For the past week, the poker world has been watching the tournament room at ARIA in Las Vegas for what was, at the minimum, a unique series of tournaments. The inaugural Poker Masters event was a series of high dollar buy in tournaments that brought together if not the best players in the world, then the ones who had the deepest pockets (or the deepest pocketed backer – but we’ll get into that in a moment) for a five-tournament series. This series was unlike any other tournament series in the history of the game, however.
The first four events on the schedule were ALL $50,000 buy in No Limit Texas Hold’em tournaments (with an option for one rebuy if busted), pretty much ensuring that the Average Joe would have to mortgage his house to take part. If that wasn’t enough, the Main Event of the series was a $100,000 buy in tournament (with UNLIMITED rebuys), something that a mere five years ago was unheard of. The question must be asked, however: was the Poker Masters series worth it?
If we’re looking at it from a televised poker angle, that question is difficult to ascertain. The entirety of the inaugural Poker Masters was streamed live over PokerGO, the subscription service started by Poker Central after they pulled the plug on their cable network aspirations. Since Poker Central only started the subscription service at the start of this summer’s World Series of Poker, there have been no reports on how many subscriptions have been sold or how many viewers are partaking of the offerings on the subscription service.
If we’re looking at it from the “star power” of the participants, then the Poker Masters officials had to be happy. There was a nice mix of the “old school” poker professionals – players such as Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and Erik Seidel – with the “young guns” of the game – pretty much the entire German contingent, to be honest, but also Bryn Kenney, Doug Polk and even Justin Bonomo (although it seems he’s been around forever, he’s only 31) and they all played outstanding poker. Hellmuth and Negreanu had their own personal feud regarding the skills of the German players, Hellmuth provided a couple of nice blowups for the streaming audience and the Germans dominated the proceedings, with Steffen Sontheimer winning two events, including the Main Event, to capture the Purple Jacket (and, while we’re here, PokerGO…let’s not try to hold the Poker Masters Purple Jacket as the epitome of the game. If you’re still around 50 years from now – you know, like the WSOP – THEN perhaps you can tie some significance to the jacket).
The very thing that was expected to bring the viewers to the event – the massive amounts of money being tossed around – might also have turned out to be the thing that turned off some potential viewers. When you have people in some cases spewing off enough money that a normal person could buy a luxury car by playing an off suit 6-3 from under the gun, it might tend to irritate people. Many people argued that the play at the tables wasn’t “true poker” because of two reasons.
First, the money. If a player (and no player did in this year’s tournament) had the “mother of all misfortune” fall upon them, they could spend up to $500,000 on this tournament. That is an inconceivable number to most people for playing a card game. While the poker fandom might fantasize about playing at such stakes, the Average Joe just looks and shakes their head at anyone who might spend a small fortune for playing a card game (even if Sontheimer earned over $2.7 million for his four cashes).
A subset of the money issue is whether these players actually were putting up their own cash. There is a long history of “swapping” pieces and backing players in poker and the High Roller events have made this fact even more apparent. For example, Sontheimer two years ago wasn’t even heard of in the world of live poker; after winning the 2017 Poker Masters, suddenly he’s being hailed as the greatest player in the game (and if not him, then his fellow countryman Holz) because he’s won almost $5 million…just where did the money for this guy come from (18 of his 31 career cashes have come in High Roller tournaments)?
Finally, one of the biggest draws of poker is that a) anyone can play, and b) the upstart can sometimes beat the big stars. The very price of the Poker Masters events ensured that it would be an exclusive field (and it also didn’t sustain itself well; entries went from 51 in the first event to 50, 48, 39 and 36 for the subsequent events), not exactly what the casual observer has come to expect from the “chance and a dream” that is constantly sold to them. In these types of “made for television” tournaments, there is NOT an upstart to get behind.
If the Poker Masters is to go on (and there’s absolutely no reason to believe that there won’t be a tournament schedule next year, if not sooner), there could be a couple of changes made. First, show the players themselves putting up the money for the events AND sign a document that it is their own cash they are playing with. The power of backers and “swapping” is an ugly little secret in this business and, without it, there probably wouldn’t be anything like the “High Roller” phenomenon that has overtaken the business.
Second, try to draw the Average Joe into the game in some manner. It may be out of line to expect someone to pay a $50K or $100K pop for some contest winner, but it isn’t out of the question to have them perhaps win a piece of one of the contestants. Have a drawing where each player in the tournament is paired with a contestant. The contestant stands to win, say, 10% of what the player does should he make the money. That would drive interest WAY up if a person could win a four, five or six figure score.
The inaugural Poker Masters series clicked off the boxes for a majority of the poker community. It provided a forum for the richest/best players in the game to display their talents for a series of events. But what it might not have done is appealed to those who watch for the excitement of seeing someone “like them” making a huge amount of cash. Sure, there are outlets that do that – the WSOP, the World Poker Tour, the Heartland Poker Tour, etc. – but you’ve got to have some contact with your viewer if you want them to watch. Seeing poker’s elite spewing money between each other isn’t the type of thing many want to see.