Let’s Talk About Structure

This year’s World Series of Poker features some of the biggest changes to have been made to the series in a long time. There are lots of new events, of course, ranging from the Colossus to bring in the first-timers all the way up to the $10k Dealer’s Choice championship to appeal to the pros.

There have also been changes under the hood, however, including a an increase in starting stacks and the insertion of additional early levels for most of the lower buy-in events. Prior to the series, these changes received wide acclaim, as would be expected. The vocal minority of poker professionals has consistently asked for slower structures. Now, some of those very same people are lamenting the fact that these slower structures make the tournaments worse in terms of value because of the time they take to play.

It’s not that these players want to go back to faster structures, though. Rather, they want the structure to be fast up front – so that they can either chip up quickly or bust out and enter something else – and then slower later on, to maximize their skill edge during the part of the tournament where the most equity is on the line.

The appeal of variable-speed structures

Slowing down a tournament at any stage is going to mean that the better players have more opportunities to exploit others, and will thus make a better return on the money they invest. It also means that the tournament will take longer to play. What this means is that a slower structure is almost automatically more profitable for the winning players on a per-dollar basis, but not necessarily on a per-hour basis. There’s a trade-off, in other words.

Enter the variable-speed structure. This is an idea that makes great sense on paper: If you have faster levels early on and slower levels later, you cut down on the overall playing time, while increasing the number of hands which are played with a lot of money on the line. PokerStars, for instance, has experimented with this with the Bubble Dash format, and many live events already slow down a bit in the later going as it is. Faster playing time combined with higher profits makes this kind of structure a win-win… assuming you’re thinking about things from the professional perspective.

Reductio ad absurdum

Personally, I’m a fan of thinking things through to their logical conclusions, and that involves looking at endpoints. Presumably, the ideal structure for a tournament would strike some kind of balance rather than going to an extreme, but I think that you can tell a lot about someone’s motivations by looking in the direction they’re pulling.

The extreme case of a slow structure is blind levels which don’t increase at all. We have that already: it’s called a cash game, and it’s where most pros make most of their money. The downside of a cash game, from a pro’s perspective, is that the weaker players can pick up their chips and leave at any point. Aside from the increasing blind levels, the primary difference between tournament and cash play is the requirement that play continues until someone has all the chips.

At the opposite end, the extreme case of a fast structure would be a tournament in which the blinds are so high from the start that no one can afford to fold any hand. This becomes a lottery, in which the players with the best cards or best run-outs win and skill is a non-issue.

So, then, what is the extreme case of a fast structure transitioning into a slow one? An instant lottery, in which winners are immediately forced to put their winnings on the table in a cash game with the other winners. If you think about it, this is essentially a deeper-stacked version of a PokerStars Spin-and-Go, yet somehow the general response to those was less than glowing.

To this, add the option for re-entry – another popular request from pros – and you end up with a scenario where that high-stakes game is largely populated by those who could afford to buy themselves a lot of tickets to the lottery. It certainly sounds like a profitable albeit high-variance scenario, but I’m not sure it’s the experience that everyone wants.

Poker is about entertainment

Quite aside from the argument about ROI vs. hourly rate, a slow structure in the lower levels has intangible value in that it gives losing players more entertainment for their dollar. Money in the poker business comes from the losing players, and what they get in return is an experience. For the industry to be sustainable, that experience must be both positive and in keeping with the money spent.

Pro-centric structures are the equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture. Since the Hold’em boom, the population of pros and would-be pros has been growing exponentially. To make room for them, either the population of recreational players has to grow alongside, or the professional’s edge over the recreational player has to increase. It shouldn’t need to be explained which of these options is potentially sustainable and which isn’t.

You can’t please everyone, but you can be honest

Recreational players are essential to the poker economy. What they want varies from player to player, but what is universal is that they are exchanging money for an experience. In order for that experience to be enjoyable, they must feel a reasonable chance of winning, yet at the same time, a longer experience generally has more perceived value than a shorter one.

No one structure will please everyone; that’s a given. From online hyper-turbos which play out in minutes to multi-day live events, every format of poker will attract some percentage of casual players. That said, some formats are more appealing to one group of players than another. The reasons can be complicated, so change is both good and inevitable.

Feedback from the community is also crucial, but what we’re seeing these days is that professionals are both more aware of what’s good for them, and more vocal in expressing it. On the one hand, it’s true that the players who play the greatest volume also have the best understanding of how a change to a tournament’s structure affects things… but on the other hand, it seems to be very hard for people to separate the good of the game from personal profitability.

There’s nothing wrong with selfishness. I can’t fault professional players for keeping an eye on their own bottom lines. Poker is a tough way to make a living – particularly these days – so obviously everyone wants to look for value anywhere they can find it.

Let’s not forget, though, the unfortunate fact that poker is a negative-sum game. Poker professionals do not create money, they take it from others. Those others, as a whole, must necessarily lose more than the professionals win, in order to give the casinos, card rooms and online sites take their cut. To keep showing up at the tables, those players need to be getting something back.

Pros pushing for an edge is fine. Pros advocating for the casual player’s experience is even better. What’s a problem is pros claiming to advocate for the casual player, then pushing back when the changes they’ve requested turn out to be bad for them. Ironically, what the poker world needs right now is for everyone to play their cards face up; trying to strike a balance is hard enough even when people are honest about what they want and why.

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

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