Each season of the European Poker Tour (EPT) culminates in a Grand Final event at the Monte-Carlo Casino in Monaco. In all previous seasons, the Main Event at the Grand Final was a €10,000 affair, but like the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA), has seen its buy-in slashed in half this year, to €5,300.

These sorts of price reductions are inevitable given the stagnation of both the poker industry and the global economy. Previously, 10,000 in local currency was essentially the informal standard price for the most prestigious Main Events in most tours, mostly as a result of the World Series of Poker Main Event, the buy-in for which has been $10,000 ever since its inception. Although cutting the bigger Main Event buy-ins makes sense for the EPT from a business standpoint, it’s a move that has met with criticism from the community of traveling tournament professionals, because it has not been accompanied by a corresponding change in venue.

Profits versus cost of attendance

The Atlantis Resort (where the PCA is held) and Monaco are both extremely expensive destinations. Thus, even though the buy-in and expected prize pool for the Grand Final are still in line with most other Main Events on the European Poker Tour, the cost of attending has raised valid questions about how profitable these two events are likely to be for the pros at the new stake level. Some have said they plan on skipping these stops in future if the buy-ins do not come back up to their previous level.

Correction: This article originally stated that the new Grand Final buy-in was greater than other EPT stops; it is in fact the same as other stops.

That said, the Grand Final may prove to be better value than it appears, because of another change this year: PokerStars, which runs the EPT, is offering special edition EPT Spin-and-Go’s, the top prize for which is an all-inclusive package to the season finale, including a Main Event seat, accommodation and spending money. These have a buy-in of €10 and the total value of the package is €9,000, so the effective multiplier for the jackpot is actually considerably lower than the 12,000x prize pool multiplier used for standard Spin-and-Go’s. There are also no cash multipliers above 6x, and no runner-up prizes when the jackpot is spun. All of these facts, taken together, means that the jackpot payouts account for a whopping 45% of the overall prize pool, and the jackpot hits relatively often: one time in 2,000, as opposed to one time in a million for the standard Spins.

So far, 89 players have won their seats through these Spin-and-Go’s, so there should be well over 100 such qualifiers, perhaps as many as 150, by the time the promotion ends up on April 10; this is in addition to another 150 or so who have qualified through more conventional online satellites. The previous record for online qualifiers was set at 210, two years ago, so the current total is already enough to blow that out of the water. Whatever the final tally, that’s a huge number of online players getting into the event at a very low price, most of whom you would expect have never played in an event of this magnitude; some may not have very much live tournament experience at all.

Just how much softer will the field be?

We can guess at this year’s Grand Final attendance by looking at last year’s, and then using the rise in PCA attendance to guess at what effect the halved buy-in will have. Last year’s Grand Final had 564 players, while the PCA rose to 926 entries, from 816 in 2015. Assuming a similar boost of around 12.5% in general attendance, then we would expect somewhere in the 600-650 range. Assuming 150 players get in via the Spin-and-Go’s, on top of the general attendance, then we’re looking at a field of perhaps 750-800, nearly 20% of whom will be Spin-and-Go satellite winners, and perhaps 10% of whom are people who would not have played at the €10,000 price point.

Overall, then, we may see a tournament in which about a third of the field consists of players who we can probably assume will prove to be of a lower caliber than the type seen in previous Grand Finals. Exactly how much this softening of the field is worth to the other players depends on exactly how much worse the new entries are, but given the ratios involved, whatever the amount by which the new additions fall below average ROI will be matched by an increase in the average ROI of the remaining players of half as much. That is, the average ROI for the tournament as a whole will be -6%, due to the ratio of entry fee to buy-in; if the new entries produced by the Spins and the lowered buy-in have an average ROI of -20%, that’s 14% below the overall average, so the remaining field will all do, on average, 7% better than they would have otherwise.

