chris: (crisis)
I'm part-way through writing another post (well, I'm part-way through many other posts) but this one interrupts all of them as it's timely.

A particularly interesting tournament has been taking place at the World Series of Poker for the last two days, and it's due to reach a conclusion today. Forty-eight players started the Big One for One Drop, each paying one miiiiiiiiillion US dollars to enter the tournament, which is generally accepted to be the highest buy-in to a poker tournament yet. (Hat tip to the fictional $10 million tournament in Daniel Craig's Casino Royale.)

One-ninth of each buy-in is donated to the titular One Drop, a charity whose tagline and mission statement are "ensuring everyone has access to water". This means that five and a third million dollars (give or take 48 times 11-and-one-ninth cents) are going to the charity even before anyone picks up the cards... and that the remaining forty-two and two-thirds million dollars are being redistributed as prize money. The prize structure is unusually flat, with nine of the 48 starters being paid; top prize is a little over $18 million, second prize is over $10 million, then things taper away quickly with fifth to ninth all receiving just a little over the million back. It will be the largest poker tournament prize yet, and sufficient to take the winner to the top of the All Time Money List based on one tournament alone.

The All Time Money List is not beyond criticism as a way of ranking poker players, not least because it does not consider losses - not least the cost of entering tournaments and failing to win them. It's also arguable that the biggest swings come in cash games, which are not tracked; it would be speculative to compare this tournament with the cash games played by banker Andy Beal - both the original series of matches in 2006 and rumoured further matches last year. There's also another argument that how much you win from other players at poker doesn't matter if you end up giving it back to the casino by losing at table games such as blackjack and craps - and, in the long-term, you will. This is why it's more frequent to compare poker accomplishments through quality tournament victories, rather than just cash sums.

The 48 starters have been split by commentators into 29 known poker pros and 19 "businessmen". Very few of the businessmen are simple rich moguls willing to drop a million dollars on a lark either to show how rich they are or to take a shot at the glory of the title, though I think there are at least two or three; the majority of the businessmen are known poker players, or at least have extensive experience in the gambling industry.

Additionally, very few - if any - of the pros will have paid their entire million-dollar stake themselves, simply because the variance is so high. It is far more usual for players to sell stakes in themselves to their backers, thus sharing both wins and losses with others. While there could be confident, rich players entirely paying their own way, in a sense, the only players putting up all their own money are likely to be the least likely to win. We will never know the truth, though it's fun to speculate.

Even Phil Hellmuth Jr., arugably the most famous poker player of them all, having won a record-setting 12 bracelets (i.e., tournaments) at the World Series of Poker over the years, publically tweeted a few days before the event about still looking for another $400,000 of backing. Hellmuth has since been quoted as saying "I have three billionaires investing in me, one of which I hardly know. You don't want to let your friends down." (And yet rumours persist that the way he managed to get the money for his tournament seat was slightly unclear.)

The magnitude of the buy-in is a very considerable barrier to entry, and in strict terms of expected value, the fact that one-ninth of the entry fees is going to charity also makes the opportunity less attractive. However, the more "businessmen" enter, the more attractive the tournament becomes to the pros. High-stakes tournaments have been built in the past around many highly talented pros of comparable skill who will effectively pass around money between themselves dictated principally by chance, but who seek to split up the entry fees of less talented entrants. While poker has enough players who consistently outperform what you would expect by chance, even in the long term, to demonstrate the degree of skill involved, a single tournament (even a three-day one, or a 9/10-day one like the World Series' Main Event) has sufficient luck that the businessmen can still win if they get lucky at the right times - and they sufficiently frequently do in order to keep playing.

Accordingly, even playing in the tournament is some degree of status symbol, with the entrant list being something of a "Who's Who Right Now" showing who's either rich or sufficiently well-considered to attract investment. Gary Wise writes about who's in and who's surprisingly out. It's fun to read about the big names who only qualified through subsidiary satellite tournaments, i.e. tournaments where the prize is participation in the Big One, so that someone has a chance of entry for an investment as "small" as $25,000. One of these satellite tournaments paid two million-dollar prizes, with third place being $400,000 and fourth place being nothing - not even a set of steak knives. The Big One was capped at 48 players and reported ended up turning potential players away, so only one of the two winners got to play in the tournament, the other taking the million in cash. The decision whether to take the cash or the tournament entry is an interesting one.

All 48 starters happened to be men on this occasion, even as female players continued to perform well elsewhere in this year's World Series of Poker. For instance, Allyn Jaffrey Shulman beat 4,127 rivals to win the Seniors' Event (one of the largest tournaments ever outside the Main Event) and Vanessa Selbst won the 10-game mixed event, showing considerable skill not just at individual poker variants like Hold 'Em, Omaha or Stud but at pretty much every recognised form of the game. It may well be that female players have outperformed proportionately; certainly the reason why so few bracelets are won by women is that the proportion of female entrants is very low.

