Let’s face it: as much as we love poker, it’s never quite as interesting when you don’t have any skin in the game yourself. That’s part of why those who can’t afford to play the WSOP Main Event themselves often buy action from those who do; you get a little part of the thrill, but without quite as much risk or the endless days of play. The trouble with that, of course, is that whoever you’re backing is quite likely to bust out before the November Nine, no matter how good they are, so unless you and your horse get extremely lucky, your sweat is going to end prematurely.
Of course, you can bet on the November Nine, and don’t even have to set up the bet yourself to do it, since most major betting sites offer lines once the tournament has reached that stage. The downside there is that you have to wait until seven days of the tournament have already passed to get in on the action, and then several more months to see it actually play out.
So, I’ve been thinking, what interesting prop bets can one make which (almost) guarantee a good sweat from beginning to end (or until the November Nine are set), while still having an element of skill involved? Here are five possibilities, some of which I’ve booked myself, and some which I’m looking to book.
#1 The Alpha-Bet Snake Draft
Whoever wins the Main Event, it’s pretty much a lock that their first name is going to start with a letter. So, if you and one or more friends split up the letters of the alphabet, it’s guaranteed that one of you will hold the first initial of the ultimate champion. The easiest way to do this is with a simple snake draft.
If you’re not familiar with that concept, it means that whoever picks first in the first round of drafting picks last in the second, then first again in the third, and so on. If you’re doing a two-person draft, what this equates to is the first person picking one letter, then after that you take turns picking two at a time. At the end, you’ll presumably have an U, X, Y or Q left over, which goes to the second picker.
By my rough calculations, this way of doing things gives a 52/48 edge to whoever drafts first, assuming both players pick according to my probabilities list, and I’m correctly guessing those probabilities. They probably won’t and I’m probably not, however, so as long as you employ a snake draft, it should be relatively fair regardless of who wins the coin flip or lottery for first pick.
Of course, with any number of participants other than 2 or 13, the letters won’t divide up evenly. In this case, you can simply discard the last few, as they should be roughly 1000-1 underdogs in any case (making it a wash if one wins), or you can give them as compensation to whoever picked last in the first round.
I’ve booked this bet for $100 with Nate Meyvis of ThinkingPoker. I went first and got J, R, S, N, P, K, G, F, L, H, O, Q and U in that order, while Nate got M, D, A, C, T, B, E, W, I, V, Z, Y and X. He disagreed when I told him he should have taken N before C, so we’ve booked an additional $100 if one of those two letters wins (my N vs. his C).
Variation 1: Pie Rule. The “pie rule” is used in a lot of games and refers to the strategy of dividing up a slice of pie by letting one person make the cut, and the other person pick a half. If you bet this way, one person gets to divide up the alphabet any way he likes – the two “teams” don’t necessarily need to contain the same number of letters – and the other then chooses which half to take. You could end up with balanced teams like Nate and I have, or with a small number of favorites vs. the rest of the alphabet: I would guess, for instance, that the set J, D, M, A, S is approximately even money against the other 21 letters of the alphabet.
Variation 2: First/Last Split. Do the snake draft as usual, but the prize pool is split evenly between whoever has the winner’s first initial, and whoever has his or her last initial. If someone like Jared Jaffee or Mike McDonald wins, it is of course a single letter which scoops. This version will result in a wash a lot of the time if done with two players, but it could be quite interesting with three or more.
#2 The Mighty 100 vs. the Field
This one is conceptually simple, too, though setting the odds correctly is hard. Credit for the idea goes to Russell Wood (@PieFarmer on Twitter). One person draws up a list of 100 names. If any of those players make the November Nine, that bettor wins. Otherwise, the other party does. Setting the odds for this bet is effectively an exercise in estimating what edge the strongest players have over the typical Main Event player. If we assume this year’s event will draw out about 6,500 players, the odds of any random group of 100 players containing a November Niner are a little under 14%, or 6.2-1. I’ve seen this bet made at 6-1, have taken it myself at 5-1, and know that Nate would be willing to book additional action at between 4.5-1 to 4-1.
