Dispatches from the Creation Wars

WSOP: the Main Event Begins

Yesterday was the first first day of the main event of the World Series of Poker. I say first first day because there are 4 first days. This year may have as many as 8800 players, with 2000 players plus 200 alternates going on each of the 4 first days (the 200 alternates replace the first 200 players knocked out). Each day they’ll play down to 800 players, then the 1600 that move on from the first two first days move on to the first second day and play down to 700. Then the 1600 players from the third and fourth first days play on the second second day until there are 700 left. Then there’s a one day break and the 1400 left will come together and play it out for the championship. Confused yet?

First place this year will pay at least $10 million and the top 12 players are guaranteed at least $1 million. By far the richest poker tournament in history. In fact, it may be the richest competition of any kind in history. The best odds I’ve seen on any one player is Phil Ivey at 100-1 odds to win. Even that is insane to bet on given the size of the field.


  1. #1 FishyFred
    July 30, 2006



    Two of the best players out almost immediately. Maybe this humongous field doesn’t bode so well for the tournament after all. None of the names have much of a chance at all. Then again, neither does anybody else. It’s like one big lottery.

  2. #2 Jeff Hebert
    July 30, 2006

    Good points, FishyFred. Fundamentally, poker is like a lottery in its randomness. What makes pros successful is their ability to read the other players and to know the odds of a given hand. You need both — the reading and the math — to beat the odds, but with this many amateurs acting in what essentially is a random fashion, the reading ability is nullified. To use game-theory terms, these are no longer rational actors.

    Given that, what should you do as a pro in a tournament this large? Do you have to tighten up and only put your chips in when you’ve got the nuts? Try to last long enough for the field to thin out and for the really random characters to crap out, so you’re left with more rational opponents who can be read, bringing your strengths to play?

    I am starting to think you’re right, though — a field this big isn’t necessarily a good thing. Nobody wants to watch the lottery for hours on TV, after all.

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    July 30, 2006

    I disagree that no one wants to watch it. This has been true for a few years now and that’s when poker took off. If anything, the luck factor may actually increase the drama because it increases the instances of those two outers hitting on national television. But I certainly agree that the large fields make it less likely that a big name is going to win, just due to sheer numbers. The top players don’t know how the amateurs play, and they are used to playing other top players, so they know how the other player thinks and how to counter that thinking. But there is no countering a table full of players who think it’s a lottery. Strategy becomes irrelevant, you just have to turn over the best hand. So yes, I think patience is the key to it in the early stages. Later on, even the amateurs will tighten up some.

  4. #4 Jeff Hebert
    July 30, 2006

    I disagree that no one wants to watch it.

    Obviously I want to watch it, hell I’m even taping the circuit events! But I do think there’s a danger if it gets so large that the really skilled players are out before the final few rounds, and I think the danger is twofold.

    1. It runs the risk of being uninteresting. It’s fun watching skilled players (at any activity) going at it. It’s less fun to watch two people drawing random numbers out of a hat. Obviously any nine or so players at a final table are going to have SOME skill, so this isn’t a huge risk, but it’s out there.

    2. You run into the same problem the NBA had when Jordan, Magic, and Bird all retired — who are the “names” people are going to get rabid about following? It’s certainly possible to build a sport on something other than the “star player” model, but it’s a lot harder. What got baseball fans back in the seats (besides some good play) after the strike was Maguire and Sosa battling it out, two superstars. Tiger Woods has exploded golf’s popularity. And as I mentioned, the NBA wrote the book on riding superstars to the top.

    People like seeing stars do well. When a more inexperienced player comes in and has success, it’s fun because he’s going up against the best of the best. If you eliminate all the best, it almost doesn’t matter how well the amateurs do because in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “Well duh, he isn’t having to play against anyone good, no wonder he won.”

    Moneymaker (and the hole-card cam) made the WSOP take off because he was a winner in a field of pros. Had it been a nobody facing him at the final table instead of Sammy Farha, I don’t think it would have resonated so much. I think the event got lucky with Raymer winning the next year because Raymer was a truly skilled unknown player — you got the thrill of the new guy winning, with he affirmation that he played great, an affirmation confirmed with his run in the next year’s tournament.

    Poker the game is going to be fine no matter what, we’re really talking about just televised poker here. And the business of televising a sport is a different animal. I’m very curious to see over the next few years what decisions the powers-that-be at the various networks take on how to make money off of televising poker — it’s not very often you get to see the formation of a business like this played out right on your screen. NBC tried (unsuccessfully) to manufacture it with Arena Football, but poker’s been much more of a “grass roots” kind of phenomenon, I think surprising everyone with how it’s taken off. Watching Harrah’s fumble around with running the tournament and seeing the different formats tested (High Stakes, Celebrity Poker, ESPN’s WSoP, Fox Sports’ irritating match-play deal, Heads-Up Championship, WPT traditional tournament style, etc.) is really cool.

    Geez, that’s a lot of words, sorry Ed.

    Short version — watching poker on TV is fun, I hope it stays fun as the popularity grows, and I’ll be in Vegas next week to see at least some of the action live, so holler if you want me to put money on someone!

New comments have been disabled.