Most of the entrants came from the US, though two pros and two businessmen were from the UK, there were at least four Candian residents and at least one US-based Canadian, and representation from France, Germany, Russia and several Asian nations. (It's a telling reflection of stereotypes that some businessmen are listed with the name of their company, others are just listed as businessmen and the two Malaysian residents are listed as Asian Businessmen.)

The two UK pros entered were Roland de Wolfe and Sam Trickett. Both are in the top three of the all-time UK winnings list, with the caveats mentioned above; de Wolfe is one of only four (?) to have won the Triple Crown, reflecting past tournament success not just at the World Series but also at the rival World Poker Tour and European Poker Tour, and Sam Trickett has not only apparently "been crushing the cash games in Macau" (arguably the poker counterpart of a band being "big in Japan") but had a tremendous track record of winning big at two six-figure-entry-fee tournaments in Australia in early 2011. Clearly they represent the state of the art in terms of UK poker.

On the first day, the tournament fell from 48 players to 37, and the second day was played down to the official final table of eight. Affable old Mike Sexton, as well-renowned a player as you would expect any participant here to be, as well as a TV commentator and Vince McMahon double, finished in the "final table bubble" but picked up the ninth place prize of his million stake back plus a few extra.

The most notable hand so far has come when a player deliberately folded cards that made four eights face up, on the basis that he was confident that his opponent had made a straight flush - one of the very few hands that could beat him. On this occasion, we don't have the benefit of cameras showing the hole cards; this was either one of the highest-stakes, highest-profile, most brilliant folds of all time or one of the counterpart similarly elevated bluffs of all time, but we have no way of telling which. Hands ranked so high come about in fact incredibly seldom, no matter how frequently they are depicted in fiction.

Of the eight players on the official final table, the three smallest stacks all belong to businessmen, but one of whom is a hedge fund manager and another of whom designs casinos and won the Main Event about a quarter-century ago when it was very small. Fourth and fifth go to pros Brian Rast and Phil Hellmuth Jr.; no matter how much of his prize money he ends up keeping, we can be in no doubt that Hellmuth would expound at great length about how a victory would extend his legend as not just greatest poker player ever but probably also the greatest sportsman ever. Third is Guy Laliberté, the inaugurator of the tournament and its charity. He's paid top dollar to be a space tourist out to the ISS, so money is clearly no object. Second place is Sam Trickett of the UK, who I will dearly be shouting for, especially as he is only slightly behind big stack Antonio Esfandiari. Esfandiari has his fans but he is one of the few poker players with a sense of humour I feel comfortable judging negatively.

Apparently the final table will be streamed to TV, with some element of delay (15 minutes? and hour?) on ESPN tonight in the US; outside the US, some final tables have been broadcast without hole-card cameras on the WSOP site itself and tonight's might be one of them.

I am delighted that this tournament exists, really being a step up from poker tournaments we have had in the past, and attracting the sort of attention that you might hope from it. I also hope that the initiative is repeated, but not for another - say - five years, in order to keep it special and attract as much attention to the next one. (Let's have, say, $100,000 Big One tournaments for the next four World Series, then another million-dollar one in 2017?) Big-money tournaments are nothing new, but the $50,000 Players' Championship WSoP events have not taken off with the pros to nearly the same extent, probably because the field has been so strong; separation between the biggest of Big Ones is probably necessary in order to attract the businessmen who will in turn attract big fields of professionals.

Shuffle up and deal - and good luck, Sam Trickett!
chris: (dealer)
The bulk of this year's World Series of Poker, hereafter the WSoP, recently concluded in Las Vegas. I think history will judge this to have been one of the better ones; grade it a B+ at the very least. The corporate overlords at casino behemoth Harrah's, who own the WSoP brand, will doubtless be pleased that so far it has passed without major scandal or embarrassment.

If there's one thing with which the public associates the World Series, it's the $10,000-entry-fee-per-player no-limit Texas Hold 'Em World Championship held as the main event, which has been responsible for the seven richest (not quite the same thing as largest, but arguably more important) face-to-face poker tournaments ever, generating one a year for the last seven years. This year's tournament had 7,319 entrants, the second highest figure ever after the peak at 8,773 in 2006, a year when legislation was rather happier for the poker industry. This figure alone might be used as a metric for the health of poker at large and would likely lead to a judgment of rude health.

It's hard to directly compare player numbers in other events from year to year as the event is notorious for chopping and changing the precise formats of its tournaments from one year to the next, even as it becomes more and more bloated; this year, the six-week-long series has featured 57 tournaments, each one awarding not just a huge monetary prize but also an exclusive and prestigious bracelet to its champion. Early tournament entry numbers were slightly down on those of last year, but overall there has not been a notably strong significantly decreasing trend. Read more... )

Sidenote to game designers who might want to run immense games some day. )

On the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence that online poker at large is certainly not expanding in the way it used to and is showing vague signs of a plateau; while the biggest online tournaments are continuing to grow, there is an extent to which many of the middling players are winding down their activities or dropping out altogether, and the poker world derives its strength from new blood at all levels of the metaphorical food chain.

