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WSOP Main Event Advice: Move It to the Middle of the Schedule

Posted by Alex Rousso, July 17, 2014

Anyone who has been at the World Series of Poker* and stayed until the bitter ends knows that it goes out with a whimper rather than with a bang. The Pavilion Room at the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada - the beating heart of the World Series, where most players start each tournament journey - is a depressing sight by Day 4 of the Main Event.

 WSOP Main event change proposal

At the height of the WSOP*, the Rio has three large rooms filled with tables, with up to 4,000 players sat down at any one time. The corridors ring with bad beat stories, the queues for the toilets reach out of the door at break times, and PA announcements for the cash games are constant. In those moments, it really feels like the world’s capital of poker.

By the last day of the Series, which determines the nine players who will sit at the WSOP Main Event final table, the Pavilion and Brasilia rooms have been cleared, and the last few tables of the Main Event play out in an eerily empty Amazon room. Where only a week before the omnipresent clacking of the chips filled each room, the noise level on Day 7 of the Main Event feels more like the plaintive chirrup of a lone cricket.

How can the end of the biggest poker festival on the planet feel so downbeat? The simple answer is that by the end of Day 6, all but the last 27 or so players have left. Busted out of the last event of the WSOP, they have no reason to stay. At that point, there are more media and staff at the venue than players.

 

There’s a significant psychological element to this. While other tournaments are still running, the dream is still alive for players. If there were other WSOP events running after the Main Event – chances to get a bracelet – they would still dream and they would still play. Once players have busted the last event, they want to get the hell out of Vegas.

As a spectator sport, poker is more about following updates on the Internet than railing in person. In fact, railing a poker tournament purely to follow the action is about as dire as spectator sport gets: there’s no appreciation of the skill of the combatants because, frankly, it’s mostly coin flips, and any skill involved resides deeply in the heads of the players.

 

Nevertheless, there have been some legendary final table rails at the WSOP. They’ve often involved a high profile pro being railed by a bunch of his degenerate friends chanting like a football crowd, possibly downing shots of beer out of their shoes (so-called “shoe bombs”).

This is because poker is a community thing. Whether it’s seeing the same people at the tables day in, day out, or having someone to gripe to about a bad beat or a bad play, the heart of poker is that there are plenty of other people in the same boat. That’s what makes the WSOP so special. It’s basically everyone who plays poker in a very big boat.

This is all the more reason it is such a shame that the culmination of the WSOP schedule feels so anti-climactic. This year at the World Series, I witnessed what the end of the WSOP Main Event should be like. It was the first time I’ve ever seen the ESPN stage – the so-called “Mothership” – full of spectators in the middle of the Series: the final table of the Big One for One Drop.

Sure, that event had valid reason for railbirds to gather. It was only the second time this event had run; only the second time that a tournament buy-in of one million dollars had been set. And with 42 runners, the winner was set to win over $15m. The field was studded with famous poker players: Ivey, Negreanu, Esfandiari, Galfond, Haxton, to name a few.

WSOP main event changes proposal - Leave the band as is

Especially at the end of the tournament, as players and railbirds alike milled around the Mothership, I felt that this is what the culmination of the WSOP should be like. The Amazon Room was buzzing as the final nine players were introduced. It felt like the main attraction.

Why did it feel so different to the end of the Main Event? Quite simply, it was because more people were there. My WSOP Main Event advice for setting the dates is this: why not put it in the middle of the Series to capitalize on that the buzz? The Main Event is at the end of the Series for a straightforward reason – it’s traditional to end a series with the ultimate prize. Where that may be sensible in other games – in poker, I’m not convinced.

Caesars solved the problem of generating a buzz around the Main Event in the past by delaying the final table for about four months. The so-called “November Nine” was a great idea when making the final table of the Main Event meant a big sponsorship deal. It was also a clever way of creating media attention for the mostly unknown players who had made the final table.

The November Nine also ensured that there was a big crowd for the biggest event in poker: the WSOP Main Event final table. With each of the final nine guaranteed a big payday, they could fly friends and family to Vegas for what would be a long awaited rail. In that sense, it solved the problem of the culmination of the Main Event playing to an empty arena. There’s definitely a benefit for the TV cameras from a live arena buzz as a background setting.

