If You Throw It, Will They Come?

Big buy-in events don’t automatically bring big fields

by , Jun 2, 2010 | 3:48 pm

Jon Katkin

The Poker Economy

For most of us, $50,000 is a whole lot of money. It’s a year’s salary. A new car. A down payment on a new house. Our savings.

For others, however, $50K is pocket money — a single pot in a $200/$400 game or a roll of the dice on the craps table. It’s also the cost of entry into the first marquee event of the 2010 WSOP, the $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship.

Over its short life, this tournament has undergone a variety of changes as it tries to cement its identity in the poker world. Starting out as the $50,000 HORSE event in 2006, the tournament quickly gained a reputation as the true players championship because of its hefty buy-in and mixed-game format. In that first year, 143 players ponied up $50K each for a shot at the title and the chance to play mixed games on ESPN.

The poker economy isn’t what it used to be. Players who wouldn’t have thought twice about dropping $50K two years ago are now looking at the cost of entry the same way many of us look at $1,500, $2,500 or $5,000 events.

Poor ratings forced a format change in 2007 and 2008, however, when ESPN agreed to broadcast the event only if the final tables were all No-Limit Hold ’em — a game that’s much easier for the general viewing audience to follow. The change didn’t do much to affect the number of entrants, as 148 players registered for the tournament in both 2007 and 2008.

ESPN dropped the $50K HORSE event completely in 2009 and, it can be argued that the lack of potential TV time, combined with the beginning of the economic crisis, had a significant impact on the field as just 95 players competed in the event last year. Now, however, the $50K HORSE event is back on the air – renamed as the the $50,000 Player’s Championship and featuring an eight-game mix along with a TV-friendly NLH-only final table. Michael “the Grinder” Mizrachi took down the $1.5 million bracelet last night in what had to be good-for-TV fashion – with his brother and other well-known pros falling by the wayside before he ended up mano-y-mano against an interesting Russian high-roller.

While this event is certainly popular with a small – albeit influential – subset of players, real questions after five years are, is it successful and will it be back again in 2011. According to the WSOP’s PR Director, Seth Palansky, the answers are yes. Speaking recently on the new Wicked Chops podcast, Palansky said WSOP officials set the over/under on the number of players in this year’s event at 100, and were very pleased with the fact that 116 players registered for the tournament.

And, while 116 players is nothing to sneeze at, that number is significantly smaller than the one being bandied about on press row before the start of the event, when usually well informed sources said WSOP officials were expecting at least 130 players — still nearly 20 players shy of the tournament’s high water mark.

Is Palansky just trying to put the best face on a disappointing turnout? And, if so, does it matter?

What does seem clear is that the poker economy — like the overall US and world economies — isn’t what it used to be. Before the start of the WSOP, I had a chance to speak with a couple of well known and well respected pros whom you would expect to be playing in this year’s Player’s Championship. They certainly have the bankrolls to afford the game and the skills to be competitive. Yet, they decided to pass — all for similar reasons.

In each case, the players said that with the tourney’s high price point and loaded field, they just don’t see enough value to justify parting with $50,000, as nearly 90 percent of the entries are sure to do. Think about that for a second. With 116 entrants, the tournament is paying out 16 places, with a min-cash paying out just over $98,000. Eighth spot, which is the first to bust from the final TV table, earns a little more than $182,000 along with whatever bonus money is being offered by the player’s sponsor site — usually between five and six figures for players from sites like PokerStars and FTP. First place pays more than $1.5 million, plus bonuses.

It’s not that these players think the tournament, in and of itself, is too expensive or that the field is too tough. Instead, it’s a matter of simple bankroll management and the fact they believe that playing this event, in the greater scheme of the overall WSOP, doesn’t make financial sense. Players who wouldn’t have thought twice about dropping $50K two years ago are now looking at the cost of entry the same way many of us look at $1,500, $2,500 or $5,000 events.

Is this event worth the price? Is there better value somewhere else for less money?

When even the richest and most successful poker pros in the world are asking such questions before entering “big” tournaments, what does that mean for the casual players for whom a trip to the WSOP is a significant financial commitment? Will they show up? If so, will they play as many events as last year? Will they play events outside of the Rio? Will the overall number of players at this year’s WSOP drop for the first time in post-Moneymaker, Harrah’s-driven history?

For Palansky and Harrah’s executives, these are burning questions for the 2010 WSOP. Even though you won’t hear them say any specific number or benchmark really matters, they do. Field sizes, and the dollars associated with them, have to factor into any profit-minded corporation’s assessment of an event’s success, and how they consider the vibrance of an overall market.

So while 116 or any other number may not alter how things run this year, it has a lot to do with what kind of poker we’ll see in future WSOPs.

Jon Katkin is a former professional journalist, six-year poker industry insider, and semi-regular contributor to Pokerati. He writes about his low-stakes Vegas grind at Chaos Theory, and on Twitter @JaKatkin.

3 Comments to “Op-Ed

If You Throw It, Will They Come? ”

  1. F-Train

    I’m going to call bullshit on WSOP’s “over/under 100”. Last year, with no ESPN, the event got 95 entries. With ESPN back in the mix, WSOP was expecting the field to be basically the same? That seems implausible.

    I had under 125. If you had forced me to chose over/under 120, it would have been tough. And the 116 number doesn’t tell the whole story. How many were playing over their heads?

    Numbers are down in 6 of 8 events so far, with only the $5,000 NLHE Shootout seeing a big increase — perhaps as players recognize that a shootout format is the best shot at a bracelet. The poker economy of 2010 is definitely not the poker economy of 2006, when the $50K event was first designed.

  2. DanM

    Good point about the shootout … it’s probably the best time investment, too. Win your first table and you’re in the money. Don’t, and you’re out, and can move on to other things.

  3. Jay G.

    If we were to look at the list of 116, I’d guess that at least 1/4 made most of their money away from the table and/or have a huge portion of the investment underwritten.