The full, final schedule for the 46th World Series of Poker has just been released, and with it comes much cause for excitement.

The series always sees some tweaking going on from year to year, but the changes this time around are more significant than most years. The majority of the changes seem directed at increasing variety and value for casual players, and overall it seems that the tournament organizers are showing increased willingness to shake things up and try new things.

Big variety, small buy-ins

The first thing that you notice about the schedule is just how much has changed at the $1500 level and below. There are the same number of small-stakes events as last year overall, but many of the plain-vanilla $1000 and $1500 No-Limit Hold’em events are gone and replaced with some more varied options.

  • Sub-$1000s: Whereas in previous years the buy-in floor was set at $1000, this year we see two new events added which lower the barrier to entry a little – The Colossus at $565 and the Lucky 7s at $777. Both of these have 5000 chip starting stacks and a faster-than-normal blind structure. They also both promise a fairly large prize pool. The Colossus outright guarantees $5 million, which the WSOP clearly expects to be a big draw, having announced its addition long before the schedule came out. Lucky 7s doesn’t have the same sort of guarantee, but it is a single re-entry event, which should boost the prize pool a fair bit without unduly advantaging the professional players.
  • Split format: There’s a $1500 Split Format event, which resembles last year’s Mixed Max, but at a lower buy-in and with an 8-player final table rather than heads up matches between the final four. Day 1 is played 9-handed, Day 2 is 6-handed and continues until 32 players remain. On Day 3, these 32 players are seeded into a two-tier tournament bracket with the deepest stacks facing off against the shortest stacks. The eight players who make it through the two rounds of heads-up play then return on Day 4 to play a final table. It will be interesting to see how the end of Day 2 plays out, particularly if there are some strong players holding deep stacks – with stack size determining the matchups, we may see a lot of desperate maneuvering by the short stacks to avoid being paired with a particularly dangerous heads-up opponent on Day 3.
  • Different speeds: In addition to the Turbo offered in previous years, with 30 minute levels to start, there are now options available for players who prefer an even faster format or a slower one. The $1000 Hyper Hold’em tournament has blistering 20-minute levels on Day 1 and 30-minutes on Day 2, while the $1500 Extended Play tournament slows things all the way down to 90 minutes per level and larger-than-normal 7500 chip starting stacks.
  • Different payouts: There are likewise a couple of events which tinker with the payout structure. We’ve previously discussed the decision to flatten out the Main Event payouts and now we see some similar experimentation in the lower stakes events. There’s a $1500 event with $500 Knockout bounties – a mechanic which tends to distribute money a little more evenly and gives players a chance to win part of their buy-in back even if they fail to cash. There’s also an interesting “50/50” event sponsored by daily fantasy sports site DraftKings.com, in which half the field is paid. Despite the name, WSOP has clarified that this is not like the 50/50 tournaments on the DraftKings site, in which all cashing players receive the same prize – there is a gradual escalation in prizes after the bubble bursts, like a normal tournament, but obviously with smaller prizes overall given how many are awarded.
  • Other new events: Other low-stakes additions include a $1000 online event, played through WSOP.com, and a $1000 Super Seniors event for players 65 and up.

Changes to the Mixed Games

Aside from the new low buy-in additions, there have been some changes to the mixed games on offer. The $1500 buy-in eight-game mix is gone, though the ten-game mix remains. The $1500 Dealer’s Choice event, which got rave reviews after its introduction last year is likewise back, and they’ve added the higher-stakes version everyone was hoping for, with the same $10,000 buy-in and 30,000 chip starting stacks as the championship events.

New games have been added to the mix as well. The $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship has had 2-7 No-Limit Single-Draw Lowball and Badugi added to the eight-game mix from last year, while the Dealer’s Choice events have had “Big O” (aka 5-Card Omaha), Limit Omaha Hi and Stud Hi/Lo Regular (i.e. no qualifier for Low) added, bringing the number of selections on offer there up to a whopping 19.

Assuming that the $10,000 Dealer’s Choice goes over as well as the $1,500 last year, I think we may see even more variants added to the menu in future years, which is good, because innovation is what the poker world needs more than anything right now. Personally, I’d like to see Razzdugi and one or more Pineapple variants added to next year’s menu.

Structural changes for added value

All the non-championship (i.e. under $10,000) events have also seen structural changes to extend play somewhat. Two new blind levels have been inserted, and most events now have players starting with 67% more chips than in previous years, which is also roughly equivalent to adding two or three extra blind levels. Essentially what this means is that players in these events can expect to have roughly three hours added to their mean expected playtime. For recreational, losing players who are effectively paying to play, this means that on average they are getting about 30-50% more playtime for their buy-in. That’s important for getting new players into the game, as no one enjoys the feeling of having busted in the second level, and someone who at least gets a solid day’s entertainment out of their $1000 is more likely to try a second time.

Positive and fun-focused across the board

Essentially all of these changes are consistent with the trend I pointed out when discussing the flattening of the Main Event payout structure in that they represent an attempt at casualizing the WSOP series somewhat. For many years, innovations in the poker world largely focused on the winning players, for whom value is seen mostly in monetary terms. It’s good that we’re finally remembering that for everyone else, the value of poker is largely experiential. By focusing on the diversity, accessibility and overall pleasantness of the poker experience, I think the WSOP will achieve its goal of weathering the poker slump and starting to increase turnouts once more.

Even the professionals may find themselves happy with the changes. For some people, it’s always about the bottom line, but most of us started playing poker because we enjoy it. When I’m playing, I certainly look for games that I can beat, but enjoyability factors into my decisions as well, not only my expected ROI. Unfortunately, I’m not bankrolled for WSOP-level events at this point, but if I was, I’d be thinking about booking my flight.

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