwan, Gus Hansen, Michael Mizrachi, Sorel Mizzi, and Paul Wasicka.

Some voiced dismay back in June regarding those last two spots -- one going to a non-pro (Barton is a collections driver for the Dudley Mail), and the other determined by a freeroll without any clear criteria regarding how players were invited. Even so, it seemed to me that many in the media were genuinely looking forward to the star-studded event as a potentially rich source of fun poker stories.

While there helping cover the WSOP for PokerNews this summer, I was assigned to other events when the TOC was going on, although I did get a chance to stop by once on a day off when the tourney was first getting started.

The original schedule for the TOC was to play from 27 to nine on the first day -- Sunday, June 27 -- then for the final table to play out a week later on July 4, otherwise an off-day for everyone just prior to the start of the Main Event. That first Sunday I was off, and that’s when I ended up over at the Rio for a short while to see a bit of the TOC as it got underway.

I noted then how the Amazon Room seemed “very sedate” as the three tables played out in separate corners of the spacious ballroom. I also used the word “anticlimactic” to describe the scene, which surprisingly didn’t appear to have attracted that many fans. Even the media box was sparsely populated on that Sunday afternoon, although it was early in the day.

As it turned out, the TOC was not played according to that original schedule. In fact, the constant rescheduling and other machinations to get the thing played further deadened its impact as an event folks could get excited about.

(Stop reading now if you wish to avoid spoilers for tonight’s show.)

That first day only saw four one-hour levels get played, with just five of the 27 players being eliminated. Erik Seidel had a slight chip lead when they called it quits early that Sunday. They came back on Monday, June 28, and played four more one-hour levels, losing five more players. Mike Matusow had the most chips of the 17 left when they stopped play once again.

Then came the crazy July 3rd, the following Saturday. The original plan had been to restart the event that evening, although they wouldn’t be able to do so if any of the players were involved with ongoing tourneys at that time. As it happened, Phil Hellmuth was still in Event No. 55, the $10,000 Pot-Limit Omaha Championship when they wanted to get things going. And I think Huck Seed was AWOL and Joe Hachem was away from the Rio, too.

Whatever the case, after a lot of back-and-forthing they ended up scrapping playing that day altogether. The remaining 17 reconvened on Sunday, July 4, and after nearly 11 one-hour levels Huck Seed prevailed.

I assume ESPN will likely focus on the final table tonight, so there probably won’t be a lot of attention given to the scheduling problems and other minor controversies associated with the TOC. However, if the TOC does come back in 2011, I think it is safe to say that it will definitely be one of a few items that’ll get extra attention as part of that annual effort to improve things at the WSOP.

I personally would like to see the TOC to go back to something resembling its first format -- that is, the version of the event (not officially sponsored by the WSOP, I believe) that took place at the Orleans back in 1999-2001. Ditch the voting and “sponsor exemptions” and instead have a regular three-day NLHE event in which the sole criteria for entering is that a player has won a WSOP bracelet.

Keep it a freeroll (which it wasn’t, actually, back at the Orleans), and if the WSOP can continue to give $500,000 or so for the prize pool, that’d be great, too. (Perhaps if the event could be guaranteed coverage on ESPN, a sponsor could step up to boost the prize pool a bit more, too.) I think then players might feel as though Harrah’s and WSOP is doing a little more to “give back” to the players than is the case with the present TOC.

If I recall there were something like 520 living players with bracelets who were eligible for the TOC voting this time around. Add 50 or so to that number for this year’s winners, and you’re looking at a maximum of less than 600 players, the sort of thing that could be played out as a regular event.

There would still be conflicts for some players, and many would likely opt out in order to play in other events. But that would be their decision, and I think this way at least the tournament could be played as scheduled. (In fact, I’d consider scheduling the sucker before the start of the WSOP proper, so as to remove conflicts altogether and perhaps get more participation.)

There are probably many reasons why this sort of format would never fly for a WSOP-sponsored TOC, never mind for an event that ESPN would want to televise. Still, I think it would be kind of cool once and for all to try to find a way to stage a real “tournament of champions” at the WSOP.

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