Even at 4-1, I think a knowledgeable bettor drawing up the list would hold a significant edge. Actually producing the list, however, is quite a challenge. The first 10 or 20 names are easy, but by the time you get to 50, you’ll likely find yourself poring over Hendon Mob results and creeping on people’s Twitter feeds to try to figure out if they’re even at the series and planning on playing the Main this year.
It was working on my list for this bet which actually inspired the Alpha-Bet idea, as I couldn’t help but notice how many Jasons, Justins and Jonathans I was including.
#3 No-Duplication Team Last-Longer
This is one for the game theory fans out there. There are a couple of caveats before I say anything else, however: you need to be doing it with at least three people, preferably more, and you need to trust the people you’re betting with, and pick your players on the spot, as soon as the bet is proposed. This is because there’s huge potential for collusion if two or more players discuss their picks privately before preparing their teams.
That said, here’s how it works. Everyone ponies up a certain amount of cash, and you agree on the number of players each person can pick. I would guess you want about 60 names in total, so 20 each if you’re doing it with three people, 12 each if you’re a group of five, etc. Everyone picks their names secretly and writes them down on a piece of paper. Once everyone is finished, the lists are revealed.
Now, here’s the clever part, which will be familiar to anyone who has played Boggle or one of its derivatives: one at a time, players read out their lists, asking whether anyone else has the same name. If anyone does, all players who have that name cross it off. In other words, you only get to keep a player if you’re the only person to have chosen him or her. Thus, you probably shouldn’t go with Daniel Negreanu, say, because it’s likely someone else will have picked him and you’ll both lose your pick; on the other hand, if you assume everyone else is thinking that way, you might just be able to snag him because the others have skipped him. So, it becomes a balancing act of choosing people you think are likely to do well but that others are unlikely to have chosen.
Once you’ve finished eliminating duplicated names, everyone should have a team, but probably of different sizes. Some unlucky participants may even find themselves with all players eliminated and thus out of the running before the series even starts. Once the teams are thus set, it’s simply a winner-take-all last-longer race. Whoever has the last player standing in the Main Event wins the entire prize pool.
#4 Do You Fancy a Chip Leader?
These last two bets are pure exercises in odds-setting. I believe they are both close to, though probably not exactly, even money, and I’m fairly sure not more than 1.5-1 one way or the other. This first one has to do with the often-debated value of an early chip lead.
It’s a simple yes or no proposition: will any of the chip leaders from each D1 flight, each D2 flight, D3 and D4 make the November Nine? I suspect that most people will have a strong instinct one way or the other, but the truth is that for the last few years, at least, it’s been an even split. Oddly, those chip leaders who have made it all the way through have tended to have held the lead either on D1 or D4, not D2 or D3, and the two most recent (Martin Jacobson on D1, Joe McKeehen on D4) have not only made the final table, but in fact won the whole thing.
#5 Generation Gap
I’ve previously talked about the complexities involved in setting an Over/Under line for the age of this year’s Main Event winner. My conclusion was that the right place to draw the line is 26, and other people I’ve put the question to have placed it anywhere between 24 and 30.
Since I’ve already dived into that question, however, I wanted to come up with a new age-related proposition. What I came up with is another yes or no question: Will this year’s winner be one of the three youngest players at the final table? On the one hand, it seems silly to take three players versus six when you don’t know who they’ll be… but on the other hand, if you’d taken the young guys every year for the past decade, you’ll have done very well for yourself.
The important thing to consider here, I think, is that younger players tend to play a more aggressive and high-variance style, and will therefore be coming into the final table with more chips on average. It’s therefore not just about who you think will play best at the final table, but also what you think the chip distributions will look like going into November. At even money, I would probably still take the six older players, though just barely, and I’m currently in negotiations to take the youngest three at 5-4 odds.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.