Today marks the moment that nearly everyone in the poker world has been waiting for, most with some mixture of excitement and healthy skepticism. The draft for the first season of the Global Poker League (GPL) is being held at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, as part of a larger gathering hosted by the Global Poker Index (GPI) and which also includes the American Poker Conference (APC) and the 2nd annual American Poker Awards (APA).

The APC is already underway as of this writing, and consists of three panels on the subjects of eSports and poker, women in poker, and the poker media, moderated by Scott Ball, Sarah Herring and Matthew Parvis respectively. The GPL draft will be the second order of business, starting at 1:30 PST/4:30 EST.

Finally, the awards ceremony will start at 7:30 PST/10:30 EST, to recognize and honor excellence in the following categories: GPI Player of the Year; GPI Female Player of the Year; Media Person of the Year; Industry Person of the Year; Breakout Performance of the Year; Tournament Performance of the Year; Event of the Year Under $2000 Buy-In; Event of the Year Over $2000 Buy-In; Poker Innovation or Initiative of the Year; Charitable Initiative of the Year; Poker Presenter of the Year; Poker Moment of the Year; and Poker Content of the Year. The full list of nominees is available through the APA website.

All three portions of the day’s proceedings can be viewed live online through the GPL’s Twitch streaming page.

About the GPL and the draft

If this is the first you’ve heard about the GPL, it’s the latest effort by GPI founder Alex Dreyfus’s to “sportify” poker. By this, he means to move away from the model in which players are both competitors and customers, paying to compete, and into a fan-centric model in which the players are paid to play, and the money comes from marketing the competition to viewers and sponsors as an entertainment product.

The first season of the GPL will consist of 12 teams of six players each, divided into two conferences – Americas and Eurasia. Each team has a manager, most of whom will also play for their teams, while at least four of the remaining players on each team must be drafted from members of the GPI Top 1000 who have opted in to be draftable. In total, over 200 players have volunteered to be drafted, including many big names.

Draft order

The order for the first round of draft picks was determined by lottery last week and streamed live over the internet. The Rome Emperors, headed by the “Italian Pirate” Max Pescatori, won the privilege of first pick, followed by the Montreal Nationals under Marc-André Ladouceur. The remaining teams, in order of draft pick, are: the New York Rounders; San Francisco Rush; Las Vegas Moneymakers; Sao Paolo Metropolitans; London Royals; Moscow Wolverines; Berlin Bears; Paris Aviators; and Hong Kong Stars.

In the interest of fairness, the draft will be done “snake” style, meaning that the draft order will be reversed in the 2nd and 4th rounds. Celina Lin, who manages the Hong Kong Stars, will therefore get to draft two players in a row as the 12th and 13th picks, while Pescatori, after making his first selection, will have to wait until the 24th selection to pick again.

Meet your hosts

The draft will be hosted in person by Kara Scott, who is unsurprisingly also in the running for Poker Presenter of the Year in the awards later tonight. If you watched this year’s World Series of Poker Main Event final table, you’ll likely remember her as one of the highlights of what was otherwise an often dull viewing experience.

She’ll be joined on the sidelines of the event by golfer and Fox Sports commentator Holly Sonders. Sonders was a late, but crucial addition to the lineup. For the GPL to succeed, it will need to capture a mainstream audience which isn’t necessarily acquainted with most of the names in poker in these post-boom years; Sonders therefore provides a much-needed familiar face and name for people’s first exposure to the league.

Meanwhile, those of us tuning in online will be treated to a four-man analysis panel consisting of poker legends Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth, plus EPT Live commentator Joe Stapleton (another Presenter of the Year candidate) and GPI Editor Eric Danis.

A question of skill vs. marketability

The drafting strategy employed by the managers should be interesting and non-obvious for a few reasons. The naive assumption would be that managers will mostly start near the top of the GPI rankings list and draft their way downwards, but it would be surprising if anyone actually took such a naive approach.

First of all, poker skill is notoriously hard to measure, as I’ve pointed out in the past. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone knowledgeable about poker who believes that a single snapshot of the GPI rankings at any moment in time constitutes an accurate measure of who is better than whom. There’s plenty of natural variance in tournament poker, for one thing, even on a timescale of years. Additionally, due to the quirks of the GPI system, it’s hard to crack the Top 20 or so without playing a lot of High Roller and Super High Roller tournaments, so many talented but less well-heeled (or well-backed) players fail to place as highly as they should. The same can be said for those who play more online than live.

Secondly, skill isn’t the only consideration, especially in this first season. Everyone from the league organizers down to the players themselves is keen on the overall success of the league and stands to share in its profitability, so marketing considerations are going to be key. Teams will of course want to perform well and try to win the title, but at the same time, a charismatic draftee might prove better for everyone’s bottom line than a slightly superior but more taciturn player.

As a corollary to the marketability issue, nationality will also factor into the decision-making, for some teams more than others. Italian and Brazilian sports fans tend to be intensely patriotic, so one would expect this to guide many choices for the Rome Emperors and Sao Paolo Metropolitains. Conversely, Canadians like myself probably don’t care as much who plays for the Montreal Nationals (which is ironic, given the choice of name). Indeed, given the local politics, some Quebeckers might be more inclined to root for European players than for Ontarians like Mike Leah, whose online screen name and Twitter handle “GoLeafsGoEh” (a reference to the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team) could come back to bite him if he ends up playing for Montreal.

Mock drafts not to be trusted

Plenty of others in the poker media have run their own mock drafts to attempt to predict what the teams will look like. Nearly everyone agrees that Pescatori will kick things off by taking Mustafa Kanit, as he’s simultaneously a hit in Italy, running extremely well in tournaments these days, and too good a player to be likely to be available come Pescatori’s second pick. After that, however, opinions start to diverge.

PTP contributor Steve Ruddock, writing for for his mock draft, thinks that Ladouceur will take Mike “Timex” McDonald, as arguably Canada’s strongest player. Personally, though, given Ladouceur’s Quebecois identity and personal friendship with Jonathan Duhamel, I think it has to be the latter, and Thomas Hviid at PokerListings agrees.

Beyond this, it becomes anyone’s guess, as the American teams have tons of local options to pick from, and could equally well draft internationally, while even the best Brazilian players are far enough down the GPI list that Sao Paulo manager André Akkari does not likely feel that he needs to use his first round pick on any of them, as they should all still be available when his second pick comes around. Aside from calling Duhamel for Montreal, I’m going to refrain from making any guesses of my own, as I think it’s a complicated enough proposition that I might as well be throwing darts at a printout of the draft list.

Players like Phil Galfond, Anthony Zinno, Jason Mercier and Fedor Holz are all expected to go fairly early, but where those top talents are likely to end up depends entirely on who you ask. Moreover, I spoke with Alex Dreyfus this morning, and he says that based on his conversations with the managers themselves, nearly everyone’s predictions are going to be far off the mark. He didn’t elaborate on what we should expect instead, except to say that the managers are being very strategic in attempting to predict one another’s choices, and that they’re focusing on marketing value to an even greater extent than most of us imagine.

Dreyfus is excited about how the league is shaping up, and seems as eager as anyone to see what happens at the draft this afternoon. His excitement is contagious, and I have a feeling that everyone – players, media and fans alike – is going to have plenty to talk about in the coming days.

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