Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A League of Their Own

Pros and ProsLast night Vera and I watched a little of the Australian Open. We caught the end of a women’s singles first-round match between fifth-seeded Samantha Stosur of Australia and the 17-year-old American Lauren Davis. Stosur easily defeated Davis (6-1, 6-1), for whom this was her first-ever Grand Slam event. Davis had won her way into the tournament after winning a junior tourney in December in order to earn a wildcard entry. A little like winning a satellite tourney in poker, I suppose.

Was kind of intriguing to see Davis do what she could against Stosur, the not insignificant skill divide between the two accentuated somewhat by their contrasting appearances. There was the pixie-like Davis (only 5’1”, I believe), battling gamely against the taller, more muscular Stosur who made the French Open final last year and who many think is a strong contender perhaps to win her first Grand Slam this month.

While Davis did manage to pick up a few points here and there, the outcome was never in doubt. Unlike in poker, where a fortunate card (or several) really can help an outmatched newcomer defeat a seasoned pro, there was no chance here for Davis to go “all in” and gamble for the win.

The possibility in poker for amateurs to compete directly against top pros has always been one of the most fascinating elements of the tournament circuit. Aside from a handful of invitation-only, often made-for-TV events, every single major tournament on the poker calendar is -- like the Australian Open -- technically an “open” event in which anyone (theoretically) can play.

That said, when it comes to the Australian Open one must demonstrate at least some ability to participate. All 128 players in the women’s draw, for instance, either received an invite because of their current WTA singles rankings or won a wild card spot like Davis did. Meanwhile, in poker, anyone with enough to cover an entry fee can play.

Found myself thinking about this difference again this morning when the news broke of the creation of a yet-to-be-named professional poker league.

The story is only a couple of hours old, though by now you’ve probably at least heard about it. According to an article from the Associated Press -- picked up by a number of outlets, including ESPN (who listed the story among its front page headlines today) -- Annie Duke will serve as the new league’s commissioner, with former WSOP Commish Jeffrey Pollack acting as its chairman. Pollack is also described in the AP story as one of the league’s co-founders, with a private company, Federated Sports & Gaming, Inc., listed as having created the league.

Among the other details shared in the article is a plan to stage four televised “regular-season events” as well as a “$1 million championship freeroll” that will take place at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas. As was the case with the short-lived Professional Poker Tour -- the last attempt at something like a professional poker league (begun in mid-2005 and defunct a little over a year later) -- those who participate in this new league will do so by invitation only.

“About 200 players will be invited into the league based on a mathematical formula measuring finishes in major events, money earned, and recent success,” says the article. Notably, only live tourneys will be considered, with cash games and online events not factoring into the calculations. Also not unlike what was the case with the PPT, players will be granted memberships of differing lengths, lasting either two, three, or five years, with a few “lifetime cards” being given to certain elite players.

Quotes from Duke and Pollack in the article directly evoke this issue I’ve brought up of non-pros competing with the established veterans of the game, sort of making it sound as though it’s a problem that the game’s best players sometimes (or often, even) have to play against less talented players. “This is incredibly pro-centric,” says Duke. “This is the one piece that’s kind of missing from the poker landscape right now... something for the best players in the world to compete against the best players in the world.”

Will be interesting, no doubt, to follow the process as it unfolds over the next few months. (I believe the first event will not happen until August.) Debates over invitations and the “formula” for determining who gets in will no doubt be fierce. Indeed, just a couple of posts ago I was referring to how the “all-time” list of tourney winnings is most certainly an imperfect indicator of who might be the “best players in the world.” I’ll also be curious to see how well the new league manages to avoid the many problems that led to the PPT’s demise, although I imagine that example will likely serve as a kind of object lesson for the new league as it forges ahead.

Am wondering a little about the money, the securing of which will obviously prove crucial to the league’s survival. Am also wondering about how the new league will be viewed, specifically whether or not it will find an audience and earn a spot on “the poker landscape” (to use Duke’s term) that is not way over on the periphery somewhere.

It certainly sounds like the league’s founders are envisioning more than a curious, large-scale “home game,” but rather something much more ambitious.

The AP story begins with a comparison with professional golf, saying how “the new league is hoping to become the PGA of poker.” There Pollack also speaks of how membership in the new league “will signify standing as a true professional in poker.” And in another press release from the Federated Sports & Gaming, Erik Seidel is quoted saying he hopes the new league will be “on par with other professional sports,” adding that he is “looking forward to true excellence in the game being rewarded.”

I do hope the new league turns into something fun and good for poker. But these are some lofty goals. Indeed, might it go against the nature of the game itself -- of which luck is necessarily a part -- to insist on finding a way to reward “true excellence”? I mean, even with links on the front page of ESPN, poker can’t really be tennis, can it? In poker, a Lauren Davis will beat a Samantha Stosur now and then.

Of course, in this new league, they’ll never play.

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Blogger Sean G said...

With Seidel's comment, it gives hope that FTP will allow their pros to participate, which should be a considerable factor in the new league's potential success. I'm not a fan of the self-appointed "World's best woman pro" being the commissioner, but Pollack's air of credibility does sort of balance that out. I found Duke's comment amusing in the original article regarding not being able to play as commissioner, "...if my sacrifice is to give up playing full time, then that's my sacrifice and I'm OK that." As if she'd make the cut otherwise and is making some sort of legitimate sacrifice.

The exclusion of online pros is disappointing and kind of backward-looking, as if some of the most talented young tournament players today on the live scene (Mercier, Elky, and Seiver come to mind) didn't get started as online pros.

Still, as a fan of televised poker, I hope it does well... especially if they follow PS' example and have a web-heavy presence.

1/18/2011 3:45 PM  
Blogger MBG said...

I'm not too sure that poker will ever really properly fit into a league format - as you say risk plays a bigger role than in other sports.

But the fact that anyone can enter and win the WSOP or any large tournament is hugely appealing and fundamentally egalitarian.

I think it'd be good to maintain those things whichever poker evolves.

1/18/2011 4:37 PM  

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