Thursday, September 30, 2010

Bracelets: Nouveau Riche Bling or Traditional Badges of Honor?

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA


That's what it's all about, at least what all of those rap and hip-hop videos I watched on MTV were trying to relay to me. Bling is good, and when it comes to poker, we're blinded by the bling bracelets.

I've written about bracelets in the past. It's definitely not the most manly thing in the world, nor is it practical or meets societal standards of affluence (like say a Rolex). However, bracelets are a tradition, and the WSOP has a deep-rooted history, so it's natural that bracelets are an integral part of that tradition.

In these tumultuous times, we're confronted with one of those "what came first -- the chicken and the egg" quandaries...

Have bracelets become a manufactured goal that keeps amateurs and pros chasing the dream, sort of like the donkey cart and carrot analogy?

Are bracelets important when assessing a player's ability and/or career because we say they are important, or have bracelets always been important and we're just reacting to the need to quantify things in life?

And another question I've come up with is for the post-modern poker pro -- do pros play in bracelet events because they consider bracelets are the best judge of skill, or do they strive for a bracelet because that's what they've been told is vital since the moment they started playing poker?

Everyone has opinionated answers on those questions. I've heard them all and even came up with different potential half-baked answers along the way, not to mention more questions, which happens when you actually sit down to think about these matters. The fact of the matter is that right now bracelets are immensely valued. Draw your own conclusions if they are over-valued or under-valued, but the current perception in the marketplace is one of immense value. Bracelets will continue to matter now and in the future unless alternative forms of judging skill and/or merit come along -- whether it's a new tournament series to determine supremacy or a new program that computes an overall score based on a complex formula (incorporating both live/online play and tournaments/cash games) created by Bill Chen that determines a player's rank at any given moment. It's sort of like a golf handicap, credit score, Q rating, and batting average all rolled into one. We'll call it Chenmatrics, and only Bill Chen, the Pope, and Kevin Mathers know where the secret database is located.

The problem with a universal ranking system is that poker is too big to quantify. You got online play. You got brick and mortar. You have tournaments and cash games. You have Vegas, Reno, AC, LA, Tunica, Melbourne, Paris, and London... not to mention everywhere else in the world where a sanctioned poker game is being played. But shouldn't underground games count? How about high-stakes Chinese Poker matches among the titans of the universe? And how about all those sick sick sick cash games being played in Malibu and in the Hollyweird Hills where studio execs and young actors are blowing their wads for a shot to play against the Big Dog du jour, who got whisked into SoCal via private jet? Hypothetically speaking, if Durrrr wins a $400K pot off of Leo, shouldn't that count too?

The nerds and geeks constantly want validation in terms of grades and scores. You can't blame them. It's a nerd thing deeply rooted in being awesome in the academic world for so many years and getting shit on in real life, so, they nerdy academic types base all of their self-worth on grades and rankings, and want to push forth that stringent quantitative system onto the world, especially when it comes to poker. But even the best educators in the world think it's absurd that doing well on a single exam or series of exams proves extreme and thorough knowledge of an individual subject.

Poker is difficult to grade. Many organizations keep some statistics and for the most part, that's what we (the royal we as in the poker industry) use to determine a player's worth in poker. Agents use stats to determine if a potential client's past performances can be translated into a valuable piece of player marketing to online websites. Backing syndicates and stakers scrutinize online stats when determining which horses they want to add to their stables. Poker reporters often check the stats to see if someone has been flying under the radar, or if they indeed have come from out of nowhere. But the drawback of using those databases, is that they sometimes create more confusion when you have players with a common name (e.g. James Carroll and David Baker), or foreign players who use different spellings of their names or have names don't translate perfectly into English.

As a poker writer and reporter, the Hendon Mob database is a handy tool to conduct research on the fly when covering a live tournament. Pocket Fives continues to be essential in tracking online tournaments.CardPlayer and Bluff both have built comprehensive databases tracking online and live players. PokerTableRatings and HighStakesDB track the high-stakes online cash games.

But even if a higher authority, let's say Bill Chen's super-program Chenmatrics, compiled statistics from a number of categories and morphed them with cash games stats in order to spit out an actual grade, would that even suffice? Do poker players want numerical grades like school children or health food department handing out grades for clean restaurants? For most of the year, Gus Hansen struggled at the online tables. So should the Great Dane walk around with a scarlet "F" etched onto his muscle t-shirt? But, Hansen had a profitable September with all As in both online and live play, so what does that exactly mean?

