Monday, May 30, 2011

WSOP Fantasy Leagues and the “Sport” of Poker

WSOP Fantasy LeagueJust a little over 24 hours until the first bracelet event of this year’s World Series of Poker gets underway. At noon tomorrow comes the $500 buy-in Casino Employees No-Limit Hold’em event (Event No. 1). Then later in the afternoon the first round of the big $25,000 Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em Championship will get started (Event No. 2). Soon after that the days are going to start filling up rapidly, with six different events happening on Friday. (Later today I’ll put up a post with the full day-by-day schedule.)

During the lead-up to tomorrow’s kick-off, there has been a lot of talk about so-called “fantasy” leagues for the WSOP. They generally work like other fantasy sports leagues insofar as participants each pick a team of players, accumulate points based on their chosen players’ performances, then whoever’s players collectively do the best wins the league.

Although I enjoy all sports, I never really got into the fantasy stuff and so have never participated in any football fantasy league or baseball “rotisserie” league or anything of that sort. I remember a couple of years ago joining a Full Tilt Poker (free) fantasy WSOP league, but you had to keep picking players every single day and so I quickly realized I hadn’t the time to bother with it.

Seems like most of these WSOP fantasy leagues we’ve been hearing about over the last week or so are designed in such a way that league members pick their “horses” at the start and stick with them (i.e., no trades or additions). There are different procedures for “drafting” players, and different ways of rating performance (e.g., WSOP player points, total amount in cashes, etc.), but the basic concept is the same for all.

ESPN’s Poker Club hosted its sixth annual WSOP fantasy poker draft last week. There folks picked eight players each and will follow a special scoring system. That one is just for the glory (i.e., no money is on the line). There’s a new site,, offering players the ability to join WSOP fantasy leagues and either play for free or for real money. And I’ve noticed a few other WSOP fantasy-type sites around, too.

Daniel Negreanu shoots some video at draft for 2011 WSOP Fantasy LeagueProbably the example of a WSOP fantasy league that got the most attention last week was the one organized by Daniel Negreanu. In that one, 15 teams were created, some of which are “owned” by individuals, some by two, three, or four players. I believe a total of 27 folks are involved. They held an auction-style draft, each team bidding on eight players total. You can read all about who participated and how it works in this blog post by Negreanu. Here is a short video as well that Negreanu took of the proceedings (from which comes that still).

Making Negreanu’s league more intriguing is the fact that each team is putting up $25,000 to play, which makes the total prize pool for the league a handsome $375,000. (I’m not sure, but I think the sucker is winner-take-all.) Also of interest is the fact that all 27 of those involved are players themselves, a lot of whom were bid upon and drafted to become part of their own or others’ teams.

That latter point got me thinking a little about how this sort of thing -- i.e., players gambling on themselves or each other such as in a fantasy league, or swapping percentages, or backing one another, or whatever -- necessarily makes poker different from just about all sports.

Last week I had also spent some time reading through the Official Media Guide for the 2011 World Series of Poker, and found myself thinking how all of the statistics and records in there really do create the impression that the WSOP is a sporting event. But unlike baseball, football, basketball, or any other organized sport, players routinely bet on themselves and each other at the WSOP. And that’s a pretty big difference, if you think about it.

If such extra-curricular gambling wasn’t already such a big part of poker, I could see someone raising an objection to something like Negreanu’s fantasy league as perhaps having the potential to affect the integrity of the tournaments.

One could imagine a scenario in which, say, we get to late June and Negreanu’s fantasy team has a narrow lead over the one owned by Frank Kassela and Shaun Deeb, with the other 13 teams way behind. Then comes Event No. 41, the $1,500 Limit Hold’em Shootout, an event for which the first prize is probably going to be less than $200,000. (Last year Brendan Taylor won $184,950 for first in that one.) Let’s say they get down to just three players -- Negreanu, Kassela, and an unknown, undrafted player.

As it happens, Kassela and Deeb have both Negreanu and Kassela himself on their fantasy team. Thus if Negreanu cannot win the event himself, he would probably rather see the unknown player win than for Kassela to win. And in fact, there’s more money on the line in the fantasy league than in the event itself!

Of course, I wouldn’t suggest participating in the high-roller fantasy league would cause any of these guys to play tourneys any differently. As I mentioned, the game is filled with examples of cross-booking, backing arrangements, buying “pieces,” and so forth -- all of which is accepted -- and I think the fantasy league would have to be considered similarly.

Money Money MoneyWe’ve seen examples in the past of how the amounts being wagered on various bracelet bets have sometimes dwarfed the prizes on offer in the events themselves. We all remember Tom Dwan finishing second in that $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em Event No. 11 last year, earning $381,855 and missing out on a $614,248 first prize. And while few know for sure how much in side action Dwan had, rumors suggested he’d have earned millions had he won that event, perhaps even something close to the $8.94 million later won by Jonathan Duhamel in the 2010 WSOP Main Event.

Still, the existence of something like Negreanu’s WSOP fantasy league -- even though it might inspire analogies between poker and sports -- does point up how despite sharing various elements found in sports (competition, mental toughness, endurance, etc.), the WSOP and poker in general is always going to be fundamentally different.

You are always betting on yourself in poker, sometimes even more than the amount of the buy-in or the chips on the table. And you can bet on others, too.

Many sports, especially those of the big-time professional leagues, often involve big-time money, so much so that you can often say much of what goes on in those games is “about the money.” But when it comes to those other forms of competition, money isn’t specifically part of the game. Whereas in poker it always is.

(EDIT [added 5/30, 9 p.m.]: Someone has created a website to track the progress of the Negreanu $25K fantasy league:

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Blogger Jerry said...

I recently saw an article with tips and tricks for casual players for the WSOP Fantasy Draft on FTP. It might come handy to you:

5/30/2011 10:59 PM  

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