While playing at the Aussie Millions, high roller pros Sam Greenwood and Steve O’Dwyer were talking about their childhood love for professional wrestling and the “Royal Rumble,” and came up with the idea of creating a poker tournament format based on that idea. The idea is still very rough at the moment, but Greenwood spoke to PokerNews’s Sarah Herring about it and put out a general call for suggestions.

The Royal Rumble is an annual wrestling event produced every January by the WWE (formerly WWF). The idea is that 30 wrestlers enter the ring one at a time at short intervals – either 90 seconds or two minutes – and fight in a free-for-all. Wrestlers who are thrown over the ropes are eliminated, and the battle continues until all participants have entered the ring and all but one have been eliminated. The last man standing wins.

I’ve said before that poker is a combat sport. Meanwhile, between the upcoming launch of the GPL, the rise of poker on Twitch, the genesis of PokerCentral and so forth, there’s a great deal of interest at the moment in the idea of ‘sportifying’ poker and marketing it to fans as well as players. Figuring out how to make an often slow-paced game into something appealing for a general audience is not a trivial problem, so these sorts of ideas are well worth looking at.

The Greenwood-O’Dwyer proposal

The basic concept of the Royal Rumble is easy enough to adapt to poker; elimination is already fundamental to the tournament format, and a 30-player winner-take-all tournament is not particularly unusual. Thus, the only change needed in order to mimic the structure of a Royal Rumble is to seat the players one at a time rather than all from the start.

On its own, though, it’s hard to see much advantage to that change. New players arrive at the table on a regular basis in a typical poker tournament, due to late registration and the breaking of tables. Furthermore, there’s little upside to late entry in a winner-take-all event, so Greenwood and O’Dwyer came up with a few additional changes to try to capture the intensity and drama of the Royal Rumble.

Dramatic walkouts: A large part of the drama of pro wrestling is contained in the fighters’ walkouts, accompanied by lights and music, the ring announcer getting the crowd fired up, the fighter slapping the hands of his fans on his way to the ring, and so forth. Greenwood and O’Dwyer therefore envision the same sort of showmanship surrounding such an event.

Fast blind levels, no breaks: Like pro wrestling, such an event would not be intended to be taken too seriously; the goal would be for it to be fun for the players and exciting for the audience, so it couldn’t be an all-day event. Thus, a hyper-turbo blind structure with no breaks would be ideal. There was no mention of a shot clock in the PokerNews interview, but presumably this would be desirable as well, to keep the action moving.

No table balancing: The most radical change proposed by Greenwood and O’Dwyer is to refrain from balancing the tables over the course of the event. Depending on how things went, then, you could potentially have two players going at it deep-stacked and heads-up at one table while a nine-way battle rages on at another. Presumably, the last player left at a table would then be dropped into the action at another table, thus making the tournament a sort of twist on the Shootout format.

Some problems with the format

Even with Greenwood and O’Dwyer’s suggestions – all of which are indeed improvements on the basic idea – I still don’t think the format would quite work as intended. I think there isn’t quite enough novelty introduced for such an event to be particularly interesting to either the players or the audience, and meanwhile the downside in terms of distraction and additional, arbitrary luck factor is too great to be worth it.

Greenwood and O’Dwyer envision players walking out every two minutes or so, as in the WWE event, but given the pace of live poker, that’s essentially one new player per hand. That would be incredibly distracting both for the players and the audience, especially if accompanied by all the fanfare Greenwood and O’Dwyer suggest. Either players would have to get used to playing with constant lights and noise in the background, or if play were interrupted for the walkouts, then the pace of play would be cut nearly in half.

Meanwhile, not very much is added in terms of strategy. There’s no value to survival in a winner-take-all tournament, so the players who are seated last suffer a disadvantage – especially with the rapid blind levels – with no compensating advantage. It’s not necessarily terrible to add additional luck factors to poker, but generally you want to be introducing interesting new considerations for the players at the same time. Since I don’t see players changing their style of play very much on account of the Royal Rumble format as proposed, it seems like a gimmick with a concrete downside and only a cosmetic upside.

Finally, it simply won’t be fun for the last players on the list to stand around waiting for an hour to play, only to be dropped into the fray with the blinds already high.

A more radical suggestion

What I would suggest is more of a departure both from standard tournament poker and from the WWE Royal Rumble. Rather than mimicking the specific mechanics of the Royal Rumble, I think the goal should be to capture the spirit of a pro wrestling free-for-all, and that may mean introducing elements that aren’t actually part of the original Royal Rumble itself.

