Subtle Changes to the WSOP in 2016

Alex Weldon : March 7th, 2016
2015 WSOP

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It’s been two weeks since the World Series of Poker (WSOP) announced the final schedule for this summer’s series, and so far the reaction has been subdued. The WSOP is the biggest, most important series in poker, so it’s more or less obligatory for every poker media outlet to do a piece to discuss the schedule each year, but the lineup for 2016 seems to have produced neither much dismay, nor much excitement.

In part, I think this is because last year’s schedule featured so many changes and surprises: the first two sub-$1000 open field events; the biggest live tournament ever held; the first online bracelet event; the $10,000 Dealer’s Choice championship (and new games added to the Dealer’s Choice format); and, for the Main Event, a three-day November Nine and seven figures guaranteed to all final table players. In terms of article bait, it was a bonanza for those of us writing about poker, so expectations for this year’s schedule may have been running high.

In comparison, most of this year’s changes could be classified as minor tweaks, rather than significant innovations. That said, it would be foolish for the WSOP to try to reinvent the wheel every single year, and with a couple of small quibbles, I think the adjustments they’ve made are smart even if they don’t make for sensational headlines.

Colossus II in the pole position

Unsurprisingly, the Colossus is back and expected to set the world record for live tournament field size for the second year running. It has probably received more attention than any other aspect of the schedule and most people’s focus seems to be the addition of a $1 million guarantee for first place. Not everyone is delighted with the WSOP’s decision to deviate from its standard payout structure in this way, but one of the complaints about the inaugural Colossus was the fact that the enormous field resulted in counterintuitively small payouts for the top few spots in proportion to the overall prize pool. Furthermore, $1 million is a magic number for a lot of recreational players dreaming the big dream, so I think it’s the right move even if it means some fiddling is required to produce appropriate payouts throughout the rest of the structure.

Much more important, in my mind, is the decision to move the Colossus all the way up to the front of the schedule; it is now Event #2, preceded only by the Casino Employees’ event. In analyzing last year’s turnouts, I observed that although the Colossus provided a small boost to the events immediately following it (especially those starting right around the time its bubble burst), it seemed to have caused a much larger dip in registration for the events which came before. It seems that this fact wasn’t lost on WSOP organizers either, and making the Colossus II the series’ kickoff should allow this year’s series to reap the benefits of the “Colossus Bump” without compromising any events before. Furthermore, the new Colossus’s structure is such that each Day 1 has its own money bubble, similar to the Oktoberfest at last fall’s WSOP Europe; this means that all the Colossus min-cashers will have the opportunity either to play another flight or to jump into some other event.

Spreading out the casual draws

The Colossus isn’t the only low buy-in, large-field event meant to appeal to casual players, of course. The reliably popular Millionaire Marker and Monster Stack events are back, as is the Little One for One Drop charity tournament. Meanwhile, last year’s Lucky 7s has been replaced by the thematically-similar “Crazy 8s,” with an $888 buy-in, 8-max tables and an $888,888 guarantee.

This year, these events are spread out pretty evenly through the schedule, such that almost every weekend of the series features something to bring casual players to the series. The only weekend that doesn’t have such an event is the middle weekend, June 17-19, and that is when the Seniors and Super Seniors events are being held. This spacing means that recreational players planning a one-and-a-half to two-week stay in Vegas can come either for the beginning or end of the series and plan to play two huge events with some time to rest in between. Meanwhile, older recreational players, many of whom will be retired, may have more flexibility, so putting the Seniors’ events in the middle of the series makes sense, allowing them to arrive earlier and/or leave later as they wish.

Lastly, this year, the Main Event is not the final event of the schedule as has been traditionally the case; rather, the starting flights for the Little One for One Drop now coincide with the two Day 2 flights and Day 3 of the Main Event, making it effectively a “consolation” event for those who’ve busted the Main. This is smart, as anyone playing the main has presumably scheduled their hotel room and flights with the assumption that they might make it through; giving these players something else to do is probably going to be good both for player experience and Little One for One Drop attendance.

Earlier restarts

There isn’t much in the way of controversy surrounding this year’s schedule, but if one change has raised an eyebrow or two, it’s the decision to move most events’ start times up one hour. Most tournaments will now start at either 11 AM or 2 PM instead of noon and 3 PM respectively. Many will also have one fewer level played on the first day.

