Does the PokerStars $51,000 WCOOP Tournament Make Sense?

Alex Weldon : July 17th, 2015


PokerStars has announced that this year’s World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) will feature a $51,000 Super High Roller, the highest buy-in tournament ever held online. This is a little unusual, coming at a time when online poker as a whole is contracting, and many sites, including PokerStars partner site Full Tilt are dialing back on the highest-stakes games in order to focus on re-establishing a healthy population of recreational players.

On the one hand, a $51,000 online tournament makes a certain amount of sense if you want to compare online poker to the live tournament scene. Throughout the history of online poker, it’s generally been the case that there’s about a 10:1 relationship between online stakes and live; a $1/$2 No-Limit Hold’em cash game online can be thought of as roughly equivalent to a $10/$20 live game, while a $22 buy-in tournament will likely draw a field about as tough as a $220 game at a card room. That being the case, a $51,000 tournament is in proportion to the $500,000 Super High Rollers which currently mark the upper limit of live tournament play outside of the biennial Big One for One Drop.

On the other hand, there are already enough live High Rollers and Super High-Rollers to keep those players busy, which leads me to wonder whether there’s really much point to having the online equivalent. Even PokerStars doesn’t seem to think there’s going to be a whole lot of demand; they’re only guaranteeing $1 million for it, or 20 entries. Like the live Super High-Rollers themselves, then, it’s likely to be little more than a glorified Sit-and-Go, albeit with deeper stacks.

I’m not sure it’s smart for online poker to try to emulate live poker, nor vice versa. The two formats have very different strengths and weaknesses. Live tournaments make people feel relatively safe playing for large sums, attract more casual players by providing a more social experience, allow for tournaments to be more easily spread over several days and allow veteran pros to exploit physical reads on their opponents.

Online tournaments, on the other hand, have the twin advantages of speed and economy. Players can play multiple tournaments at once, and more hands per hour within a given tournament. Blind levels can be much more tightly spaced while allowing the same amount of play at each level. Most importantly, the relative lack of overhead means that even extremely low buy-in events can be profitable for the operator – hence the 10:1 ratio in stakes.

That being the case, I don’t see much practical point to online super high-rollers, since that niche is already – and better – filled by live tournament operators. There’s no real money in it for PokerStars, either; presumably $1000 is going to be the entry fee, so unless they completely blow the guarantee out of the water, they’re only going to collect a little over $20,000. By contrast, the Sunday Million alone pulls in around $100,000 in tournament fees in a typical week, while last year’s WCOOP Main Event made the site nearly $2.5 million.

Ultimately, the only real purpose I can see for the event is its marketing value. They’ve already done $25,000 events in the past, so breaking their own record here is no real challenge, yet breaking records is an easy way to get into the news. Here I am writing about it, after all.

Meanwhile, a fairly high percentage of the players will like be Team PokerStars pros, including poker’s poster boy himself, Daniel Negreanu. The small field size means that the odds are relatively high that one of their in-house players will win it, so there’s potential for it to do double marketing duty for them there as well.

So, while it may seem weird to call $51,000 a “cheap” gimmick, when it comes to online poker I’m afraid that’s all it looks like to me.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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