The history of tournament poker isn’t a long one. At best it dates back to the 1960s, when the first “Texas Road Gamblers” (the predecessor of the World Series of Poker) convention was held in Reno. Even in 1970, when the late Benny Binion brought the convention to his Horseshoe in Las Vegas and rebranded it as the WSOP, there still wasn’t a great deal of “tournament” style poker played – cash games were the primary draw. It would take a couple of years before the Championship Event – now known as the “Main Event” – became a fixture on the WSOP schedule.
Ever since the WSOP began, tournament poker has crept across the globe. First to Ireland (the late Terry Rogers’ Irish Poker Open is the second longest tournament in existence) and then to Europe, tournament poker has become an integral part of the game. Today, it is (for better or worse) recognized as the pinnacle of poker, a complete reversal from 50 years ago. But there is something happening to tournament poker that is disturbing arguably one of the most important parts of the game – the record books.
High Roller Tournaments – Destroying the History of the Game
The glut of what has become “High Roller” tournaments – tournaments that routinely have a buy-in larger than $25,000 and can range up to over $1 million – in the 2000s has not only completely changed what is considered a “skillful” player but also completely shattered such things as the all-time money earners list. It has now reached a point where these style tournaments have altered the record books too much, so much that they should be removed from the overall record books and put into their own category.
The recent Triton Poker Super High Roller Series in London is one example of this. Wrapping up on Thursday with its £1 million (that’s right – a $1.32 million buy-in tournament, after conversion, the largest tournament ever) invitational tournament, the Series also offered a plethora of events that had buy ins over £25,000. There were two of those £25K tournaments, two £50K events and two £100K runnings, all in the No Limit Texas Hold’em format. Over £109 million in prize pools were generated, more that what the recent WSOP Championship Event, as the second largest WSOP Championship Event in history, generated as the “greatest tournament in the world.”
But there’s a problem with this…the high entry fees are guaranteeing that the “Average Joe” cannot get into the game, thusly removing it from the egalitarian status that tournament poker is supposed to be. Additionally, the money that is being won in these tournaments isn’t in the “poker community” at large but being shuffled amongst a select few in the profession, making a mockery of the measuring sticks that are used to ascertain poker skill and greatness.
Blame It On…
In a way, the WSOP Championship Event is the one to blame for how this all started. When the “poker boom” started in the early Aughts, casinos and tours wanted to try to replicate the prize pool generated by that event. First, they did it with rebuys and then reentries, but the casinos and tours didn’t like how they would have final tables that would lack “star power” – players known to the casual poker fan to get them to watch the events. As such, the casinos and tours had to come up with a way to keep the prize pools high but also bring in the players that were recognizable to the fans to get eyeballs on their product. The European Poker Tour then brought about the concept of the “High Roller” tournament and it took off.
It started innocently enough, with buy-ins of about $25,000, or 2½ times the buy in of a normal tournament. And, for a bit, it was enough to limit the field to an elite few who could afford the buy-in. When the “unwashed masses” began to step up to that level to play, however, there was a push to take the buy ins higher to keep the same “known players” quality to the field.
$50,000, then $100,000 was the limits set. It was the inaugural $1 million buy in “Big One for One Drop,” however, that exploded the format. Started in 2012, the million dollar buy in – and the capped field size – was bigger than even the deep pocketed pros could play on their own. That’s when an “old school” form of play – pooling funds – took over, as the pros pooled their money to put the horses in the field and received a payout from said pool once the event was over.
The problem with these events is it is usually the same 40-50 competitors that make up the field, meaning the money doesn’t circulate through the poker world. In the “normal” tournament poker world, the winner of the event would enter other poker tournaments. Because “normal” poker tournaments don’t have the same winner all the time, that money would eventually work its way around the poker world.
In the “High Roller” world, that money stays with the staking groups or the 40-50 or so players who are participating in the events. For example, businessman Paul Phua has 11 cashes so far in 2019 – and ALL of them have been in “High Roller” events. He has earned a total of $10.6 million in 2019 alone, enough to catapult him into the race for the 2019 Player of the Year and crack the Top 40 in all-time money winnings.
Look at the Top Ten in all-time money winnings and you’ll see the same effect. With his runner up finish in the Triton Poker £1 million event, Bryn Kenney became the all-time leader in earnings with over $55 million. Seven of his 12 cashes in 2019 have come in events with a buy-in higher than $25,000 and the ratio is even more in the favor of the “High Roller” events in his previous seasons.
With the exception of Erik Seidel in fifth place (and, even with this said, much of his tournament cashes in the past few years has come through “High Roller” events), the remainder of the Top Ten have built their resumes through “High Roller” tournaments (Justin Bonomo, Daniel Negreanu, Dan Smith, David Peters, Fedor Holz, Stephen Chidwick, Jason Koon and Dan Colman make up the rest of the Top Ten). You’d arguably have to go back to former World Champion Martin Jacobson and he won $10 million in one swing at the WSOP.
And for those who argue there’s more “skill” in these fields, are you the same people who chide the “old school” players for “inflating” their WSOP bracelet records by playing through “small fields?” Playing when there was “only 30-40 people” playing in the tournament? That in itself is pretty hypocritical as there could be just as much argument given that it is MORE difficult to navigate through a multi-thousand-person field rather than the same 40-50 people you see all the time (and learn their styles and idiosyncrasies intimately).
…and How to Fix It
The way to fix this situation is a simple one. Have separate records kept for tournaments with buy-ins over $25,000 (that seems to be where the level for “High Roller” events has settled in at). We then would get a true look at where people have made their money and how well they have actually done when faced with more than 100 people to play against. If the Hendon Mob can break it down to the individual states in the U. S., it can filter the rankings and set a special “High Roller” record board.
They already do this somewhat. One of the filters on their rankings is the “All-Time Money List” but excluding invitational events and tournaments that have a buy-in of more than $50,000. On this list, Daniel Negreanu holds the all-time lead with slightly more than $20 million, but it is from his work in non-“High Roller” events over his 20-plus year career. Names that don’t show up in the Top 20 on the “overall” list include Phil Hellmuth, Michael Mizrachi, Jacobson, Joe Cada, and the current World Champion Hossein Ensan (in 20th place).
Nobody is looking to get rid of the “High Roller” event, people are just looking for some reality in the history books regarding poker. The champion of the Triton Poker High Roller Series, Aaron Zang, catapulted into the Top 40 of ALL-TIME earnings from this event alone – previously he had under a million in career earnings (and if that doesn’t raise the suspicions of conspiracy theorists, nothing will). That’s not the reality of tournament poker and the record books should demonstrate that.