Both of these changes are being made in order to have the tournaments break for the night earlier on the first day. This too, is meant as a move to appeal to recreational players, under the assumption that many of them work regular jobs and are thus accustomed to getting up relatively early, but not to staying up very late. The reason this is controversial is that it is bad for pros by the same token, since late night is usually prime time for poker, and so professional players tend to be night owls and late risers.

Online adjustments

Reactions were mixed to last year’s online bracelet event, but the WSOP isn’t about to give up on the concept entirely. Some players didn’t like the idea of there being such an event in the first place, while some primarily online players were upset by the decision to have the final table be played out live. This year, there are two events with an online component: the online event itself is back, but with the final table now being held online as well. Meanwhile, for those who prefer an online-live hybrid, there is a $1000 “Top Up Turbo” event, where players have the option of paying an additional $1000 to receive double the starting stack, or play an online qualifier to win their top up that way. I would presume that the intent here is to compare turnouts for the two events, and use that information to gauge the general poker playing public’s relative preference for online-only compared to a hybrid format.

Minor novelty

A few new types of event have been added, but nothing as dramatic as in previous years. The “Summer Solstice” is a nice event for the value-minded, though it’s not entirely fair to call it new; like last year’s “Extended Play No-Limit Hold’em” event, it has a $1500 buy-in and 90-minute levels, rather than the usual 60. Specially-named events tend to attract more casual players, however, so the renaming of the event is a small but positive move, and the idea of starting it on and naming it for the longest day of the year is cute.

As a fan of more obscure games and of mixed events, the addition I’m most pleased with is a three-game mix of 2-7 Triple Draw Lowball, A-5 Triple Draw Lowball, and Badugi. Like the Omaha Hi-Lo / Stud Hi Lo mixed event, it has a $2500 buy-in, and I think that’s a good price point for mixed events focusing on one specific family of games. It’s probably no coincidence that the two are scheduled two days apart, either. My only gripe is that A-5 isn’t sufficiently interesting and its differences from 2-7 are too subtle; from a gameplay standpoint, I would have preferred to see one of the more recent innovations in the triple draw family included instead, like Badacy or even Duck Flush, although obviously I understand why including a game many players haven’t even heard of would be a bad idea.

Questions about the Tag Team event

The most original format on the menu is, unfortunately, my least favorite of this year’s ideas: the $1,000 Tag Team event. For one thing, I don’t like the way the concept is implemented, which is that the players involved in a team can swap out at will, with the only requirement being that each team member play at least one full orbit.

I can understand why it’s done this way: requiring players to alternate levels or swap each break would mean forcing a lot of people to stand around doing nothing, rather than playing other events. On the other hand, it means that the most effective use of the format may be for small-time pros and recreational players to offer top players a percentile freeroll should they go deep in the money. For instance, if I were friends with a top tournament pro, I could pay the buy-in, get him to play the first level for me then let him go off to play his own games, with the agreement in place that if I make the final table, he will play it for me in return for some percentage of the winnings. Such a deal seems like a win-win for both parties, but not really in the spirit of the event.

Meanwhile, for those who are planning on playing the event more as it was intended, and splitting the responsibilities equally with a friend, it just seems like a recipe for disaster. Even pros frequently disagree on the best play in a given situation, and amateurs in particular tend to be results oriented and assume that if a play must be a mistake if it didn’t turn out well and isn’t what they would have done. No matter how secure I am in my friendships, I’d be equally nervous playing or letting my friend play the money bubble of such a tournament, for fear of the arguments that would ensue should a questionable move lead to a bust-out.

That said, one failed experiment is not going to ruin a series. Whether I’m wrong about the Tag Team event and it proves popular, or I’m right and it disappears again next year, it’s unlikely to play a big role in the success or failure of this summer’s series. Overall, I think the changes being made this year are good, and their nuances underappreciated by most of those who’ve commented on the schedule. Last year’s series wasn’t without its controversies, but the schedule itself was pretty successful; provided there’s no fiasco with the cards, major cheating allegations or other similar drama this time around, the 2016 WSOP may prove to be one of the better ones in recent memory.

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

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