Friday, December 26, 2014

WSOP Guarantees Debate

The announcement of next year’s World Series of Poker dates came on December 23, just in time for this next week-and-a-half or so when the tournament poker circuit goes relatively quiet until the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure cranks up. Thus those who tend to give a lot of attention to the WSOP have plenty of down time right now to discuss and debate what was included in the presser.

I guess it didn’t matter much what the WSOP announced in its annual teaser -- that there would be criticism and debate was pretty much a guarantee, anyway.

The WSOP will run from May 27, 2015 through July 14, 2015, with the “November Nine” format for the Main Event again in place for an eighth straight year. There are a couple of new events listed, the most notable being a $565 buy-in tournament with a $5 million guarantee dubbed “The Colossus.” That one will have multiple starting flights and re-entries available (one per flight), and will come at the very beginning of the summer (starting May 29).

The Las Vegas Sun has reported that “organizers expect more than 13,000 entries” in the Colossus. I assume they’ll need at least 10,000 to meet that guarantee -- that will be more than sufficient to set a record as the largest field in a WSOP event ever.

Searching back through WSOP history, I think the last time there was an “open” bracelet event with less than a $1,000 buy-in -- i.e., not the Casino Employees event, the Ladies event, or the “Mixed Doubles” event they had for a few years -- was 1980 when there was a $500 seven-card stud event on the schedule. Even the Seniors event has always had a $1,000 buy-in.

Speaking of the Seniors event, the announcement mentions it will be returning again (along with the Ladies Championship), with another $1K buy-in “Super Seniors” event for players 65 and older also to be added this time around.

Other events returning include the “Millionaire Maker,” the “Monster Stack,” the “ONE DROP High Roller” (for $111,111), and the “Little One for ONE DROP,” all following previously employed formats. Also back is that first-place prize guarantee of $10 million for the Main Event winner, a decision which appears to have elicited the most fervent discussion among those chattering about the announcement in my Twitter feed.

As I recall, that idea to guarantee $10 million for the Main Event winner last year was tied to the WSOP celebrating its 10th year at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino. It was in 2005 that the move from Binion’s to the Rio was made, although they did finish out the last couple of days of the Main Event back at Binion’s that year (when Joe Hachem won).

The connection to the 10th year anniversary made it seem as though the change to the payouts might only be a one-shot deal -- kind of like that $40K no-limit hold’em tournament added to the schedule back in 2009 that corresponded to the 40th year of the WSOP and wasn’t brought back again thereafter.

But the $10 milly first prize is back again. And now there is a lot of back-and-forthing going on about whether or not that’s a good or bad thing.

With that first-place prize guarantee in place a year ago, the overall turnout for the WSOP Main Event increased from 6,352 to 6,683, the first increase since 2010. While it’s hard to say how much the $10 milly up top mattered to those who entered without surveying them, it isn’t too much of a reach to think the WSOP saw some correlation and thus were encouraged to bring back the first-place prize guarantee.

According to the payout schedules the WSOP has been using over the last few years, the first-place prizes have typically been hovering around the $8.5 million range. In 2013, Ryan Riess won $8,359,232 for topping a field of 6,352; in 2012, Greg Merson won $8,531,853 for coming out on top of 6,598; in 2011, Pius Heinz earned $8,715,638 for winning a Main Event in which 6,895 played. Estimating a similar turnout in 2014 meant adding around $1.5 million then to eventual winner Martin Jacobson’s take-away.

That $1.5 million or so obviously was shaved off of what the other 692 players who made the money earned for their cashes. Second-place finisher Felix Stephensen won $5,147,911, approximately $150,000 less than he would have made according to the payout schedule used the year before. Meanwhile those who min-cashed the Main Event in 2014 earned $18,406, which I believe was a little under $1K less than they would have made via the old model (e.g., in 2011 when 693 also made the money the min-cashers made $19,359).

Those objecting to the $10-million-up-top idea are expressing doubts about the extent of it being a real selling point to would-be players, especially the non-pros. They are also criticizing the lessening of payouts for spots No. 2 through No. 693 (or whatever the total number of players cashing turns out to be in 2015). Some are petitioning for a payout schedule in which everyone making the final table would earn at least $1 million (something only possible according to the current structure if around 8,000 play the Main Event, I believe) and/or one in which the top 1,000 finishers get paid (which would obviously make it difficult also to have guarantees up top).

I can’t really pretend to feel all that passionately one way or the other on this one. I don’t play the Main Event, and while I have been reporting on it for many years now, the difference in payouts caused by the $10 million first-place guarantee doesn’t have much effect on the tourney’s narrative or the many reasons why it’s such a compelling event.

On the one hand, I’m not enthused about making the Main Event even more unlike other tournaments via a skewed payout structure. However, looking back at the history of the Main Event the payouts were pretty much always skewed in a similar way up until 2007 with the rounding off of first-place prizes, including many years (1991-1999) of making it $1 million regardless of the number of entrants. So arguing for “tradition” doesn’t really work for those opposed to the first-place guarantee.

Here’s a chart the WSOP put out showing how the payouts would work with variously-sized fields, and it shows how they need at least around 6,400 to play for second-place prize money to be greater than $5 million or half what the winner gets. The chart also shows the big problems that a steep decline in the turnout would create with that guarantee in place, making for a very top-heavy payout schedule.

Perhaps more than any other poker tournament, the WSOP Main Event highlights the divide between pros and amateurs (or recreational players) thanks to how much of the field is usually comprised of the latter. It is interesting how having the first-place prize guarantee seems for some to highlight this divide even more, and how it has drawn extra attention to the importance of keeping poker interesting and attractive to non-professionals (a subtext much of the debate thus far).

We’ll see how the conversation continues over the next 10 days until the PCA comes along to distract everyone.

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