PokerStars has just rolled out a new high-stakes major tournament, called The Weekender. As the name suggests, it’s a two-day event which will now take place every week on Saturday and Sunday. It has a $530 buy-in, putting it on even footing with most of the highest buy-in events on the weekly tournament schedule, behind only the Super Tuesday and Thursday Thrill. The guarantee was set at $100k for the inaugural edition this past weekend, but has already been raised to $125k.

This brings the total number of weekly $530 tournaments to five, with the others being Monday PL Omaha, Wednesday PL Omaha Hi/Lo, Friday 8-Game and the Sunday 500 (No Limit Hold’em). It also fills a bit of a dead zone in the weekend schedule for professional players who haven’t yet branched out into Omaha; although Saturdays do have $215 PLO and PLO8 games starting at 9 AM and 10 AM EST respectively, the only available NLHE games on Saturday mornings have until now been a couple of $109 events at 8 AM and 9 AM EST with rather pitiful $10k and $5k guarantees respectively.

Sharky waters

In contrast to other events like the Sunday Million or even the Sunday 500, the Weekender is clearly meant to be a tournament geared towards stronger and more serious players, as there are none of the small buy-in satellites for it that one sees for those other tournaments. Most of the satellites are at the $55 and $109 price points and the lowest is $34, meaning that even the players who get in via satellites will likely be used to playing for fairly high stakes by online standards.

A matter of timing

Both halves of the Weekender run at 10:30 AM EST, which is early afternoon for Western Europe. The first half runs for 20 levels of 15 minutes each, or about five and a half hours when you include breaks. Levels on the second day are a leisurely 20 minutes, and based on the guarantee, it should only take a couple of hours to reach final table, but then allow those players a good long battle, as the structure slows down dramatically at that point, taking nearly two hours for each doubling of the blinds.

This is clever timing for PokerStars, because it means Europeans can start playing after lunch and be finished in time for dinner and thus able to go out in the evening if they want. It’s also good because it means that, except for the final table, there is only minimal overlap with most of the other weekend majors, which take place in the afternoon for North and South Americans and in the evening for Europeans. This is important, as the level of competition and the buy-in mean that many of the players will want to be giving it most of their attention, rather than playing it alongside other equally challenging events. Those who make the final table may have to skip the Sunday Million and other such events, but with over $25,000 for 1st, that’s a good problem to have.

Evolving in different directions

It’s probably no coincidence that the launch of the Weekender comes right in the midst of the overhaul of Full Tilt, as it signals a continued differentiation between the two sites. PokerStars and Full Tilt have been partner sites ever since the former acquired the latter in 2012. As we’ve reported previously, the recent changes to both sites indicate that the strategy of overall owner Amaya is to polarize the target markets for the two sites, making Full Tilt the more appealing choice for strictly recreational players and PokerStars for professionals and aspiring professionals.

Full Tilt has seen most of its high stakes games removed, its cash game lobby simplified, the ability for strong players to “bum hunt” weaker ones impaired, and most recently, a revamped rewards system which gives more to the lower-volume players and less to the high-volume ones. PokerStars, on the other hand, has recently upped the stakes on Spin-and-Gos to $100, announced a $51,000 Super High-Roller in this year’s World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP), and generally keeps adding more options for those players interested in playing at the highest stakes available.

Overall, this two-pronged approach seems like a smart business decision, but what remains to be seen is whether the two ecosystems can sustain themselves independently. The new high stakes tournaments on PokerStars like the Thursday Thrill and Weekender are doing well so far, so clearly there’s a demand for them for the time being, but guarantees for the longer-established tournaments have been steadily declining over time, making the future uncertain.

Money has to come from somewhere, after all, so if the bottom of the PokerStars ecosystem is eroding, the top will collapse too in time. PokerStars seems to be banking on the Spin-and-Gos as the main attraction for more casual players and main driving force in their upward mobility, but only time will tell whether it’s enough. If not, Amaya may in time need to find a strategy to drive the luckier and better players from Full Tilt over to PokerStars in order to fuel these big ticket events. But that’s a problem to worry about in future; for now, the Weekender seems like a well-designed tournament and should continue to draw a decent-sized and pretty sharky field for the time being.