The nerds in the poker community are not the only ones who are demanding a ranking system. The players themselves want something that they can look at to see how they stack up against their peers. In the rigid and competitive world of sponsorships, players want to be able to show their overall worth -- but right now, there's a half a dozen different leader boards for Player of the Year honors. Bluff and Card Player each have their own, along with WSOP. Even the WCOOP on PokerStars tracked player of the series, in addition, Stars and other online sites track their own players' yearly results in order to give them recognition and to even spur competition.

In the last year or so, the bracelet prop bet has overshadowed actual bracelet events. The perfect example was June 6, 2010 at the WSOP which I chronicled in a recap titled Day 10: Most Likely You Go Durrrr's Way (And I'll Go Mine). The high-stakes community in poker is very small. It's an elite fraternity of players and they all held their collective breaths that evening in June when Tom Dwan almost won a bracelet, which many of them were betting against. For the richest of the richest players in poker, the bracelet does not mean as much to them as it does to other players. Many of them look at bracelets as something of personal amusement and used for betting purposes, sort of like credit card roulette and lime tossing. For some of those pros, they don't care about titles or bling. They just want the money and you can't blame the purity of that pursuit, which is why many of them are cash game specialists. The Phil Iveys and Chip Reeses of the world often said that tournaments are a waste of time, sort of like that chain email that you've gotten a thousand times before that said it was a waste of time if Bill Gates picked up a penny. Tournaments are kinda like that for Phil Ivey. I often wondered if the brain trust running Full Tilt decided to lay out all these bracelet prop bets to entice their jaded players to play in the WSOP? If so, it's a brilliant idea. It's hard to ask a guy like Ivey or Dwan to jump out of bed every day and grind it out at the Rio for seven weeks straight. I covered the WSOP for the last six summers and after the second or third week, you hit the wall and contemplate suicide, then spend the rest of the time anxiously counting down the days until the WSOP is over, but in the meantime, you self-medicate with whatever is available. Any pro that's worked an entire summer in Vegas will tell you it's insane. Even the ones running good will tell you that it's impossible to remain focused during the entire WSOP. So the extra incentive of winning prop bets for bracelets increases the risk and makes the pursuit that much more juicier for pros who would rather skip the majority of the WSOP and play in only a handful of events instead of 30, 40, or even 50.

Bracelets are all we have at this point, but the numbers are skewed. Depending on who you talk to, bracelets are more valuable in the 1970s because they didn't give away as many, or, bracelets in the 2000s are important because the number of bracelets available per number of WSOP entrants has dramatically decreased. Sure 62 bracelets seems like a lot, but more players are taking a shot for one than ever before.

Then the discussion delves off into the legitimacy of the WSOP-E bracelet. Are those worth the same? Some pros don't, especially the ones making prop bets stating that winning a WSOP-E bracelet is handled differently than a regular WSOP bracelet.

Here's when I toss out my standard suggestion to the folks who run the WSOP (Ty + Seth) and ask them to decrease the number of bracelets if we're going to use bracelets like we used the "gold standard" in our financial system.

My proposal? 50 bracelet events with 40 events at the WSOP and 10 at the WSOP-Europe. This proposal has two intentions: 1) reduce the number of bracelets, therby increasing their value in the long term, and 2) increase the legitimacy of the WSOP-Europe.

The 40 events at the WSOP in Las Vegas will reduce the stress of the WSOP by at least one week, maybe even two. From a logistical standpoint, how can anyone in the poker industry argue against a shortened summer of hell? Sure, Harrah's hates that idea because it's less money for them, but that is something that will have to be compromised if poker wants to take serious steps into developing a universal ranking system.

Also, reduce the amount of donkaments and donkuli. Let's just settle on a $1,250 buy-in event and continue have at least one a week, and the weekend warriors, which are the bread and butter poker customers, have an opportunity to live out their dreams by taking a shot at a bracelet.

The added events in London should include a couple of the donkaments in order to entice North Americans to go across the pond (and to attract Brits and Europeans with modest bankrolls). Let's face it, mostly everyone who has played in the WSOP has been to Vegas many times before, so how about a new destination (and especially one where Americans won't be intimated because they speak English in England, but don't be too discouraged if you run into someone from the Midlands and you don't know what they are fookin' saying and it feels like a surreal scene from a Guy Ritchie flick)?

