Thirty-six players remain in the WPT Bay 101 Shooting Star, including some big names like Chris Moorman and Sorel Mizzi. This $7500 (formerly $10,000) annual event is one of the more unusual offerings both for the WPT and the live poker scene in general.

There are several things which distinguish it from other tournaments, including a variable-speed structure and a $10,000 bonus for the chip leader at the end of the first day in each of the two starting flights. The biggest twist, however, is the one which gives the tournament its name: the Shooting Stars.

These Shooting Stars are big-name pros appointed by the tournament director, one per starting table. Each is given a special medal to identify him or herself and a $2500 bounty ($5000 in past years) to go with it, awarded to the player who eliminates them.

Not self-evidently helpful

The natural first reaction to the concept is that additional money added to the prize pool by the tour can’t be a bad thing for the players, but many people, on further thought, find it hard to understand why the Shooting Stars themselves get anything out of it. Sure, if one of them wins the tournament, they get to keep their own bounty, but winning an event this size is always a longshot, and with over $1.2 million for first, an extra $2500 hardly seems like much added incentive.

Correction: Technically speaking, the money for the bounties comes out of the prize pool and isn’t added by the tour. This doesn’t really change much, however; money being taken out of the prize pool isn’t actually any different from the tour contributing the money, but charging a higher entry fee.

Furthermore, because the Shooting Stars are distributed one per table at the beginning of the event, those designated as such actually have less access to the others’ bounties than the average player in the tournament. They have to wait for a seat change before getting the opportunity to go after a fellow Shooting Star.

And yet, the Shooting Stars seem to be happy and willing participants in the format. Why is that?

How subsidies work

The answer, like most things in poker, lies in economic principles. These bounties being offered by the tournament organizers are, in effect, subsidies and actually work a lot like government subsidies in the real world.

Consider a government consumption subsidy: that is, when a government pays part of the cost for a given product on behalf of the consumer. For instance, imagine a country that offers a 33% subsidy on milk consumption, such that if the vendor is collecting $1.50 per litre, the consumer is paying only $1, with the difference being made up by the government.

Phrased that way, the country’s dairy producers would seem to be making the same amount with or without the subsidy in place, since it’s the consumers who are “receiving” a discount. This is an illusion, however.

Generally speaking, when prices go up, consumption goes down and vice versa. It could be that without the subsidy, milk would still cost $1.50 and people would just drink less of it. On the other hand, it could also be that producers would drop the price to $1 so as to keep demand at the same level. If you think of it in the former way, it seems like consumers are getting more milk for their money… but if you think of it the latter way, it seems like the consumers are getting the same amount of milk, but the dairy industry is being paid an extra 50 cents on the litre by the government.

The question of who is actually “getting” money from the government is largely semantic. The reality is that both the customer and the dairy producers benefit: the former consume more milk at a cheaper price, and the latter enjoy greater profits due to the subsidy.

What’s being subsidized here?

All this talk about milk subsidies may seem like quite a digression, but the matter of who actually receives the bounty is deceptive in the same way that it’s unclear where the government’s money is actually going in the case of a consumption subsidy.

The bounties add value to pots in which a Shooting Star stands to be eliminated, paid for by the tournament organizers. Of course, it is only the other player who actually stands to receive this money, since if the Star is eliminated, well, he or she is eliminated. However, it’s important to remember that generally speaking the outcome of a hand isn’t known at the time the chips start to go into the pot.

In effect, the bounties are “action subsidies” being paid on the Star’s behalf. When the Star enters a pot, those players who have him or her covered are receiving an added incentive to enter the pot as well, due to the possibility of winning that bounty. They will therefore do so with weaker hands, on average, than they would otherwise, or call slightly larger bets and raises. Loose plays which would be slightly loss-making in a normal situation may become slightly profitable for the other players because of the bounty… but the important thing for the Stars is that they are not putting up their own bounties. If the play would be a mistake for the other player without the bounty, then from the Star’s perspective it is still a mistake that his or her opponent is making despite the bounty.

This is perhaps easiest to see by way of an example.

With 30,000 chip starting stacks, and at a $7500 buy-in and $2500 Shooting Star bounties, as we have this year, a bounty is worth 10,000 chips, ignoring ICM. Consider, then, a situation in which the Shooting Star goes all-in on the flop and the opponent is holding a naked flush draw. Perhaps the Star is laying the opponent direct pot odds of 1.8-1 to call, while the player’s hand odds are only 2-1.

Ordinarily, these odds wouldn’t be good enough, meaning that it would be a slight mistake for the player to call. Poker being the zero-sum game that it is, the fact that the call is a mistake for the opponent means that the Star must be coming out ahead in that case compared to when the opponent folds. But if those extra 10,000 chips change the effective pot odds for the opponent such that they’re getting 2.2-1, now the call becomes correct for them. Those 10,000 “virtual chips” aren’t coming out of the Star’s stack, however, so he or she is still benefiting from getting called as well. What that means is that this kind of situation can actually be win-win for both players involved. That’s only possible because of the introduction of this additional equity, supplied by the tournament organizers.

In other words, the Shooting Star format effectively subsidizes regular players to make small mistakes against Shooting Stars in the form of playing too loosely. The Stars must of course adjust to this increased action by bluffing less and going for value more, but assuming they make the correct adjustments, then they are benefiting just as much as the other players from their own bounty, at least in principle.

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