There are so many things people have found to complain about at this year’s World Series of Poker that it can be hard to keep track of all of them. The new Modiano cards are at the top of the list, followed by the handling of the Valeriu Coca alleged cheating scandal, the quality of the in-house reporting, the inclusion of NL 2-7 Single Draw in the PPC… and finally, the new Player of the Year race, using the Global Poker Index system.
This should surprise no one, as there has never been a poker ratings system which has pleased everyone, and likely never will be. As I’ve pointed out in the past, the idea of a “best” poker player is fundamentally flawed, because poker isn’t a single skill. There are many different ways to be “good at poker,” some more measurable than others, and different ratings systems will inevitably emphasize some aspects of the game over others. If all systems are equally flawed, then replacing one with another shouldn’t matter much, but the fact of the matter is that people respond more negatively to new flaws than they do to old, familiar ones.
If that was all that was going on, though, I probably wouldn’t be bothering to write this piece. But although part of people’s frustration is surely due to resistance to change, it’s my opinion that the GPI system is in fact poorly suited to a WSOP Player of the Year award, and fails in its own stated goals.
Pleasing no one
While it’s true that no one rankings system could please everyone, there are some results produced by the GPI system that it’s hard to believe would please anyone.
For instance, it has been pointed out by Jessica Welman that the way the GPI calculations work, all 1000 players who end up cashing the Main Event will receive more points for doing so than Lance Garcia did for winning the Colossus, the biggest poker tournament in history. The exact way cashes should be weighted vs. wins, or buy-in vs. field size are up for debate, but I can’t imagine anyone agreeing with the statement that min-cashing the Main Event is more difficult, more impressive or a better proof of skill than winning a tournament the size of the Colossus, regardless of buy-in.
Garcia probably wouldn’t be much of a contender for Player of the Year under any system, with only two small cashes in the series after his Colossus win, so perhaps this anomaly doesn’t matter so much in practical terms, but let’s look at the players who actually are near the top of the chart.
So far this year, we’ve got two double-bracelet winners: Max Pescatori and Brian Hastings. Both of them took one bracelet in a small-field $10,000 Championship event, and the other in a larger, lower buy-in event, so they’ve got both ends of the buy-in/field-size axis covered. Nonetheless, they’re only in 5th and 6th place in the standings respectively. At least they’re in the Top 10, right?
Now, in 1st place is Paul Volpe. He has no bracelets at all this year, but he does have three final tables, all of them in $10,000 events. Behind him is Olivier Busquet, also with no bracelet this year, but one big score for 3rd place in the Millionaire Maker, plus a couple of deep runs in $10,000 events. For them to be the top two is a bit questionable, but what’s really shocking is that 4th place contender Mark Radoja hasn’t even been at a final table.
Now, Alex Dreyfus has said that the GPI rankings are meant to measure something different from the bracelets, that they’re meant to be about consistency rather than individual results. So, if Volpe and Busquet had significantly more cashes than Pescatori and Hastings, then that might explain their relative position in the standings, but the thing is that they don’t. Volpe has five cashes, as does Hastings, while Busquet and Pescatori each have six.
Admittedly, Volpe and Busquet’s cashes do add up to more than Pescatori and Hastings’s, and that’s the most solid argument you can make for them being on top. The irony there, though, is that in his post Dreyfus explicitly said that the GPI is an attempt to make poker about something other than the money. If the only axis on which Volpe and Busquet have objectively outperformed Pescatori and Hastings is in gross winnings due to cashing in higher buy-in events, and if that’s what’s putting them on top, then the GPI is failing in Dreyfus’s explicitly-stated purpose.
Flatness is the problem
Most of the criticisms I’ve heard of the GPI system have focused on the idea that it places too much emphasis on buy-in, but I’m not sure this is really the biggest flaw in the system. Dreyfus’s argument for why this is the case makes a certain amount of sense, in that it’s true that buy-in typically correlates with overall field strength and that you can assume that a player who cashes a $10,000 event did so against tougher competition than someone who cashed in a $1500.
What Dreyfus is ignoring, though, is that progress through a tournament also correlates with field strength. Weaker players tend to bust out earlier on average, and so the competition gets tougher the deeper you run. Even if a $1500 event has a fairly amateurish field to begin with, by the time it reaches final table, most of the people present will usually be winning players. It’s rare to see a soft final table in any WSOP event.
In the GPI’s system, taking 100th place in a 1000-man, $1000 buy-in event is worth 69 points. A similar finish in an otherwise-identical $10,000 event is worth 228. If you make it through to the unofficial final table and bust out in 10th, those tournaments are worth and 138 and 456, respectively. Winning them would be worth 207 and 684. Giving the $10,000 event three times the importance of the $1000 may in fact be fair, but giving 100th place one-third the points that the winner gets is much too generous.
Anyone who has played much tournament poker knows that cashing, final tabling and winning a tournament are each exponentially more difficult than the last. This is just straight math: for a tournament of around 1000 players, you need to get through about 90% of the players to cash, then do it again to make the final table, then do it again to win. This is not like cashing in three tournaments, it is like cashing in three back-to-back, a much more difficult proposition. To make matters worse, that field is getting tougher every step of the way. That being the case, the fact that the better results only produce a linear increase in the points awarded is nothing short of insane.
So, although I agree with Dreyfus’s point that most people fixate too much on wins, and that consistency in results is also important, a system which treats three min-cashes as equivalent to a win even in large-field events is never going to produce sensible standings. I absolutely agree that all results should be considered, not just wins and final tables, but for a system to make sense, the value awarded to a result needs to be in some semblance of proportion with the difficulty in achieving it.
A contradiction with “sportification”
Furthermore, Dreyfus is the guy who always talks about the need to “sportify” poker. If you want people to see poker as a sport, and encourage sporting audiences to watch poker, de-emphasizing wins is precisely the wrong way to go. Sports fans like winners, not runners-up. You don’t often hear an athlete celebrated for her large collection of bronze medals, nor is it considered a dynasty when a team loses in the conference finals for several years running. And yet, this is exactly what the GPI system amounts to.
There’s validity to Dreyfus’s view that Player of the Year standings should be complementary to the bracelets and not redundant with them. But the term “Player of the Year” implies an exceptional performance. Dreyfus is right that consistency is important, but care needs to be taken to make sure that the system rewards consistent excellence and not consistent mediocrity.
That’s not to say that Volpe’s performance has been mediocre; it has certainly been good, but it’s not a slam dunk to say that he’s been more impressive than some of the other players in the Top 10. Meanwhile, Radoja could potentially overtake him with a few more min-cashes or a deep run in the Main Event. How would that look for poker – and for the GPI – if a player managed to win Player of the Year without appearing at a final table? It certainly wouldn’t fit with many people’s ideas about how sports are supposed to work.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.