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Adjusting Expectations at U.S. Poker Tournaments

Players React to a Decrease in Field Sizes and Prize Pools


Bicycle CasinoThe $10,000 no-limit hold’em World Poker Tour championship event at the 2009 Legends of Poker drew 279 entrants. This was a sharp decline from the field that entered last year, when 373 players made the trip to the Bicycle Casino. The field shrank by 25.2 percent, and this current edition was the second-lowest turnout in the history of the event. The only field that was smaller at the Legends of Poker was during season one, when 134 players took part in the first WPT tournament ever.

This one example of a shrinking tournament field in the U.S. is indicative of what is happening all across the country for $10,000-plus buy-in events. The Bellagio Cup V $15,000 no-limit hold’em championship dropped from 446 players all the way down to 268 (a 39.9 percent drop) in 2009, while the $25,000 WPT Championship fell from 545 players down to 338 in 2009 (a 37.9 percent drop). Those are three current examples outside of the World Series of Poker.

The reasons for these falling numbers are numerous, whether UIGEA legislation, the overall state of the economy, or competition from international tournaments is the cause, the downward trend in big buy-in U.S. tournament field sizes is indisputable. Have the expectations of professional poker players changed due to the recent trend?

Card Player caught up with many of the poker professionals who did make it down to Southern California for the Legends of Poker, and what follows are the concerns and possible solutions addressed by their reactions.

Shrinking Factors: International Competition and the Economy

Daniel NegreanuOn day 1 of the 2009 WPT Legends of Poker, two other major tournaments were taking place internationally. The PokerStars European Poker Tour Kiev main event had attracted 296 players, while the Asian Poker Tour main event in Macau saw its attendance top out at 326 players. This was not lost on the players here at the Bike.

“There’s a couple of key factors here,” said Daniel Negreanu, “One, there’s a tournament in Asia right now, two, there is a tournament in the Ukraine, and what that does is it gives the European player who would come to this event other choices.” With so many options on the table, Kid Poker recognized that the necessity for European players to travel to the U.S. in search of poker tournaments no longer exists.

Allen Kessler also acknowledged the increase in competition from international tournaments when addressing the situation. “Hard Rock has just 36 players in their $2,500 main event, that’s pretty bad … People are playing a lot of these foreign tournaments right now,” said Kessler. He also thought there was an easy solution to the problem, “Why schedule your event on exactly the same day as someone else’s main event.”

Negreanu ultimately kept optimistic concerning the future, especially when the economy recovers, but the future will still hold international competition for U.S. events. “The fact that the economy is as bad as it is right now and there is still 278 people here, you should consider that a major success. I don’t see the numbers as being a bad thing, and I think that will rebound when the economy rebounds, but there is more competition and more events,” said Negreanu.

Solutions for the Short Term: Adjusting Payouts and Buy-ins

Jimmy FrickeMany players had opinions about how to increase tournament fields during the short term considering that any change in the economy of UIGEA legislation will take time. The announcement that the Borgata Poker Open lowered its WPT no-limit hold’em championship buy-in to $3,500 was well received by players earlier this month, and if history is any indication, a $5,000 buy-in for U.S. tournaments not might be such a bad idea. The largest turnout for a WPT Legends of Poker event took place in 2005, when 839 players attended the $5,000 no-limit hold’em championship.

“I honestly think there should be $5Ks; everything should be $5Ks,” said Jimmy Fricke. “They could get 500 people per $5K and it would still be a huge event with a bunch of money for first place. I don’t see why it’s a problem, but everyone else seems to think they should be $10Ks. People think they can’t take a step back because it shows weakness. You’re supposed to make decisions for the good of the game, and right now they’re not.”

Fricke went on to state that there are very few players in the poker economy who are still buying themselves into big buy-in tournaments. If things continue the way they are currently going, the money that supplies these player’s bankrolls could dry up.

“You have people with limited bankrolls or recreational players with lots of money who will get to the point where they just can’t play anymore. The buy-ins are still going up, the number of people [entering the tournaments] is going down, and everyone is going broke except for the casinos,” said Fricke.

Another solution proposed by players was to flatten out the payout structures for big buy-in events so that more players can collect a return on their investment.

“Why would anybody play in a tournament where first place is a million dollars and second place is $400,000?” said Kessler. “All of these people are feeding in $10,000 for one person to win a million dollars and second place is only $400,000. How can the tournament sustain itself that way? You need a more balanced payout structure.”

Fricke was another player who disagreed with disproportionate payouts.

“I understand what they were trying to do,” said Fricke. “They want to make it a million for first place. A million for first place isn’t that crazy anymore, if first place is $700K, they’re still going to get players. I’d rather have the tournaments still be around rather than having two tournaments a year where you get $5 million for first.”

