Flat Structure Falls Flat in DraftKings 50/50

World Series of Poker Event #55: $1,500 DraftKings 50/50 No-Limit Hold’em will probably be considered a failure by organizers due to a mediocre turnout and lack of media enthusiasm.

The final field ended up being 1,123 players, for a prize pool a touch over $1.5 million. That’s not embarrassingly low, but it’s still lower than any other No-Limit Hold’em event in the series so far, save for the two Shootouts (Events #4 and #14) and the Hyper (#6). Since the purpose of experimental formats is presumably to see what will bring in additional players, a below-average turnout calls into question whether the event will be brought back next year.

It might be a different story if those who did participate were raving about the experience, but both Twitter and the poker media have been rather silent on the subject since the event wrapped up last night. All anyone seems to have to say about it is that it’s funny – given the sponsor – that it was won by Brandon Wittmeyer, who is primarily a sports bettor rather than a poker player. Even he had little to say about the event itself, stating that his motivation for entering was simply that it “happened to be the next tournament on the schedule after I finished third in [Event #47].”

Who really likes consolation prizes?

The payout structure of the event is a modification on the “Double Bubble” format tried out by the organizers of last winter’s PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA). I commented at the time that I didn’t think that the Double Bubble format was going to play out as intended and indeed, I heard nothing about it afterwards, leading me to believe that it wasn’t a particularly successful experiment.

In the Double Bubble events, the idea was that half the field would get their money back, paid out immediately, but no further prizes would be awarded until the field was down to 8%, at which point the remaining prize pool would be distributed according to a more typical structure. Perhaps feeling that this took a little too much out of the prize pool, the DraftKings event added a third bubble, reducing the payout for the 50th to 25th percentile players to $1000 (2/3 the buy-in) and only giving 25th through 10th their full buy-in back.

The trouble with this is two-fold: firstly, if just getting your money back feels like a consolation prize, getting only part of your money back is still going to feel like a loss. If the goal is to create “more winners,” then those winners have to actually come out ahead, even if only slightly. This would be hard to do in a tournament which pays half the field, but perhaps paying a third or a quarter is a reasonable compromise and still much more than get paid in a standard structure.

Flatness is not smoothness

There’s also a problem in that, although recreational players enjoy small cashes, they don’t like sharp pay jumps. Thus, while paying out more spots is likely to attract more recreational players, doing so by creating additional bubbles is likely to put them off. Recreational players are there to gamble, but it’s only the professionals who like to gamble on a money bubble.

My primary objection to the Double Bubble format was that it would likely lead to extremely tedious, nitty play prior to the bursting of the first bubble, and the DraftKings format only makes the problem worse by adding a second bubble. Yes, the second one is only for $500 and not worth worrying about too much from the professional’s perspective, but for the recreational player it’s the difference between losing $500 or breaking even, so it encourages them to continue playing tight, boring survival poker.

The typical tournament’s structure has a single step at the money bubble, followed by an exponential curve. Pay jumps at the final table resemble steps once again, but only because of the inevitable granularity which occurs when so few players remain; the spacing of those payouts still follows the same exponential curve. By contrast, the Double Bubble and DraftKings format create a payout structure that looks increasingly like a flight of stairs. This creates a fixation on pay jumps, which in turn makes players feel their hands are tied and distracts them from actually playing poker as they originally sat down to do.

What I think would work better is a small initial jump – a buy-in refund or just slightly more – followed by a linear, ramp-like structure for the early post-bubble with modestly-sized, tightly-spaced pay jumps. Towards the end, say for the last 5%, a more standard exponential structure could be used in order to produce decent payouts for the top few players.

Do recreational players even care about structure?

Perhaps the problem is even deeper, however. I’m not convinced that recreational players even care that much about structure. Looking at what has worked this year, it seems that all recreational players really want is a relatively low buy-in and a huge field. The Colossus was a colossal success, and the Millionaire Maker and Monster Stack did fairly well, albeit not as well as last year. Tweaks to blind and payout structures may reap long-term benefits in terms of improving the experience of players, but it seems that there’s little value in making an experimental structure the primary marketing gimmick for a tournament.

At best, structural changes probably seem boring to the average recreational player, since they amount to fiddling with a spreadsheet. At worst, they may seem confusing, making those players feel like others will be gaining a strategic advantage since they’re unsure how to adjust. The best thing, then, may be to stick close to the tried-and-true formulae for structures, and look for other ways to innovate.

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

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