Where’d They All Come From?

Online sites, satellites don’t explain bigger numbers in 2010

by , Aug 24, 2010 | 9:16 am

Jon Katkin

The Poker Economy


For 99.99987 percent of the players in this year’s events, the 2010 WSOP has come to a close. Some were winners and many more were losers. And, for nine lucky combatants, there’s still one more long day of poker left to play before someone claims the game’s most prestigious title and poker’s second-largest payday ever.

As tonight’s television coverage of the Main Event (ESPN 9p ET) moves past the massive Day 1 fields and more and more players see their WSOPs come to an end, I just have to wonder: Where did they all come from?

After a slow start, the 2010 WSOP finished strong, enticing 72,966 players total to Las Vegas to play in 57 separate events — a 20 percent increase over 2009’s record-setting figure of 60,875. And it wasn’t just the smaller events that benefitted. After hitting a high-water mark in 2006 with 8,773 entrants and a prize pool worth more than $82.5 million, the Main Event contracted over the next three years, attracting no more than 6,844 players for the big dance. Until this year, that is.

The best guess is that live satellites account for about 15 percent of the Main Event field. Combined with the online qualifiers, that means roughly 40 percent paid something less than $10k to play in the tournament, which seems about right. Still, that means that about 60 percent (roughly 4,400) of the players coughed up $10K each for their seats at the WSOP tables.

According to the WSOP’s official figures, 7,319 players took part in this year’s $10,000 Main Event. That’s 825 more people than who played in 2009, or an increase of nearly 9 percent. Now I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty impressive, especially in today’s economy where nearly 10 percent of the general public in the US is out of work and Europe is struggling to keep countries like Greece and Ireland from going completely bankrupt under the weight of huge budget deficits.

All of which, again, begs the question, where on Earth did all these players come from?

The first and most obvious answers is, of course, satellites. But here’s the thing — according to the folks at Harrah’s, the number of players sent from online sites was actually down a little over previous years. For example, PokerStars only qualified 1,018 players for this year’s Main Event, which is about half of the qualifiers they’ve had over the previous few years. And, of those players who earned entries, only 839 actually bought into the tournament. Full Tilt Poker, which has traditionally sent fewer players to the Main than Stars, qualified approximately 600 players for this year’s tournament. Though we don’t have an exact figure on how many of those qualifiers actually played, it’s safe to assume the majority of the qualifiers showed up in Vegas. Smaller sites, like UB, Party Poker, Everest, Winimax and the like all qualified between 100 and 150 players each.

For the sake of the math, we’ll assume that, in total, the online sites qualified about 2,250 players combined and that 1,750 of them actually showed up at the Rio. That means about 25 percent of this year’s field qualified online.

Fuzzy Math
The numbers get a little fuzzier when we start talking about players who earned their seats through live satellites at either the Rio or one of Harrah’s participating casinos around the world. Officials at the WSOP don’t track the number of players who earned lammers in the round-the-clock satellites that run throughout the WSOP and, because these lammers can be used for any event on the schedule, it’s impossible to tell how many players earned their Main Event entries (or a portion of their entries) at the satellite tables.

After talking with folks such as Nolan Dalla and Ty Stewart, the best guess is that live satellites account for about 15 percent of the Main Event field. Combined with the online qualifiers, that means roughly 40 percent paid something less than $10k to play in the tournament, which seems about right. Still, that means that about 60 percent (roughly 4,400) of the players coughed up $10k each.

Of those players, about 10 percent are true professionals (Lederer, Ferguson, Negreanu, etc.) with bankrolls sufficient enough to easily cover the cost of a $10k buy in. And let’s be generous and say another 10 percent are “known” professionals (either live or online) who are being staked in the event as part of someone’s stable or as part of a deal with one of the online poker sites. That covers the buy ins for another 880 players, leaving us about half the field who bought in on their own dime.

Of this remaining group, let’s say another 10 percent of the field is made up of players who ran deep in one of the preliminary events or in one of the other big poker series around town over the summer and that another 15 percent is comprised of people with enough disposable income (professional gamblers, Wall Streeters, Hollywood folk, tech millionaires, trust-fund types, etc.) who don’t have to think twice about dropping $10 grand on poker tournament. Suddenly, we’re left with just about 25 percent of the field unaccounted for. And it’s this 25 percent I find the most interesting because these are the players that aren’t easily categorizable.

Coming of Age
After talking with veteran WSOP reporters/commentators and Harrah’s staff, three theories have developed to explain where these remaining players came from. The first is that at least part of the group is made up of online players who have cleared out their online accounts because of fears about being able to move money on and off of their favorite sites. With a sudden cash windfall in their pockets, the theory goes, why not take a shot and play at the WSOP? That seems reasonable enough.

As does the second working theory, which states that many of the additional players in the field are newly minted 21-year olds who are taking their first shots at the WSOP. As Nolan Dalla commented, “There’s a new crop of young players every year… it only makes sense that a bunch of them will head to Vegas for the summer.” And, looking at the average age of this year’s November Nine, Dalla seems to be on to something.