The ideal, for me, would be to retain the idea of players leaping into the fray one at a time, but without them sitting by idly while waiting to do so. Therefore, I came up with the idea of having a single “Rumble” table where most of the action is taking place, and then a number of peripheral “Ringside” tables where the other competitors can still play while waiting to be tossed into the Rumble. This is a little bit complicated, so bear with me.

  • All tables at the tournament are 6-max. One is designated the “Rumble” table and set up similarly to a featured table or official final table, with stage lighting, camera equipment, seats for fans, possibly RFID for hole cards, etc. The remaining tables are all “Ringside.”
  • The tournament is played with 26 or 32 players, or some other multiple of 6, plus 2. Two players are chosen at random to begin at the Rumble table, while the remainder are split up between Ringside tables, six to a table.
  • The tournament is a Bounty event with the main prize pool being awarded as winner-take-all. For instance is, if it were a $1000+$500+$150 buy-in event with 32 players, each elimination would be worth $500 and the first-place finisher would receive an additional $32,000 (plus her own $500 bounty and any others won along the way).
  • The Rumble table has 5-minute blind levels until Level 4, 10 minutes thereafter. The blinds remain constant at the Ringside tables, as if they were cash games.
  • Every five minutes, the chip leader among the Ringside tables is moved to the Rumble table, provided there are fewer than six players currently in the Rumble.
  • If the five-minute interval is reached and the Rumble table is full (six players), then no player is moved immediately; if, however, a player is eliminated from the Rumble in the following five minutes, the chip leader is moved into the Rumble at that time. No more than one player is moved this way in a single five-minute window.
  • If the Rumble table ever has only a single player remaining, the chip leader from the Ringside tables is moved into the Rumble immediately, regardless of the time elapsed.
  • Ringside tables are not balanced on a continual basis; however, any time the two smallest Ringside tables contain six or fewer player total, they are immediately merged. When fewer than six players remain in the entire tournament, all remaining Ringside players are immediately moved into the Rumble.

The strategic implications

That may sound too complicated and esoteric on first reading, but it’s not actually that complicated for the players in practice (although there are some challenges for the tournament staff), and the strategic aspects are interesting and should lead to exciting, aggressive play.

The focus of the action is of course on the Rumble table, where new players are being added on a regular basis, and where the fast-paced blind levels will force the action. Most eliminations will happen here, especially as the tournament goes on.

Meanwhile, at the Ringside tables, players are not simply twiddling their thumbs waiting to be called, but rather getting to play a reasonably deep-stacked game where they can try to accumulate chips to help them survive once they get dropped into the Rumble. The fact that it’s always the chip leader who gets thrown into the Rumble, rather than a random choice, means that the best, luckiest and/or most aggressive players will be the first to appear, which is great for the audience, as it means they should get to see exciting action throughout.

The final piece of the puzzle is the question of why players would want to be thrown into the Rumble where they’ll face high blind levels and tough opponents, rather than trying to avoid becoming the overall chip leader, so as to remain Ringside and accumulate chips more slowly and safely. That’s where the Bounties come in; with 150 BB starting stacks and no blind level increases, eliminating players and winning bounties will be difficult so long as one remains Ringside. Being thrown into the Rumble is dangerous, of course, but it’s also where most eliminations will be happening, and therefore a very profitable place to be if you can survive it.

In other words, players want to be in the Rumble from as early as possible and to dominate there. Therefore, although the Ringside tables are deep stacked and the blind levels don’t increase, players are incentivized to play hard and build big pots, because getting the chip lead is how one gets into the Rumble. Once in the Rumble, the player will be facing other opponents who’ve likewise been crushing their Ringside tables, making it a clash of titans at center stage.

The main downside that I see is that there’s such an advantage to getting into the Rumble early that it creates an incentive for collusion in the form of a short-stacked player attempting to lose his chips to a deeper-stacked friend. If it proved to be a problem, however, the buy-in to bounty ratio is easily tweaked, and there should be a sweet spot where there’s enough incentive for people to try to be part of the Rumble rather than avoid it, yet not so much that colluding to combine stacks is hugely profitable.

As I said to begin with, this is a fairly big departure from both standard tournament poker and what Greenwood and O’Dwyer had in mind… but if you think about it, you can see how it would create the atmosphere they’re shooting for. Each time someone is added to the Rumble, it’ll be whoever is running the hottest in the rest of the tournament, and once there, those in the Rumble are heavily incentivized to try not just to survive but to dominate, and be the one to personally eliminate as many others as possible. There’s virtually no way it wouldn’t result in an intense, dramatic and hilarious brawl, fun for players and spectators alike.

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