This year and last, the World Series of Poker (WSOP) experimented with a new style of tournament, in which table size varies from day to day. In the 2014 WSOP, it was called “Mixed Max,” though the name changed to “Split Format” in 2015.
The concept and appeal of the idea is somewhat similar to that for mixed-game events (H.O.R.S.E., 8-Game and the like), in that it tests a broader set of poker skills than a typical tournament. Rather than testing skill in different games, however, it tests players’ skill in playing a broader range of styles within the same game, from the generally tighter style required at a full-sized table, all the way down to heads-up, where playing a majority of hands is essential.
A failed experiment?
Unfortunately, the mixed max/split format events didn’t do very well. In 2014, there was both a $1500 buy-in mixed-max event and a $25,000 high roller. This year, the high roller was gone, and the field for the $1500 had dropped a whopping 40.8%, from 1475 entrants down to 873. That being the case, I would be somewhat surprised if the format made a return in 2016.
Part of the reason that this experiment didn’t turn out better is perhaps that its advantages are made somewhat redundant by the existence of shootout events on the schedule. After all, the nature of a shootout is that in players play down from (ideally) ten players in each round until only one remains, effectively passing through every possible table size along the way, just as happens at a regular tournament final table. That being the case, mixed-max/split-format doesn’t really offer players any opportunity that isn’t already offered by a shootout.
Still, shootouts have some disadvantages of their own; most importantly, they impose serious limitations on how many players you can allow into a tournament. With 10-max tables, for instance, you can only handle 1000 players in a 3-round tournament, but adding a 4th round just to allow a few extra players in would be silly, as it would create at least one round with extremely short-handed tables.
Shootouts are already mixed-max, kind of
Furthermore, when you run a standard shootout, you’re forced to do weird, unpredictable and potentially unfair things with your table sizes if you don’t come close to filling up. As an example of the weirdness which occurs, take a look at this year’s WSOP Event #4: $3000 No-Limit Hold’em Shootout. It drew 308 players. By insisting on a 10-max final table and a first round as close to that as possible, organizers were forced to make the second round 4-max. That meant they needed 40 tables on the first day, which in turn meant that some players were playing 7-max and some were playing 8-max.
An explicitly mixed-max shootout
If unfilled shootouts inevitably lead to variable table sizes, my question is why not just pick a varied set of table sizes from the start, such that the maximum capacity is close to the turnout you expect, thereby ensuring that it sells out or comes close to it, and that the format is therefore both fair and predictable.
Furthermore, since multiplication is commutative, you can then put those table sizes in whatever order you like and still end up with the same field size, allowing you to create a more sensible progression. Ideal, in my mind, is to begin with the largest table size and work downwards, preferably to a heads-up final match.
For instance, consider what I would call a “6-Factorial Shootout,” with five rounds of 6-max (120 tables), 5-max (24 tables), 4-max (6 tables), 3-max (2 tables) and a heads-up final, in that order. That gives you a maximum 720-player starting field, which would seem like a good fit for a $2000 WSOP event, since this year’s $1500 Shootout drew 948 players and, as we just said, the $3000 got 308.
6-Factorial is just one possibility, however: adjusting for a different buy-in, or for a different tournament series altogether would be easy, as long as you have some idea of how many players you’ll get. With 8-6-4-2, for example, you could fit 384 players, while accommodating larger fields is simple as well, such as 10-6-5-4-2 to make room for 2400.
More rounds doesn’t necessarily mean that the tournament has to last more days, either, since smaller tables finish more quickly. In the 6-Factorial example, for instance, only the initial 6-max round needs its own day. Day 2 can have the 5-max and 4-max rounds with a break in between, and then the 3-max semi-final and heads-up final make for a nice final day.
There are a couple of other advantages as well. In a typical 3-round shootout, anything which isn’t final table ends up being a min-cash, and the percentage of the field min-cashing that way depends heavily on registration numbers. With more than three rounds, however, you can produce more pay tiers and also control the percentage of players getting a min-cash (by deciding which table size is used for the first round). Importantly, you can do all this without introducing ICM considerations to the middle rounds – lack of ICM is one of the appeals of shootouts, after all. In fact, one of the reasons I like the idea of ever-diminishing table sizes and a heads-up final is it means that there’s never any ICM at all, not even in the last round. Small tables and no ICM will keep the pace fast, exciting and aggressive throughout.
The payout structure for a sold-out 6-Factorial Shootout might look something like this, expressed in terms of buy-in excluding tournament fees:
1st – 170x
2nd – 94x
3rd-6th – 30x
7th-24th – 8x
25th-120th – 2x
This structure also means that you can award min-cashes to a high percentage of the field while still having a lot of money and big pay jumps up top, which will appeal to casual fans and professionals alike. This of course means less in the middle, but the reduction there is due to the lack of ramping up within a given round; that’s more than made up for in terms of thrill by the size of the pay jumps between rounds.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.