Of course, the -20% ROI figure is just a random guess on my part, and the rest of the calculation is only slightly more grounded in data. But as a ballpark estimate, I think a high single-digit ROI boost for the better players is a reasonable guess. That, in turn, translates to several hundred Euro in extra value. That’s not enough to compensate for the halving of the buy-in, except for players who are only very thinly profitable to begin with, but it does mitigate the problem somewhat, and might make the trip a more tempting proposition than it would otherwise appear.

Wait, why is PokerStars helping pros?

One interesting aspect of this promotion is that it is effectively removing recreational players’ money from online accounts and putting it into play in a pro-heavy live tournament. Satellites, especially must-play satellites are, generally speaking, a feature of poker which benefits professionals at the expense of recreational players; effectively, they are a mind trick to allow recreational players to rationalize playing at a level way outside of their bankroll.

In terms of net outcome, there’s no difference between a player winning a €9,000 package this way and the same player winning €9,000 in cash and deciding to blow it all on a single shot at a major tournament. If the Spin-and-Go in question did award cash, however, it’s unlikely that many, if any players would in fact choose to spend their winnings that way. Since the commitment is made ahead of time, however, before the win, satellite players get to convince themselves that they’re playing in a big event for a much lower buy-in, rather than playing two separate events and (probably) punting off their winnings when they cash big in the first.

Seen that way, it might seem somewhat inconsistent for PokerStars to be doing this, given that most of their efforts of late have been directed at making sure that recreational players’ money remains in their online accounts until it can be bled off as rake, rather than ending up in the accounts of online professionals, from which it then ends up withdrawn. If that’s the goal, why would PokerStars run a promotion which will almost certainly result in money leaving the online ecosystem?

Live pros, online fish

I think the key point here is that live professionals differ greatly from online professionals when it comes to both their benefits for and cost to the poker industry. The primary benefit of pros to poker businesses is in terms of their visibility and selling recreational players on the possibility of being a big winner at poker; conversely, their primary cost to the industry is that their presence makes it less likely for recreational players to actually do so. The difference between live and online play, however, is that the former greatly magnifies the upside, and the latter magnifies the downside.

Live professionals, particularly tournament professionals, are very visible. Achieve enough success in big tournaments, and inevitably your face and real name will become known to poker fans. Online players, on the other hand, are able to achieve a much greater degree of anonymity, unless they choose to promote themselves. Many don’t, and so don’t end up providing much in the way of marketing value to the sites on which they play. Many live professionals are also happy to interact with fans and recreational players at the table, and end up doing a certain amount of incidental public relations and even customer service work for the industry. Online pros, on the other hand, tend not to chat much except when negotiating a deal; online poker doesn’t have the same social culture as live poker, for starters, plus online pros tend to be playing a lot of tables at once and can’t afford the distraction.

Meanwhile, that same multi-tabling multiplies the damage that online pros cause. Live pros can only play one game at a time, and consequently play for the highest stakes they can beat. Online pros are only limited by their multi-tasking ability in the number of tables they can play, so many online tournament pros will play just about every game available. This means that both that a greater proportion of online “seats” are occupied by professionals, and that tough players are found at almost all stakes online, rather than only in the richer games.

On top of all this, there’s also the fact that losing one’s money in a prestigious live event is likely to be a more memorable and enjoyable experience for a recreational player than gradually having their bankroll depleted online. It makes sense, then, that a company like PokerStars, which operates several major live poker tours as well as an online site, would want to continue playing ball with live professionals even as it pulls the rug out from underneath its online grinders. Other providers are likewise making similar moves; this past summer, for instance, I commented on 888poker’s “Live Local” initiative to get online players into modestly-priced live events in their area, and more recently, I’ve noticed that TonyBet has begun partnering up with Playground Poker Club here in Montreal.

It’s fairly widely-recognized that being a traveling live tournament professional is pretty much the most difficult possible way to make a living from poker, yet the most appealing image for poker fans. That being the case, I think we should, and probably will, see more and more efforts being made by the industry to make that a more viable career option, even as other doors are being closed to the would-be professional poker player.

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