Gimmicky Small Buy-In Tournaments Are Fueling the WSOP

Steve Ruddock : July 5th, 2016
2106 WSOP Schedule

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Beginning in 2009, the WSOP started experimenting with their schedule by increasing the number of $1,000 (a newish price-point) and $1,500 buy-in No Limit Holdem tournaments. The results were nothing short of astounding the first few years.

$1,500 No limit Holdem events were nothing new in 2009, but the WSOP turned them into something resembling a weekly tournament that players can expect to find on the weekends from 2009-2013.

When the first $1,000 buy-in event occurred in 2009, it was Steve Sung who made headlines by conquering a field of 6,012 players – a number usually reserved for the Main Event. The turnout, and the buzz surrounding the tournament had the WSOP thinking they stumbled on to the next big thing.

While these events have been bulwarks on the WSOP schedule, things didn’t quite go as planned.

Dwindling numbers

Unfortunately, for the WSOP, subsequent $1,000 events never lived up to the 2009 tournament. In fact, they never really came close to the 2009 turnout again.

In 2010 and 2011 the $1,000 buy-in events attracted fields of:

  • 2010 – 4,345 entrants
  • 2010 – 3,042 entrants
  • 2010 – 3,289 entrants
  • 2010 – 3,102 entrants
  • 2010 – 3,128 entrants
  • 2010 – 3,844 entrants
  • 2011 – 4,178 entrants
  • 2011 – 2,890 entrants

And it’s only gotten worse from there. In 2016 the $1,000 buy-in NLHE event has been all but eradicated from the schedule, and the lone remaining tournament attracted just 2,242 entrants.

$1,500 events have experienced a similar decline in entries and number of events over the years.

The $1,500 buy-in events in 2011 produced fields of:

  • 3,157
  • 3,175
  • 2,500
  • 2,857
  • 2,713
  • 3,389

In 2016 the attendance numbers for these tournaments has been reduced to:

  • 2,016
  • 1,796
  • 1,860

WSOP tweaks the schedule

With these tournaments attracting fewer and fewer players, the WSOP went back to the drawing board, and in a stroke of creative genius, found the structure players wanted.

The $1,000 and $1,500 tournaments were reduced in number, and in their stead the WSOP added a new kind of tournament with a similar, or reduced, price-point. These new events are branded tournaments that tend to roll off the tongue (Monster Stack, Colossus, Millionaire, Maker, Little One for One Drop, Crazy Eights, and so on) and feature buy-ins as low as $565, and often have interesting structural tweaks.

The Monster Stack (double the starting chips) and the Millionaire Maker ($1 million was guaranteed to first and second place this year), both of which are $1,500 buy-in tournaments, have been extremely successful, and should see the WSOP eventually reduce the number of $1,500 NLHE events down to perhaps one. The turnout for these tournaments, which first appeared in 2013, has been impressive:

  • 2013 Millionaire Maker – 6,343 entrants
  • 2014 Millionaire Maker – 7,977 entrants
  • 2014 Monster Stack – 7,862 entrants
  • 2015 Millionaire Maker – 7,275 entrants
  • 2015 Monster Stack – 7,192 entrants
  • 2016 Millionaire Maker – 7,190 entrants
  • 2016 Monster Stack – 6,927 entrants

Low price points are the future

Even more impressive is the lower-price-point, such as the $565 buy-in Colossus, the WSOP started adding last year. These tournaments have produced field sizes most would have considered impossible:

  • 2015 – 22,374 entries
  • 2016 – 21,613 entries

It’s more than numbers too. The sheer volume of players (well over 10,000 unique players each year) gave the WSOP a poker boom-esque vibe during these tournaments.

It’s becoming quite evident that recreational players find the branded, gimmicky events far more appealing than a run of the mill $1,000 or $1,500 buy-in No Limit event. I mean, what would you rather tell your friends you’re playing in, one of the five $1,500 NLHE events on the schedule or the Millionaire Maker?

Furthermore, the events with buy-ins under $1,000 seem to be the wave of the future.

Last year the WSOP put a $777 buy-in “Lucky Sevens” event on the schedule; it drew a respectable 4,422 entries. Other than the reduced buy-in and the kitschy name, the tournament really wasn’t different from a $1,000 tournament. A little tweaking to the tournament (calling it Crazy Eights, with an $888 buy-in and adding a unique structure that pushed players to reenter) saw attendance jump to 6,761 total entries – despite a 12.5% increase in price.

The WSOP also added a $565 PLO event in 2016. The results; 2,483 entries, for a NON-NLHE EVENT, more than the $1,000 buy-in NLHE event attracted this year.

Players want lower priced events, and when you pull thousands of recreational players, the pros will follow them and play these events too.

What a rec wants

There is a stark difference between what professional players want in poker tournaments, and what recreational players want.

Recreational players have been signing up in droves for these lower buy-in events where players know if they’ve made the money by the end of Day 1. So, while pros clamor for structures that reward skill, and tournaments with beatable juice, these things are less important to recreational players.

There are two key things the typical recreational player wants in a tournament:

  1. Is it affordable?
  2. Can I win lots of money?

The next question they want to check off are:

  1. Does it fit into my schedule?

After that they might give the structure a once over and see what the tournament fees are, but as long as these aren’t horrible, and the tournament ticks off all of the other boxes, they’re content with the tournament.

Reason being, recreational players are used to single day events, and while WSOP events are expected to be slower, most recreational players want to know if they’ve made the money on Day 1. This has two advantages, as the players are not only filled with hope when the tournament starts, but any player making Day 2 (having already cashed) is playing with house money, while the players who busted can partake in the WSOP and Las Vegas experience for the rest of their stay.

For those eliminated, they’re in Vegas and can have fun. There isn’t the feeling of dread that two of their three-day stay is going to be eaten up by playing lengthy poker sessions only to miss the money.

For the survivors, Day 2 goes from anxiety filled to hopeful anticipation. They’re not returning for Day 2 hoping to survive a smaller, but tougher field of players to squeak into the money. And because they’ve already cashed, they’re far more likely to play loose and relaxed on Day 2.

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