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Big Win or Small Win?

by Lucy Rokach |  Published: Jun 01, 2006


2005 World Series of Poker Champion Joe Hachem knows what it’s like to “win big.”

At the Walsall festival in late February, I was asked if I approved of their payout structure, as they were sounding players out with a view to making it flatter. I nearly choked on the spot. A few incoherent mutterings later, I managed some semblance of normality and meekly asked, "Why?" I didn't feel meek at all; it was all I could do not to shoot the messenger (verbally, that is, as I'm really quite a peace-loving person once you get to know me). It transpires that "they", whoever "they" may be, think that a flatter structure would result in fewer deals being made at the final table. Now, I really did start to froth at the mouth and bare my teeth.

For years, players have been making deals, and as long as it's all kosher, why shouldn't they? After all, whose money is it? By what right does a TV company or cardroom presume to tell players what they can and cannot do with regard to the prize money? If there's a sponsor and that sponsor has added a chunk of money to the prize pool, he's entitled to lay a few laws down; otherwise, it's no one's business but our own. But even in that instance, how can you police it? Just because no one mentions deal-making at the table doesn't mean it hasn't been thoroughly discussed either at the bar overnight or in the restroom during a break. It's all quite hypocritical and unenforceable, in my humble opinion.

Personally, I prefer to play the final out to the death, and inasmuch as the percentage to the winner these days is so dismally low, I think you need all the money you can get to be able to continue playing in tournaments. Flattening the structure serves only the cardrooms, not the players. No one enters a competition to struggle for hours in the fond hope that he or she will be reimbursed the buy-in. We enter tournaments to parlay a small entry fee into a huge payout. These flat structures might give the impression that lots of people are dividing the prize pool, but in reality, all they do is give some players the illusion that they're winners. Of course, it could be that these small payouts are so designed to lure players to the craps table on the way out. Just a bit of scratch, so let's gamble it up.

Flat structures make sense only when the fields are so huge that the prize money is life-changing. Take the World Series of Poker, for instance; whether first prize is $5 million or $7 million is irrelevant. Similarly, recently in its Sunday night $200 tournament, PokerStars had a very flat payout structure. It paid more than 800 places out of a field of 5,500, which is about 15 percent, with the winner receiving less than 20 percent. None of the pyjamas and whiskey brigade is going to argue with that structure, and neither will I. Who wouldn't mind converting $200 into $200,000 in about eight hours of play from the comfort of your own home? For these types of exceptional tournaments, a flat payout is perfectly fine, but in most cases you're going to win only a few thousand or a few tens of thousands, just enough to give you some breathing space and pay a few bills.

At the other end of the spectrum, a lot of local casinos pay everyone who reaches a final even when the fields are small. Surely it's better to give the last three or five a decent return on their investment than spread the honey so thinly that even the winners feel starved. Even more ridiculous was the prize structure of the Grosvenor Grand Prix. I say "was" because finally they got the message and last year's tournament had £100,000 guaranteed to the winner. Everyone, and I mean everyone, who qualifies to the final receives £100. As there are no direct-entry buy-ins to the final round, and qualification is via £100 rebuy and add-on satellites, it can easily cost more than £500 to get there. But, instead of the tournament getting bigger and bigger (because it's a fantastic idea), the prize money decreased for two years. Why spend loads of money trying to qualify, only to find that you would have to plow through 200 players to reach the final just to break even? Once Grosvenor guaranteed a substantial first prize, the money shot up again. The £20,000 doled out to so many players should go to the lower finishers. That way, those players who have spent hundreds trying to qualify need only reach the last two tables to show a profit.

When I started playing, 18 years ago, the Rainbow in Birmingham, even with fields of 90, paid out only three prizes, with first receiving a whopping 70 percent. So, for £25, you could (and often did) go home with £2,500, which was very nice, thank you. But nowadays, you would be lucky to get £1,400 in the same set of circumstances. That's quite a difference, don't you think?

And as for deal-making, why bother playing it out if the difference between places is so gradual? Let's all carve the money, retire to the bar, and save ourselves a lot of stress and aggravation. Do you want a big win or a small win? spade