Las Vegas, NV
“Mobiles quirking, mobiles chirping, take the money and run, take the money and run take the money…here I’m alive, everything all of the time.” – Thom YorkeThat ten-year old Radiohead song has made its way through my head at least once a day since I arrived in Las Vegas over five weeks ago. Plenty of 2012 and 9/11 conspiracy theorists have analyzed Thom Yorke’s lyrics to “Idioteque” and those parallels there are easy to see, but over the last few years it’s come to remind me of Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker.
Everything all of the time. It’s not only what is expected of us as members of the media, but it’s also what is expected from the corporation that now runs the largest poker tournament in the world. Fix this. Fix that. The structure sucks. Day threes are too long. There are too many events. There aren’t enough events. Limit players have an advantage. No-limit players have a disadvantage. The TOC is great. The TOC is a sham. The Main Event is the greatest tournament in the world. The Main Event is a glorified lottery.
I don’t envy anyone who runs anything in this building. I’ll stick to writing, thanks.
That’s not to say there aren’t some serious issues in play here. Some structures do need to be altered. Day threes have been marathons, with anywhere from 15 to 30 players returning on the day the event is supposed to be down to its final table. Maybe the WSOP decides to make some events last four days instead of three next year. Maybe some levels are added or subtracted from the structures. I’ll leave that to the math whizzes because Lord knows I’m not one of those.
What I do believe, is that the World Series of Poker is in the midst of an identity crisis. The WSOP needs to decide what it is. Is it the most prestigious festival of poker in the world? Or is it a poker fantasy camp marketed to the masses?
Let’s face reality. Poker is not as cool as it used to be. The mainstream media has long fallen off the poker wagon. A lot of potential corporate sponsors simply won’t go near anything that has to do with gambling. The economy took a dive and has yet to recover. When Jamie Gold won the 2006 Main Event, Las Vegas was booming. The Boardwalk had just been torn down and City Center was about to go up in its place. Adobe-roofed subdivisions were being constructed as fast as people could build them. Now, most of it sits empty, baking under the 110-degree heat. Even Hollywood gave poker multiple chances to succeed at the box office, only to watch each film bomb.
We’re way past “post-boom” here.
In the first year I covered the WSOP as a journalist, there were 46 bracelet events. That was in 2006, what I believe to be the WSOP’s peak year, when money flowed like cheap beer through the arteries of the Rio. Four years later, we’re up to 62 bracelet events, 57 of them in Las Vegas. As a result of the economy still being in the shitter (let’s not forget that about 1 out of 10 Americans are unemployed), the WSOP decided to lower the buy-ins for a lot of the no-limit hold’em events. Straight-up full-ring NLHE events with buy-ins between $2,000 and $5,000 virtually disappeared from the schedule and were replaced by 13 events with buy-ins at $1,500 and below.
13. Seven $1,500 boucheries and six $1,000 donkuli. No wonder NLHE pros are frustrated this year. They used to have at least a few more shots at getting through a somewhat-manageable field size. This year they had two options: (1) muck through a 2,500+-player field, or (2) beat all the geniuses in the $5k.
It's hard for the cream to rise to the top when there are that many players in the field. Sure, there's more juice to be collected from the massive-field donkaments and since most of them were conveniently scheduled on weekends, there’s money to be made off the tourists that come into Las Vegas each weekend to play in them. These players are also more likely to buy hotel rooms, eat on-property, and gamble in the pits rather than the pros who are either locally based or in town for the long haul of the WSOP. The price tags are also tempting. Just $1,000 for a WSOP bracelet, folks! Forget about those credit card bills and mortgage payments, you want your shot at history, right? Think about it. If you win you can pay it all off at once!
The proliferation of the donkaments has had a two-fold result. Although it expands upon one of the key notions of the WSOP, that anyone can win, it also makes it more difficult for skilled players to win a bracelet. It's fine to have them and it would be silly to do away with them entirely, but I think this year’s price-lowering experiment has revealed that there does need to be a balance with some mid-buy-in NLHE events at the $2,000, $2,500 and $3,000 level. That's why guys like Erik Seidel are right when they say that skilled limit players have enjoyed a tremendous advantage this year when it comes to winning bracelets. I'm also guessing it’s one of the reasons why so many high-stakes players put up such tremendous amounts of money against Tom Dwan winning a bracelet this year. His best shots were in the NLHE events and there were more than 2,000 players to get through in each one with the exception of the 5k, which was one of the toughest fields assembled this year.
The WSOP can still be a place where anyone can win. And it can still be a place where World Champions are crowned. Up until the last couple of years, these two notions have been able to peacefully coexist. But at least for me, this summer they seemed quite polarized. And a lot of people felt lost in the middle. It’s a lot like the U.S. economy itself. The uber-rich are getting richer, a whole lot of people are broke, and the middle class, which used to drive the economy, is being increasingly forgotten.
Is it time to cut back on the number of bracelet events? Or just cut back the number of donkaments? Should there be more mid buy-in NLHE events? Or maybe buy-ins should be raised across the board to put more exclusivity and prestige back in to the WSOP?
It’s hard to be everything all of the time. I think the World Series of Poker needs to decide what it is.
Change100 is a writer from Los Angeles, CA.