Can the WPT Tournament of Champions Find Success?

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For the first time in their history, the World Poker Tour won’t be concluding the season by crowning their version of a World Champion. With two events left on the schedule – oddly enough, both at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, FL, with the traditional Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown ($3500 buy-in) leading into the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Finale ($10,000 buy-in) beginning on April 15 – there won’t be a WPT World Championship in 2016. Instead, the WPT will launch something they are calling the WPT Tournament of Champions, but will it be able to find any success?

Since their inception, the WPT’s traditional finale to their tournament year has been the WPT World Championship. On the tournament floor of first the Bellagio in Las Vegas and then the battlefield of the Borgata in Atlantic City, the tournament became one of the signature events in the poker world, almost as important a championship as the World Series of Poker’s $10,000 Championship Event and a few other noteworthy international tournaments. With its $25,000 buy in (lowered to $15,000 when the tournament was moved to New Jersey in 2014), it also was one of the most expensive tournaments in the world for many years (before the advent of the High Roller phenomenon).

The WPT World Championship’s winner’s list reads like a Who’s Who of the game. Such players as former WSOP World Champion Carlos Mortensen and 2004 WSOP Championship Event runner-up David Williams, Marvin Rettenmaier, David ‘Chino’ Rheem, David Chiu, Yevgeniy Timoshenko and others have etched their name on the WPT Champions’ Cup with the WPT World Championship placard alongside. But, without the event being played in 2016, it appears that Asher Conniff will be the answer to a trivia question: “Who was the last WPT World Champion?”

Reflecting the poker world, however, the WPT World Championship also has had its difficulties. Although Mortensen won the largest ever first place prize (slightly more than $3.9 million) in 2007 following the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, the player numbers began to drop. Maybe it was the $25,000 buy-in or maybe it was the crushing grip of governmental attacks on the game, but player numbers dropped from 639 in 2007 to only 146 in 2013. After an initial bump with the buy in reduction and the move to New Jersey in 2014 (328 players), last year’s event only saw 239 players step to the felt.

With these figures in mind, the WPT brass decided to try something different with the Tournament of Champions. Limiting the eligibility to only those 227 players who have won a WPT Main Tour event, the WPT decided to have a $15,000 buy-in tournament for just those players. Following the conclusion of the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Finale, the players who meet that criteria will come together on April 22 for…well, exactly what isn’t quite known.

What is known is that the WPT is trying to make it look like it will be a big deal. It was announced earlier this week that the WPT will add $200,000 in cash and prizes for the eventual champion of the event, including $100,000 outright and several unique prizes that would differentiate the winner of this tournament from any other WPT event. It will also be played with an “Action Clock,” basically a “shot clock” that forces players to act within 30 seconds.

The reaction from those that will be the “stars” of this particular tournament? Pretty much a collective yawn. WPT Champions’ Club member Daniel Negreanu directly told a WPT representative over Twitter that he “wasn’t a fan of the format change” and if it were an open event (as the WPT World Championship was) he would “probably come” (Negreanu has stated that he will be in Monte Carlo for the European Poker Tour Grand Final, however). Other players including WPT champion Daniel Buzgon, reigning World Champion Joe McKeehen, Randall Flowers and others have gone as far as to say that their participation in other WPT events might be affected by the switch from the “open” World Championship to the “restricted” Tournament of Champions.

With only 227 potential runners for the field, it might be a quite frightening reality for the WPT…what if you threw a poker tournament and no one came? A quick look over the roster of players show that WPT Champions’ Club members like Doyle Brunson, John Gale, Dan Harrington and Mel Judah will probably not play as their participation in tournaments has been limited of late (Gale has slowly been coming back, but he prefers the European circuit); there’s a list of persona non grata (Howard Lederer, for example), a list of foreign and North American players who aren’t as “active” in poker as they once were for one reason or another (the Brenes brothers, Alex and Eric, Martin de Knijff, Paul Darden (health issues), Bill Edler, Alan Goehring, Phil Gordon and Christer Johansson) and, unfortunately, those that are no longer with us (David ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott).

If the WPT were to even get close to the number for the last WPT World Championship in Las Vegas – 146 players – for the Tournament of Champions, there would probably be champagne being popped in the corporate headquarters. It is more likely, however, that the tournament would struggle to break triple digits – 100 players – because of a couple factors:

1) It’s a “glory” tournament with a difficult field – poker players don’t like having to fight too hard to win a bunch of money.

2) The EPT Grand Final festival will begin four days later – players would rather get to Monte Carlo, relax on the beaches of Monaco for a bit and THEN get into some serious cards rather than the WPT festival at the Hard Rock and even the beautiful Atlantic coast beaches of Florida.

Time will tell, however. The WPT Tournament of Champions may turn out to be wildly successful and become the “new tradition” to finish the season on the WPT. But limiting access to poker tournaments is no way to grow your sport or your tournament circuit. It may not happen this year but, in 2017, Conniff may have to defend that WPT World Championship after all.

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