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This Is Not The Main Event You Are Looking For

by Gavin Griffin |  Published: Dec 30, 2020


December, the month when we escape the harsh winters of the midwest and Northern Europe to flock to the relative warmth of the desert of Las Vegas, Nevada to play the World Series of Poker main event. Wait, do I have that wrong?

The pandemic of 2020 has wreaked absolute havoc on our calendar. Spring Break was cancelled, the Fourth of July was an in-home affair, and Thanksgiving was a mess.

The gambling calendar was also thrown into upheaval. March Madness was outright cancelled, The Masters was delayed half a year to November. The NBA had to play in a bubble. The MLB season was marred by a mess of positive tests and postponements, and the NFL season has been more of the same. And, of course, the annual Las Vegas summer series known to poker fans all around the globe as the World Series of Poker, was moved online.

It’s that WSOP online thing that I’m interested in talking about right now.

As far as I knew, we had already crowned a WSOP main event champion in 2020. His name is Stoyan Madanzhiev, and he won $3.9 million for beating a massive field of 5,802 players. The tournament, which had a $5,000 buy-in and re-entry format, generated a record-breaking $27,559,500 prize pool.

All that being said, I’m not sure that many people are going to be thinking about him next year. His win is destined to be another casualty of this bizarro year.

You might ask yourself how a WSOP main event winner could be forgotten? We remember winners like Pius Heinz, who has been mostly absent from poker since his triumph, and guys like Russ Hamilton, who has been disgraced as a cheater and pariah in the poker community. Good or bad, skilled or not, the winner of the main event is permanently inscribed in the annals of poker history.

Unfortunately for Stoyan, this year, we’re going to have a second main event. Even though the tournament’s single-entry format and steeper $10,000 buy-in will likely result in a much smaller prize pool, given its small live component, it may be regarded as the one to remember in future years.

The format, in true 2020 fashion, is odd. Two separate online events, one on in the United States and one on in Europe, will play down to separate final tables. Those final tables will play out live, one at The Rio in Las Vegas, and the other at King’s Casino Rozvadov. Finally, the winners of each event will play heads up at the Rio for an added $1 million prize and the official title of WSOP main event champion.

There are a lot of firsts here. You have the first hybrid main event champion, and the first champion to have money added to his prize (Hamilton won his weight in silver). And of course, you’ll also see the first ever second main event champion. (huh?)

Perhaps I’m not being fair here. Caesars and the WSOP are certainly allowed to be creative with their brand, especially in this craziest of years, and there are a lot of positives to be excited about. The single-entry is standard for the main event, and who can complain about an added $1 million prize?

Why then, do I feel so negative about it? I guess because I feel like the rightful main event champion is having his title taken from him. Or perhaps it’s because the tournament is clearly a last-minute cash grab by the WSOP, not that that is anything new. Maybe the weird format just bothers the poker traditionalist in me?

And that’s not even getting into the COVID of it all, which seems like it wasn’t even taken into account. Sure, the 18 people who make the two final tables are subject to testing protocols, and that’s good, I guess. However, in the United States, you must be in either Nevada or New Jersey to play this tournament. The US is currently experiencing the worst surge of coronavirus cases since February, setting new records every day in total case numbers and number of people hospitalized while the death toll keeps rising.

Many poker players are going to be tempted to travel from all over the country to Nevada and New Jersey to play this tournament, COVID be damned. It’s the nature of a poker player to search for value and take it.

Offering a tournament like this where players will have to travel to play in it, during the worst days of the pandemic, is a cynical and irresponsible move by those in charge at the WSOP and, even though I live only a four-hour drive from Las Vegas and have a safe place to play, I will not be participating in this event. I just don’t feel comfortable supporting it.

Readers may feel differently about this subject, and that’s okay. I can’t control what you do with your body and your life. I would urge you, however, to think of the people you would interact with if you decided to play in this event. I’m talking about the flight attendant on your plane, the front desk person at the hotel, the housekeeper that has to clean your room, the cashier when you buy-in to the tournament, or the person who serves you your food. We’re all still in this together and, with a vaccine in the near future, it’s the perfect time to make sure we’re staying safe and healthy. ♠

Gavin GriffinGavin Griffin was the first poker player to win the Triple Crown, capturing a World Series of Poker, European Poker Tour, and World Poker Tour title, and has amassed more than $5 million in lifetime tournament winnings. You can follow him on Twitter @NHGG