Planning Your Tournament Travel Accordingly

So how do poker players decide where to spend their tournament dollar with shrinking fields in the U.S. and a plethora of international options on the table during a crowded fall tournament schedule? The answers were as varied as the players who gave them, but in most cases, a player’s personal preference was top priority.

“I really don’t like traveling internationally whatsoever, so I don’t like going to international tournaments anymore,” said Fricke. “When I was under 21, it was a different story, because I had to go over there. Now I live in Vegas and I prefer to play in Vegas and L.A. tournaments, if possible.”

Amit MakhijaThe 2008 Legends of Poker runner-up Amit Makhija stated that staying close to cash-game options and the comforts of home is a priority.

“L.A. made a lot of sense, just because Commerce and the Bike were close and the cash games are great,” said Makhija. “Vegas games are pretty nitty, and they usually don’t get much higher than $10-$20 these days. Living out here, I can get into a game at any time for as high as I want, but, most importantly, the games are just better. There’s a lot of action.”

Another final-tablist from the 2008 Legends of Poker event with an opinion on the matter was Zach Clark, who also had a preference for California cardrooms. The cost of travel was also a factor that influenced him, as it does many other players who decide to stay put on U.S. soil, despite declining field sizes.

“I don’t mind the traveling itself, but traveling can often put you in a negative EV [expected value] situation,” said Clark. “You go off to a place like Aruba, which has a $5,000 buy-in, and you’ll spend $10,000 easily on room and board, and all of a sudden you need a 200-percent ROI to break even.”

If a player is of the means and has a sponsorship to back his travel, then there are few limitations to where they can travel now that poker tournaments have become a global affair. Negreanu is one of those superstar players who likes to travel to his favorite spots around the world in search of big poker tournaments.

“When I look at a schedule, I look at stuff that fits,” said Negreanu. “If there is an event in Vegas, I’m going to play it, and it will supersede all of the other events. There are also certain events I love going to; Barcelona is one I’ll never miss, and the London event is always cool. I do spend more time thinking about what tournaments I’m going to play overseas now than I did before. One of the main reasons is because PokerStars is directly associated with the European Poker Tour, and I want to do everything I can to help PokerStars.”

Riding out the Plateau

The change in expectations for U.S. poker tournament fields will continue to shape the decisions of poker players everywhere in the near future. Until some large changes take place, the tournament-poker industry will need to adjust in order to ride out the current plateau. For a generation of young players eager to make their mark on the game, this lull in field sizes couldn’t come at a worse time. Fricke embodied the current frustration of many young players when he was asked about the timing of his 21st birthday.

“It kind of sucks; I missed out on the big World Series of Poker main events,” said Fricke. “I could have been playing in 2005 and 2006 when the fields were just huge and soft and great. It’s just the past now, and we have to try to make the poker world good in the next couple of years. When poker bounces back, it may be better than it was before.”



almost 12 years ago

Ok, here we go again. Average Joe's (like me) want to see themselves on T.V. playing poker and winning life-changing money. The Travel Channel and the WPT f'd up a good thing by cancelling their partnership. I looked forward to watching every wednesday night when a new season would roll out. Lots of folks did. People, like me, also want to play for a W.S.O.P. bracelet AND life-changing money so we can brag to our friends/spouses back home that we aren't the "donkey player" we've been called our whole lives, whether true or not. Look at the numbers since the Travel Channel took our wednesdays away. Look at the NLH numbers on ESPN since switched to the "November Nine"; and also, take a peek at the H.O.R.S.E. numbers in 2009 since ESPN decided not to show it this year. Also, someone like a Linda Johnson or Matt Savage (sorry linda and matt, i know your collective plates are full) could set up a clearinghouse so major tournies do not over-lap each other. The W.S.O.P. does great each year because nobody is foolish enough to set up a major during the summer until the majority are out of the Main Event. I.E. The Bellagio Cup. Nuff Said.


almost 12 years ago

all the tv has taught a lot of poker players a good lesson:

'Don't try this in tv, stay at home'


almost 12 years ago

Does anyone else get tired of the Pros whining about having to PAY for their own buy-ins and travel? The rest of us have to fork over our own money, and we arent complaining. For us, the payout structure is fine. We generally have two goals in a big tournament. Make the cash bubble and win. We all want to win, but there comes a time in the tournament where you realize its just not gong to happen, so we are content to just cash and then gamble and pray we hit some miracle hands.
But to complain that certain tournaments aren't broadcast on TV so your sponsors wont pay your buy-in? And because of that you want to change everything the buy-ins and payout structures??

Screw that.


almost 12 years ago

This article is incomplete. It needed to give what is happening to the Heartland Pokertour which I believe is doing great with it's small buyins. But the main factor is ignored. Because US tournaments can't let online sites satalite in players they will always be at a disadvantage to europe/asia/south american tournaments.


almost 12 years ago

+1 @ dzikjohn. nuff said.