Overall prize pool guarantees are one thing, but guaranteeing particular prizes for particular finish positions can make for weird structures. This year’s WSOP Main Event dropped the $10 million guarantee for first that it’s hand in past years, and that’s probably a good thing, but the new structure now guarantees $1 million for all final table finishes. The payout structure required to do that is likely to produce some unusual and frustrating considerations for the players who make Day 7, as well as a boring start to the final table.

1st place guarantees

When the prize being guaranteed is for first, the issues are simply that it increases everyone’s variance, benefits pros at the expense of amateurs, and makes the bottom portion of the payout structure look pretty stingy. Last year’s Main Event, for instance, only drew enough entries to produce a $5.15 million prize for 2nd, making for a nearly twofold difference between the first and second payouts, while the bottom 50% of cashes were all just barely 2x the buy-in or even less.

Those compromises weren’t the end of the world, however. A standard WSOP tournament structure has over a 50% jump from 2nd to 1st, and about the bottom third of cashers receive less than 3x the buy-in, so it’s not that huge a change there. In terms of the effect on play, moving a lot of the money up top encourages players to shoot for the win rather than for pay jumps, especially at the final table. This, in turn, makes for exciting play. So, although there’s a lot to be said for spreading the money around for the sake of the recreational players, there are also some advantages to giving more money to the winner.

9th place guarantees

By contrast, let’s look at what’s going on this year. 1000 seats pay and that’s probably a good thing, because a lot of Main Event entries are recreational players who will be happy just to cash. Half of those will now get less than a 2x-cash, however, and only 288 will break the 3x mark, but that’s okay too as long as you’re not one of the people buying action at a ridiculous markup.

What I’m concerned about is what the $1 million final table guarantee has done to the pay jumps from around 15th place through 6th, and what that will mean for play on Day 7 – when the remaining field plays down to form the November Nine – and at the beginning of the final table.

The $1 million guarantee for 9th is a pretty big increase over what would be produced by a normal structure. The 2013 Main Event had a normal structure, in that it didn’t guarantee any particular amount for 1st or for 9th, and what we saw there was $733,224 for 9th. Thus, guaranteeing $1 million for making the final table increases the 9th place payout by about 35%. In raw dollars, that extra money may only be a fraction of a percent of the prize pool, so the issue isn’t where the money comes from, but rather how much emphasis it ends up putting on cracking the final table bubble.

Previous years’ structures paid a little over $500,000 for 12th through 10th, which would make the final table bubble a very big one, doubling players’ money. Some attempt has been made to smooth things out by splitting that 12th-10th bracket in two; 12th and 11th still get a little over $500,000, but 10th now gets around $756,897, so that giant final table bubble is shared over two pay jumps instead of one.

These roughly $250,000 pay jumps aren’t too bad compared to those that come before: 13th to 12th is about a $115,000 jump, for instance, so going from that to $250,000 is a big jump but not an insane one. Rather, the real issue is that these pre-final-table jumps are actually larger than the first ones at the final table itself. A steep structure is one thing, but steep jumps followed by a flattening out of a structure means that ICM considerations will be huge, worse than the cash bubble itself and potentially almost as bad as what you can see in a satellite.

Here are three facts about the pay jumps to illustrate just how unusual the structure is:

  • After the final table bubble, then next largest pay jump isn’t until going from 6th to 5th.
  • Laddering two spots from 11th to 9th is worth more than laddering three at final table, from 9th to 6th. In terms of multiplication of winnings, it’s greater than going from 9th to 5th.
  • The first two final table pay jumps are each worth less than going from 13th to 12th.

And here’s what it looks like visually, comparing 12th through 6th place finishes the past three years:

What it means for the November Nine

Obviously, making the November Nine is a big deal, no matter what the prizes, and there are always going to be some players just trying to make it through. The difference in past years, however, is that players wanted to get through with at least a decent number of chips; no one wants their televised final table appearance to be over in the first orbit, and even the early final table jumps were big enough that you’d want to be in a position to try to climb the ladder a bit.

Now, though, the considerations have changed. When it comes down to the final 12 players, no one is going to be thinking about how the first half of the final table is going to go; the deeper stacks will only be concerned with going for the win, while the short stacks are going to be focused on the next two bust-outs. That means that the short-stacks will have to play very tight and that the deep stacks can bully them while staying out of each others’ way.

What that means for the November Nine, then, is that we’re likely to see much bigger stack differentials at the final table, with at least one or two, maybe even more people straggling in with just a few big blinds. No one is going to mind busting out in 8th or 9th all that much when they’ve just doubled their winnings by making it through the last two bust-outs, and would need to make it four more spots to double again. That, in turn, will probably make for some pretty boring poker through the first half of the first day, with lots of preflop all-ins until these microstacks either bust out, or run hot enough to get back into contention.

Once again, it’s not the end of the world, and the second day of the November Nine is likely to be great. But, in my opinion, the most interesting final tables are those where all nine players have a reasonable shot at winning, and a structure which features this kind of weird “hiccup” around the beginning of the final table is unlikely to produce that. As I’ve said in discussing the Double Bubble and 50/50 formats, it’s okay to play around with structures a bit, but it’s best to try to keep them smooth, because players folding their way through a bubble makes for bad poker.

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