London has already become a hotbed of poker for the month of September with the WSOP-E and EPT London. The WPT added their London stop to coincide with the other events in London in order to maximize the limited time that out of town pros were in the UK. Well, why not start the WSOP-E a few weeks earlier with donkaments at the beginning of the WSOP-E schedule so amateurs can use their vacation time to take their family to London and get a unique poker experience out of it?

Trimming the WSOP to 40 events, and expanding the WSOP-E to 10 events means only 500 bracelets will be awarded over the next decade. That's a nice round number.

Photo by Flipchip

Alas, this is just one suggestion to a mammoth problem that has been plaguing poker since I got into the business. Poker has so many other complicated issues with cheating scandals, online legislation, and the fallout from rapid international expansion, that I'm afraid the bracelet issue is just something that everyone has an opinion about, but it never evolves past the discussions phase. If there's one thing I learned in poker -- it's that a lot of people like to talk shit, me included, but very few people actually want to lead and initiate change. And the ones who do, are often ostracized and belittled. In the real world, those who stand for change are the ones who are usually at the top of potential assassination lists. So sadly, I'm afraid that this debate will continued to be a heated debate among my friends, colleagues, pros, and on the forums -- until someone takes steps to figure out a overall authority or governing body. But then again, doesn't the creation of a centralized governing body go against the entire outlaw nature of poker, where everyone seems to thrive on anarchy?

Until that happens, the story remains the same. Bracelets matter.


  1. willythewise4:34 PM

    OK where again do we find the <span>Chenmatrics analysis. Paging Kevmath !! Paging Kevmath!!</span>

  2. If Harrah's ran the WSOP simply for the love and purity of the game we could honestly ask them to reduce the number of bracelets but unfortunately they are in the business of making as much fu**ing money as they can and thus I don't see the value of a bracelet increasing anytime soon.

    With over 15 billion in debt coming due for them in 2015, I doubt they will want to slow down the money machine for anyone for any reason.....

  3. Sanchez8888:43 AM

    Your whole post is a solution in search of a problem. If pros think the 7 week WSOP is too big a grind, they may be interested to know that playing every event is not mandatory. Any player who wants Harrah's to do as you suggest is 100% free to do it for themselves.

    How exactly does having less events magically create a better ranking system anyways? Because there is 10 less bracelets per year? C'mon. That doesn't pass the giggle test - the problem is there is no central body that everyone recognizes that can create a ranking system. The WSOP player of the year, P5 rankings, and Cardplayer player of the year are probably the only ones, and none of them improve in any way by having less events at WSOP.

    You mention the problem of leading change. The first hurdle in leading change is convincing others that change is necessary. I don't think you achieved that in this post.

  4. Pauly9:08 PM

    To answer your questions... 

    Q. <span>How exactly does having less events magically create a better ranking system anyways?</span>

    It doesn't. Unrrealted topic that somehow you thought was related. There is no better ranking system, so we gotta go with what we got -- bracelets.

    Q. <span>Because there is 10 less bracelets per year?</span>

    First of all, it's 12. Secondly, I will just quote myself in the above post: "reduce the number of bracelets, therby increasing their value in the long term." Over a decade that's 120 less. Simple economics -- supply and demand. Value increases if there are less. That has nothing to do with a better ranking system. Just a suggestion to Seth and Ty on how to help strengthen the WSOP-Europe and reduce an event that is too big.

  5. Sanchez88810:54 PM

    Please read this quote: "that is something that will have to be compromised if poker wants to take serious steps into developing a universal ranking system" and you'll understand why I am asking what shortening the WSOP has to do with a universal ranking system.

    Q2: You already concede the bracelet is the #1 award in poker. Why is there a need to make it more valuable by reducing them?

  6. Pauly1:14 PM

    I bregurdingly concede that it's the current measuring stick. I never said that it's the #1 award in poker -- you did.

    To answer your question -- it's a supply and demand economic issue, which obviously you are having problems comprehending. Study up on econmics 101 and then get back to me.

  7. Sanchez8885:19 AM

    Fair enough - you didn't say "#1 award". You said "immensely valued" and wrote an entire post about how important they are.

    I understand econ and the mystical forces of supply and demand just fine (unlike yourself, who suggests that a for-profit business stop supplying events for which there exists huge demand, for no reason other than some players are "burned out" from playing non mandatory events and reporters get tired of covering the WSOP after 7 whole weeks of work).

    You have something that is already immensely valued, and for some reason you suggest increasing the value of it by decreasing supply. What problem exactly does this solve, other than the fact that you are sick of the WSOP and going to vegas and want it to be shorter?