The Darvin Moon Effect?
The final theory is, for lack of a better term, being referred to as the Darvin Moon effect. Just like the Moneymaker effect that followed his unlikely win in 2003, some grizzled WSOP vets speculate that Moon’s improbable second-place finish in 2009 was enough to spark a new wave of low-stakes players to take a shot at the big prize in these tough economic times. And, while I agree there’s some merit to this argument, the question I have is where did these people get $10K for a buy-in?

Did the mortgage their houses? Sell their cars? Form a syndicate of un/underemployed friends like the groups of factory workers who occasionally hit big scores in the Mega-Millions lotteries around the country?

No one really knows and, maybe, that’s for the best. If it wasn’t for folks like Moneymaker, Moon, Steve Dannenman and Jerry Yang, the WSOP certainly wouldn’t have grown as big as it has as quickly as it has in the past seven years. These players, rising from the ranks of the great unknown, continually show that poker is that most egalitarian of games where a social worker, accountant or logger can sit down with professional players and still come out ahead. Try doing that on the baseball diamond or the golf course. It’s just not gonna happen.

And in the end, it’s this aspect of the World Series that makes questioning where all of these Main Event players came from a moot point because, the answer is “Who cares just so long as they keep on coming.”

Pokerati contributing editor Jon Katkin is still steaming from a beat he took in a 1/2 cash game during to the Detox Series. Follow him on Twitter @JaKatkin.

11 Comments to “Where’d They All Come From? ”

  1. Lori

    I think there is a large faction of “foreign” players who now make the trek to Vegas for the WSOP. I especially noticed a large Russian contingency.

  2. Mark Gahagan

    I think the increase in lower buy-in tournaments and a higher foreign pool were definitely factors. More people will go for the gold if they play their first WSOP tourney in a $1k and run deep. And then there are the pesky Russians…

  3. DanM

    I have been trying to break down the entrants list by country … curious to see if there’s anything unusual — like more Brits than ever, more Estonians, more Asians, Whatever …

  4. BWoP

    Last time I checked, “Asia” is not a country.


  5. Scott Diamond

    I think Dan meant to spell “Country” like this “Continent” or even like this, “nationalities”

  6. DanM

    Asians live in countries, uh duh!

  7. Scott B

    I think you’ve underestimated in two areas. 10% of 4400 players is 440 “true professionals”, and there are probably many more than that. Think about the players who entered all of the medium-stakes WSOP events. 792 were in the $5000 NLH event, and those weren’t “one shot” players.

    And I think there were a lot more newbies than you think. The 21-year-olds now were 14 in 2003, when Moneymaker hit, and were 14-17 during the boom of poker on TV. I wonder if Nolan could be persuaded to break down the WSOP entries by age? Harrahs must have that info linked to the Total Rewards cards.

  8. DanM

    Scott, how would you define a “true professional” in poker. don’t mean that in a snarky way … you raise a point that makes me think you are either right or wrong, lol.

    By my estimation there are only some 500 true professionals in the US, probably 400 in Europe, and 100 elsewhere, for 1,000 real pros max. (people who think they are pros but are not: maybe 10k.) would think around half of all those played in the main event.

    however, i could be underestimating the presence of true online pros. in fact, in answer to Katkin’s original question … that’s probably where your answer lies … who else would explain so many straight 10k buy-ins?

  9. Katkin

    When it comes to the number of pros in the field, I don’t know that I’m as far off as you may think Scott. If you look at what I wrote, I said about 10% of the field were pros who could afford to pay the $10K out of their own pockets, and that another 10% were pros who were staked into the tourney by backers or sponsors. That’s about 880 “professional” players in the field.

    That said, the numbers are certainly a little on the fuzzy side. These are best guesses/estimates based on the size of the buy in, past history and the precise throwing of darts at a specially constructed board.

    As for 21-year olds… that number too is an educated guess, based on discussions with various Harrah’s tournament officials. I’m sure you’re right that Harrah’s can break down those numbers, but they certainly didn’t have them at the time this piece was being researched.

  10. IronedSheik

    Would be interesting to know how many qualified via unofficial home-game satellites, home leagues, etc.

  11. Scott B

    I used the phrase “true professionals” because it was the one used in the original piece. You’re probably right in the estimate of 800+ people who are “true” professionals, meaning they have a reasonable expectation of making a living at poker long term, either live or online.

    My main contention (not stated well) is that there are *a lot* more than 440 people buying into the Main Event based on their poker bankroll, regardless of whether they will be long-term winners. There are thousands (tens of thousands?) of players who make significant money in poker in any particular year, even if it’s not their main source of income. Think about how many people win $50K+ in a single tournament. There are at least dozen (probably closer to 20) every single week, between the major events on PokerStars and Full Tilt — 1000+ per year. Add WCOOP, SCOOP, FTOPS, etc., and and that’s a few hundred more. Then factor in various major live events (WSOP, WPT, EPT, etc.) — that’s a few hundred more, if not 1000+ more worldwide.

    Many of those “windfall” winners will overestimate their skills, “go pro”, and stay at it for a while; perhaps for a few years.

    The WSOP Main Event is the *one* major event that they will put aside money for above any other. In my opinion, those “pros” are what’s being overlooked in your player count. Sure, most of them will go bust in a few years, but for now, they’re playing poker for a living and putting up the cash.