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Apr 7th

The big buy-in arms race is an affront the game

Posted by with 4 Comments

The other day the World Poker Tour announced that they too would enter a car into the $100K+ big buy-in demolition derby which already features players like Federated Sports, the Onyx Cup, PCA Super High Roller and Aussie Millions 100K on the starting grid.

What is the point of these events? Here are seven suggestions of which none make sense to me.

The first reason why companies and tournament organizers might want to push buy-ins ever upward is to increase prize pools.

A quick look at two $100K events that have already taken place make it an easy reason to dispute.

The PCA $100K had 30 players. The PCA Main event had 1560 players and five times the prize pool.
The Aussie Millions Main Event sported a $7.21M AUD prize pool. The Aussie Millions 100K Challenge saw 38 players compete for $3,8M AUD

Unsurprisingly, if maxing out prize pools is your goal, raising buy-ins further is not the right strategy. And even if it was, why even pump prize pools further? Are insufficiently impressive prize pools a problem? Are we failing to the sell the dream because the money isn’t big enough?
Please. We’re well past the point where most players and all viewers of poker tournaments deem size of prize pool their primary viewing or playing criteria.

I’ve written more extensively about this in my liquidity is overrated series.

A second reason could be to raise the prestige of an event. But if prestige equals buy-in then poker has a lot to learn from the world of sports. Prestige does not evolve fromdollar bills staked on top of each other. Prestige is derived from history, from legacy, from hardship, from difficulty, from scale and from scarcity.

If your event’s prestige resides upon a tower of dollars, it will plummet the same day someone announces an event with an even greater buy-in.
What’s the biggest prize sum a golfer can collect? Winning the US Masters? The legendary Open Championships? The PGA championship? The US Open?
It’s shipping the FedEx Cup whatever that is.

A third motive could be to raise the quality of the product from a content point of view. It is an undisputed fact that a table featuring the likes of Tom Dwan, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu is a more attractive media product than a table featuring me and some other poor sod all other things equal.  But is raising buy-ins to a level where only these people can afford it the only way to accomplish this? Of course not. And does all other things need to be equal? Of course not. It’s called concept development.
Does the quality of the game itself improve because the buy-in is through the roof? If anything it will be less viewer friendly because of the massive amounts of money at stake. It ought to be counter-productive if what you’re after is engaging action, and creative play.
Hang on, one might intervene. Federated Sports is a league. And the Onyx cup is also some kind of integrated series. That change things right? Well, yes but what kind of leagues are they? Are $100,000 buy-ins necessary for their ranking systems to work?
In the world of sports a lot effort and creativity goes into crafting the right mechanic for the right sport in order to maximize the value of the content derived from the sport. College basketball has its March Madness which is a well-designed bracket system with a lot of history. Here in Europe the prime of football tournaments, the Champions League, is introducing increasingly more complex qualification mechanics every year in order to house more teams and squeeze the maximum amount of juice out of an attractive brand. All over the world, sports continuously upgrade their formats for how to crown champions. How much less interest would NHL attract if they suddenly replaced the Stanley Cup playoffs with a straight league system where the team who has amassed the most points at the end of the season is shipped the trophy?
A good example from the world of poker is the NBC National Heads Up Poker Championship. It has managed to establish itself as one of the most exiting tournament events of the year simply by combining a straight forward bracket system with an invitation only roster. By doing this they have created a tournament entity that churns out more stories and more interesting angles for journalists to work with than any other event. Grudge matches, revenge match-ups, girl vs girl, Pokerstars vs Full Tilt, old guard vs new breed.
What did Seidel win this year? I don’t have the slightest idea. But I remember a lot of the things reported in and around the event. And I remember that he won it. Who won the PCA? And what did he/she win? I’d love to poll that.

The fourth plausible reason I can think of is because it is an easy PR sell to host the most expensive tournament. But it’s turning out to be rather short-lived sell. What will the Aussie Millions do next year when they can’t make the same claim about their 100K challenge that they did this year?

Fifthly, maybe organizers are raising buy-ins because of player demand. Maybe players are tired of big field poker, but still want to play for the big bucks. Fair enough. But surely organizers are also keen on making sure players are not in over their heads. How many players have the million dollar bankrolls required to compete in these event without being guilty of Crimes Against Bankroll Management?
And if they are sponsored, why would sponsors be interested in buy-ins being pushed even higher?
For a crushing majority of players, these events are off their radar. Running qualifiers to them is irresponsible. To even suggest that someone who’s managed to qualify for a $100,000 on an initial $20 buy-in should take that and play in a high-stakes tournament with a gang of players who are filthy rich (and good) and/or sponsored isn’t exactly in line with Responsible Gaming guidelines.
Not to mention how stupid it is from rake/business point of view.
There may be player demand, but this demand covers such a small spectrum of players who in return represents so little overall business that all this attention and focus is unwarranted.
These events also risk creating  further unbalance in the world of high-stakes poker. Not too long ago a discussion flared about how to interpret all-time-high prize money lists. Which events should be included, which shouldn’t, how should entry fees be counted, questions like that. It’s messy enough already with the likes of Jamie Gold being up there. With these 100K events flooding the scene, there will be all sorts of people who’ve earned big, big money under very different conditions. Beating 18 people in an invite only tournament in Melbourne isn’t really comparable to beating 1500 players in an open tournament in the Bahamas.

Sixthly, maybe there’s mad money in arranging these tournaments because the fee is so massive…..
I’ll just leave that one…

Seventhly I may simply be that nobody really knows why the other guy decided to put on a $100,000 buy-in show but damned it if they are going to be left behind! So the arms race speeds ahead without anyone really knowing where it’s heading.

My personal opinion of these events is that they are an affront to the game. They tell the story that in order for poker to keep being an interesting game to follow it has to inject itself with increasingly more potent wads of money. They inadvertently tell the world that behind the eye-dazzling prize pools and the bling bracelets there’s apparently nothing to see.

Obviously poker needs to keep reinventing itself.
This is not the way to do it.

  1. Adam Small
    April 7, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Great post, and in general I could not agree more. Not much to add in this case, just tend to agree that the tournament organizers are wasting their time on this…

  2. Michael
    April 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    I think they make sense to FTP, because it gives them a distinguishing feature – they obviously can’t compete with PokerStars on the biggest fields or the most satellite qualifers. Instead, their events at least are consistent with their core brand message and allow them to be different – these events will be of interest to players already into poker, which is FTP’s target market.

    I don’t know why any of the other people are running them though.

  3. Kim
    April 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    One of the strenghts of FTP looking at them as a business is definitely their strategic consistency. And I agree that the Onyx Cup is in line with what they do. If ANYBODY should be doing it, it’s probably FTP. They just shouldn’t either.

    How does it distinguish them when others are also doing similar things? And how does it distinguish them to the 99% of FTP players whom this is not for?

    You could argue that the Onyx Cup is a far better brand concept than the usal Super Duper High Roller events that exist to spice up other events and take place basically because the tables are there anyway. And you could argue that the Onyx Cup isn’t to be seen as a single event. But then I REALLY question how many players should actually be participating.
    What are we looking at in order to participate in all the events? $5M+ bankrolls?

    From an online perspective, there is no market for these events. Not if you want to make money. Even if average Joe wants to participate in them, locking up so much money in packages that in the end will end up decorating Phil Ivey’s swimming pool makes little sense.

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