It's as if there are fewer and fewer of the players who are starting out as online poker beginners, and if you've watched poker on TV and decided to give it a try for yourself, possibly when slightly drunk, then you've had already many years of opportunity to do so by now. The novelty is decreasing and the sponsorship is generating diminishing returns. Established players no longer can feast on the "fish", but now have to beat other established winners in order to show a return. However, much as people continue to take up the smoking habit around the world, there still are new poker players out there - quite possibly, more heavily concentrated outside traditional poker stronghold countries - for established players and established poker companies to find.

I specified earlier that the bulk of the WSoP is over. 2007 saw the first signs of "mission creep" as the event inspired a spin-off World Seres of Poker Europe series, taking place over a couple of weeks in September, to date firmly based in London. (Numbers have been good rather than great; I fear that strong numbers for EPT events on the continent will inspire WSoP Europe to spread its wings before long.) 2008 also saw the WSoP stretch even further by virtue of the inauguration of the November Nine concept; the Main Event is no longer played to a conclusion but merely to its final table, with that final table being played as a separate made-for-TV event in, as per the title, November. Additionally, the final table is only played down to the final two, with the final heads-up a separate event still. All to stretch the brand further still!

This year the dilution and spread of the event has seen the riches and glory distributed among many different winners; the headline, if you will, is that there is not one particular headline story to describe this year's event. While there is sufficient skill in poker that in the long run you can identify players who make far more than their share of the right decisions to win tournaments - which is as good a definition of skill as any - the individual tournament level has thrown up a lot of winners who are more anonymous than either notorious or famous. Making his name as the only (?) player to win two tournaments this year was Frank Kassela, who also picked up a third payday this WSoP even more lucrative than either of his bracelets in the $25,000 six-handed no-limit event.

Arguably the biggest winner of this year's championship was Michael Mizrachi, who won the $50,000-buy-in Poker Player's Championship, a tournament considered one of the most prestigious within the series due to (a) its unsurpassed entry fee and (b) its requirement that players must play eight different versions of poker in turn. The second half of his crowning achievement this year is that he has made it to the November Nine, as by far the best-known of the final table in the Main Event. Mizrachi is otherwise known by his nickname, "the Grinder", and has a very strong tournament record leading to a "player of the year" accolade in 2006. He is also noted for having had a large tax lien filed against him due to unpaid taxes, possibly suggesting a downturn in his fortunes since then, and also for having a brother Robert, a successful poker player in his own right.

It has been a very good year for British poker players, with five of the 57 tournaments seeing Britons pick up champions' bracelets and big fat cheques. Another five (?) tournaments saw Britons finishing in second place, picking up nearly-as-big cheques and, almost inevitably, considerable regret at being "first loser". James Dempsey and Richard Ashby each have the distinction of both a first-place and a second-place finish this year; Praz Bansi is another familiar winner, with Mike Ellis and Steve Jelinek picking up debut bracelets. Among the second-place-only finishers, Neil Channing and Sam Trickett are both familiar faces to TV poker viewers. Hurrah! It has also been a relatively good year for Canadian players, though as is usual the vast majority of bracelets are destined to remain within the United States.

Other than that, the majority of the fascination of the event comes from the natural consequence of getting thousands of crazy ramblin' gamblin' types together: they strike up outlandish wagers amongst themselves. Now the precise details of the bets are only really truly known by the players involved in the specific disagreements, but word does get out - and the fun thing is that it doesn't really matter whether the reporting is accurate or not. Sometimes the fiction can be more fun than the fact. Speculation within... )

Unrelated to poker, but on the casino theme, I was really impressed by Casino Backgammon, a new table game recently introduced to at least one Las Vegas casino. It has an instantly very familiar design based on backgammon, it has a lovely sense of internal progression, it has logical structure and - strange to say - it has as much narrative as you could hope for considering that the gameplay is really, really simple and relies purely on the results of two or three rolls of a pair of dice. Players must make two identically sized bets. The first is won by advancing two backgammon pieces past a "bar" (backgammon terminology for a line going across the board) based on a single roll of two dice; the second is won by advancing the pieces all the way off the board within two (or, with a bonus, three) rolls.

Most deliciously, the first bet is very visibly paid off at odds that are clearly in the player's favour - but you can't make that wager alone, and the compulsory second bet pays out rather less generously. Taking the two together, the whole game has been analysed typically to have a healthy 4% rake in the casino's favour. However, the design is elegant and, well, kinetic; this might just be the long-sought (dreaded?) casino game which is simple fun as a game activity by itself, rather than all the thrill relying on the sums of money won or lost through play. If there's any justice in the world, Casino Backgammon will take off like wildfire and the usual suspects of craps, roulette and blackjack will finally have a worthy challenger.

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Chris

November 2016

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