 

But poker sponsorship is not what it used to be. And having seen half a dozen groups of November Niners come and go – with only Mark Newhouse this year repeating his achievement two years in a row – it does now feel like a bit of a media circus. People are beginning to see the hype for what it really is. The human interest stories – “This one’s from Belize”, “This one’s a truck driver” – play out more obviously as each year goes by: “This one’s a luckbox”, “This one’s an ordinary Joe who doesn’t play very well”.

If we shifted the WSOP Main Event dates to the middle of the Series, many of these problems would be solved. First, we could still have a hiatus between the final table being set and playing out – a week or so would be enough. But as the rest of the WSOP schedule was still playing out at the same time, the buzz around the Main Event would be greater.

For example, the Main Event could start at the end of week 2, play out for ten days, have a seven day hiatus and thus the final table would play out in week 5 of the schedule.

Second, the thousands of extra players who fly in just to play the Main Event would be around during the Series to play other events, cash games, and generally add to the ambiance of the place.

wsop event - poker room with many tables filled with players

Third, the final few days of the event would be railed by hundreds of people who wouldn’t have to make a special trip to Vegas. There would be plenty of poker players and fans who were in Vegas anyway for the Series. The Main Event would actually feel like a main event.

Fourth, the deliberate attempts by the poker press to hype up the players would not be so stark. We would have a week or so to learn who these players are, to dream their dreams vicariously, and move on when it’s done. The very fact that the final table was playing out during the Series would be all the hype we would need. More than that, if the final table ever got the massive boost of a player with the profile of Phil Ivey, the rail would be full to bursting.

Most other festivals run so that the final day of the main event is the final day of the festival, but other events run concurrently during that event so that players who have busted out stick around, play other events, and can rail their friends. And as I say, we’ve already seen an example of how a major event works when it’s in the middle of the Series, as in the case of the Big One for One Drop.

 

I don’t want to argue that the One Drop has stolen the Main Event’s thunder. Yes, as a much smaller event with a huge buy in, it has the virtual guarantee of a major name being in contention for a big prize virtually the whole way through the tournament – something the Main Event rarely provides.

But the general reaction to the One Drop is that it’s more of a PR exercise for poker, rather than a tournament which should be taken seriously. Most of the professionals playing it are only in for between 10%-30% of themselves. I’ve heard it referred to on Twitter as a “42 player sit and go” and disdainfully as merely “a charity event”.

By contrast, the Main Event is the genuine article. It’s a tournament that attracts movie stars who are interested in poker. It’s the event that almost all poker players who can afford it make sure they don’t miss. It’s the dream that even the most cynical players let themselves dream.

I’m arguing that the buzz of the WSOP One Drop could be combined with the cachet of the Main Event by placing the latter earlier in the schedule.

It might also be financially better for the poker community as well. How much of his winnings would Ryan Riess have blown at the rest of the Series if he had to add substance to his proposal after winning the Main Event last year that he was the “best in the world”? Likewise, all the deep cashers – anyone who won over $100k would be sticking around at the Series, playing the last few events, trying to keep his run going. Those final events of the Series would be carnage.

2010 Main Event Ten-Handed Final Table

I know the arguments in favor of the November Nine. The betting market on it is huge, and that can only be benefitted by a four month hiatus. The hiatus is also long enough that print magazines can get in on the act – with a one week turnaround the final table would have come and gone before they had even gone to press. And of course, it provides the poker media machine with all the time it needs to get the Holy Grail – coverage in the general media.

So I don’t suppose the November Nine will be brought forward any time soon. That aside, I think my other arguments still hold. We should bring the rest of the Main Event forward in the schedule. If everything but the final table took place in the middle of the Series, the WSOP as a whole would benefit hugely.

*World Series of Poker and WSOP are trademarks of Caesars Interactive Entertainment, Inc. or its affiliates (collectively Caesars). CIE does not sponsor or endorse, and is not associated or affiliated with Titan Poker or its products, services, promotions or tournaments. Any promotion or tournament on this site will not guarantee your seat or ability to register for any WSOP event or any WSOP affiliated event which is at the sole discretion of Caesars.

 


Alex RoussoAlex Rousso is a food importer, journalist, poker player and coach with a PhD in Memetics - the study of cultural evolution. He has written extensively about winning psychology and risk in everyday life, on topics including financial risk management, game theory, statistical analysis, emotional discipline, and risk psychology. He is an Omaha/Omaha-8 specialist and a columnist for Bluff Europe and Titan Poker.


 

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