August is generally a quiet time for poker, as everyone is still recovering from the World Series of Poker, but this year it’s just the calm before the storm. I’d recommend that you brace yourselves, because September looks like it’s going to be absolutely ridiculous, at least for those who live in parts of the world that have access to online poker.

September is the traditional time of year for the PokerStars World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP), and this year is no exception. Although online poker in general has been declining in popularity for some time now, the WCOOP just keeps getting bigger. There are 82 events on the schedule, and the $5,000 Main Event guarantees a prize pool of $10 million, with a minimum of $1.5 million for first place.

Not the only game in town

Although PokerStars appears to be confident that WCOOP will be as successful as ever, it appears that its competitors have other ideas. With its massive buy-ins, WCOOP is definitely a professional-centric event, and PokerStars reputation among professional online players is worse than it’s ever been, due to the site’s shift in emphasis to recreational players, and corresponding stripping of benefits from its highest-volume regulars. This has been compounded by general mistrust of owner company Amaya, whose (temporarily absent) CEO David Baazov is facing charges from the Quebec financial regulatory authority, and whose promised innovations – such as the now-cancelled Duel mobile app – have mostly proven to be duds.

Former giant PartyPoker, which had to cede its throne when it elected to pull out of the US market following the passing of the UIGEA in 2006, is looking to strike while the iron is hot. While most sites were emulating PokerStars’s strategy of courting low-volume losing players, PartyPoker looked to pick up the high-volume players who were abandoning ship. The site’s Summer of Grind promotion proved hugely successful, and they’re now following up on that by going toe-to-toe with PokerStars for late summer tournaments. Its latest instalment of PowerFest will run for three weeks for September, precisely overlapping WCOOP, and feature 192 tournaments with total guarantees of $10 million. The first week consists of low buy-in events ($11-$55), which will not compete directly with WCOOP, but the final two weeks are very much a viable alternative, with buy-ins ranging between $109 up to a $5,200 High Roller Main Event, which not-so-coincidentally matches WCOOP’s Main both in timing and buy-in.

PokerStars’s closest competitor, 888poker, is following suit, with a repeat of its Super XL Series scheduled for September. It’s going to be a smaller series than either PokerStars’s or PartyPoker’s, with a mere 40 events and lasting only a single week. It will, however, have a $1.5 million guaranteed Main Event and a $2,100 buy-in High Roller, both of which may prove tempting options for players disinclined to give PokerStars their money.

WCOOP goes high and low

Looking at the final WCOOP schedule, it seems that PokerStars is aware of the threat and making a couple of adjustments to reduce the degree of equivalency between its offerings and those of PartyPoker and 888poker. Many of its competitors’ events will feature buy-ins of a few hundred dollars, so PokerStars is spreading as many games as it can both below and above that range.

Firstly, this year will feature the first “Mini-WCOOP,” with a schedule exactly mimicking the main WCOOP’s, but with buy-ins of only 1% as large, and capped at $11. These are sure to prove popular with the recreational players PokerStars is courting, as they’ll have equally (or perhaps even more) huge fields and a similar aura of prestige, while falling well within a casual player’s budget.

At the opposite extreme, many of the main WCOOP’s buy-ins have increased. Even on PokerStars, events over $1000 are rare, but this year’s WCOOP will feature five events over $10,000, including a $21,000 Pot-Limit Omaha High Roller. That’s higher than any competing site is willing to go, so for the most well-heeled players it’ll be no contest. They’re also doubling down – literally – on what they did last year for the Super High-Roller; that time around, they set the record for the highest buy-in event ever played online, with a $51,000 event which drew 46 runners. This year’s will be an eye-watering $102,000, and one would guess that it may draw roughly the same number of entrants, and mostly the same names.

Vanilla-lovers need not apply

Even where the buy-ins align with the other sites’, PokerStars has differentiated itself by running including very few straightforward No-Limit Hold’em events on its schedule. A common request from professionals when PokerStars has asked for feedback on its series schedules has been “more vanilla,” mainly because professionals like to play multiple tables at once, and that’s easier to do when all the games being played have the same format and the same strategies. It’s much harder to keep track of what you’re doing when one of your tables is a No-Limit Progressive Knockout, another is Fixed Limit Six-Max, and the third one is Razz.

This approach is in keeping with the site’s overall strategy of actively pushing away those users who would prefer to see a return to the old, grind-friendly days. The site has evidently decided that those users are more of a liability than an asset, and actually appears to be cooperating with PartyPoker’s efforts to court them. PartyPoker’s schedule features a higher density of tournaments and also consists mostly of vanilla No-Limit Hold’em events, many of which are also unlimited re-entry. This is exactly the recipe to attract players who want to play as many tables as possible, and the fact that PokerStars has virtually no such events on its WCOOP schedule indicates that splitting up the player base in this way is fine by them.

Heavy on experimentation

When I say that there isn’t a whole lot of vanilla on the WCOOP schedule, I don’t just mean there are a lot of short-handed games and bounties either. There are, of course, but a Six-Max Progressive Knockout No-Limit Hold’em event would actually be towards the normal end of this year’s schedule. Most of the events feature twists you wouldn’t ordinarily see outside of PokerStars, and many are formats that aren’t even offered outside of WCOOP and other special series. Some are even being tried for the first time.

A partial list of oddball events includes:

Event #3 – $1,050 No-Limit Hold’em Marathon: This otherwise-vanilla event is unique in online tournaments in that it will feature a deep, ultra-slow structure designed to make it last four days. Given that online play tends to proceed at roughly three to four times the pace of live play, that means that in terms of hands played, this will be a longer event than even the WSOP Main Event.

Event #8 – $700 3-Max Pot-Limit Omaha Zoom Progressive Knockout: At the opposite extreme, here is an event which, despite not having a turbo structure, is doing everything it can to ensure that players have a short life expectancy. It’s three-handed, so players have to play almost every hand. It’s Zoom, so even if you do fold, you’re immediately dealt into another hand. And it’s Progressive Knockout, so players have an incentive to accumulate chips and attempt to bust one another. Oh, and it’s Pot-Limit Omaha, so preflop equities run close, and post-flop coin flip situations will be frequent. In short, it’s going to be an unmitigated bloodbath; action junkies won’t want to miss this one. There’s also a similar No-Limit Hold’em Event a little further down the schedule.

Event #27 – $215 No-Limit Hold’em Deep Payouts: Another vanilla-but-not-vanilla event, this one is a special edition of the Sunday Warm-Up, in which over 20% of the field will cash. That means the bubble arrives sooner, probably with deeper average stacks (especially due to the increased starting stacks in WCOOP events), but with a much flatter payout structure thereafter. This changes the bubble ICM considerations significantly, requiring strategic adjustments in terms of timing one’s gear changes.

Event #48 & #50 – $215 Players’ Choice: These are an interesting experiment in democracy. Players will submit requests for events (one No-Limit Hold’em, one anything else) by email, and then voting among the most popular options will be open to anyone willing to lock up their $215 as a deposit. What could possibly go wrong?

Event #59 – $320 No-Limit Hold’em Win the Button: Win the Button is a format that’s seen somewhat often in live events, and has been tried elsewhere online, but never on PokerStars. The concept is simple, but the implications are severe: Rather than rotating hand-by-hand as normal, the dealer button goes to whoever won the hand previous. This encourages aggression, and can be brutal for short stacks on the bubble, as those to the left of the table bully risk paying the blinds multiple times in a row until they’re willing to stand up to him. Seat draw is hugely important, and players can easily be forced out of their comfort zone depending on the styles of the players on their left and right.

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