It’s been a little more than a week since the “November Nine,” the World Series of Poker’s Championship Event final table, was determined with Joe McKeehen holding down a humongous lead. When those nine men had captured their seat at poker’s most prestigious stage – and secured themselves a million dollar payday to boot – it seemed as if all was right in the poker world. There have been rumblings, however, that the WSOP wasn’t the spectacle that the poker world has come to expect.
Poker professional Matt Glantz was one of the first to bring up some of his displeasure with the 2015 WSOP. “The excitement of the WSOP has quickly turned to frustration and disappointment,” Glantz wrote on Bluff.com only three week’s into poker’s biggest event. “The WSOP is losing its luster.” Those thoughts were echoed by several European players, including Joe Beevers, who commented that he may not be back in 2016 for the tournament. Victoria Coren, arguably one of Europe’s top female players, hasn’t attended the last two WSOPs and many others haven’t dropped back on this side of “The Pond” in quite a spell.
It’s obvious that there are some problems with the WSOP. Discounting “The Colossus,” which stacked the deck against comparisons, many of the events on the 2015 WSOP schedule were either flat, slightly under or slightly over their performance in 2014. The $50,000 Poker Players’ Championship, the crown jewel of the WSOP following the Championship Event, saw numbers decline from 102 in 2014 to only 84 this year (to be fair, possibly due to the addition of Badugi and Badacey to the game lineup); the Ladies’ Championship was virtually flat (793 in 2014, 795 in 2015) and the Championship Event itself saw numbers drop from 6683 in 2014 to 6420 in 2015, the fourth time in the last five years player participation declined (only last year, when the 6683 players topped 2013’s 6352, did player numbers go up). While not immediately signaling the “death” of poker, these numbers are still troubling if they were to continue for several years.
It is time that the WSOP and Caesars Entertainment, the ownership behind the WSOP, start to examine some ways in which to bring back not only the excitement to poker’s greatest event but also the players. The following suggestions may just help to do that:
Establish a WORKING WSOP Players’ Committee – Players at the WSOP have long groused about their voices not being heard by the top brass at the WSOP (an unfair allegation as the WSOP changed the payout structure of the 2015 Championship Event due to player comments, among other things). At one point, there was a Players’ Committee that was supposedly put together that would provide the thoughts of the customer to WSOP officials on a wide array of subjects. That seems to have quietly went away and needs to return, but not with “top pros” as the featured members of the group as it was in the past.
While the notable names of the game are big for poker, it is the grinders that slog through the $1000 and $1500 events that make up the large fields. Sure, have a Players’ Committee that features a couple of professional players, but make the rest of the group up from players from the lower stakes, cash game players who don’t step into the tournament arenas, perhaps even retailers who work the halls of the Rio selling their wares and the media who cover the tournament. Include the international community in this group by giving them seats at the table so that there is a representative culture of participants in poker discussing the issues.
It wouldn’t be the job of the WSOP Players’ Committee to oversee EVERY decision made about the WSOP. It would, however, offer opinions on some areas that effect the games, such as the cards being used (roundly criticized this year as “flimsy and easily marked” that resulted in decks being discarded after only a few rounds of play), tournament level structures, payout schedules and other matters that directly affect the players and their participation at the WSOP.
Cut Out the “Gimmick” Events – Yes, “The Colossus” was big…22K-plus entries (perhaps 11K in unique players) and plenty of attention from media outside of the WSOP. In that case, the tournament did what it perhaps was meant to do: draw attention. It is certain that the rest of the Las Vegas poker scene also appreciated the draw of “The Colossus” as their rooms were bustling too during that week.
It has to be asked, however, what effect this tournament and other “schedule anchors” such as the Millionaire Maker and other “tent pole” tournaments have in regard to play in the usual bracelet events at the WSOP. If someone fired every bullet they had at “The Colossus,” they would have shot through $2,000, two tries at a $1000 event on the normal WSOP schedule. Poker is strong enough it doesn’t have to have “stunt games” to artificially enhance it, the players will be more than willing to step up even if the “gimmick” tournaments aren’t available.
Shorten The Schedule – the 2015 WSOP was a 68 tournament slog that no player in their right mind would take on full-bore. With that many opportunities (and we’re not including the foreign versions of the WSOP), winning a WSOP bracelet isn’t quite the same nowadays for players. Phil Ivey stayed away for much of the 2015 WSOP content with playing cash games far away from the hubbub of Las Vegas, a tactic that was also utilized by European pros such as Viktor ‘Isildur1’ Blom and others. If the importance of the bracelet was restored, then more players might be willing to get to Vegas (or Berlin or Melbourne) for the festivities.
Cut the schedule to 30-35 tournaments, reducing the number of $1000 and $1500 tournaments that are being run. On the 2015 schedule, there were 10 $1000 events, of which only one wasn’t a No Limit Hold’em tournament (two of these were the Seniors’ and Ladies’ tournaments). There were 24 $1500 events fairly spread over most of the disciplines of poker but still heavy on No Limit Hold’em. Sure, there will be a loss in revenues for Caesars, but it would restore some relevance to winning a WSOP bracelet (think WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla himself said that, in the ten years that he’s been a part of the WSOP, more than half of the bracelets in the tournament’s history have been awarded).
Give Back to the Players – Players at the WSOP usually receive some sort of token for playing in the tournaments. In years’ past, a voucher for a meal or some money off the bill at one of the nicer dining options in the Rio was given out. In 2015, the token was a discount on charging of an electronic device at a spot in the Rio. My how far we’ve fallen.
Even the smaller tours in the poker world know that the players are the lifeblood needed to be able to exist. As such, they normally go to great lengths to make sure that players have a good time, whether they are playing the entirety of the schedule or they are there for one tournament. The European Poker Tour and even the Heartland Poker Tour routinely hold “player parties” where players in the event gather together – sometimes with a free bar – and just let loose with their fellow players. The party builds goodwill among the players (cutting down potential issues on the tables) and demonstrates that the organization is giving back something to the players rather than some insignificant token that may go unused.
There are plenty of other suggestions that need to be addressed (the lack of any form of live action of the Championship Event being available to the public is one that needs to be examined forthwith), but this is a good start. What other things does the WSOP need to examine?