The World Series of Poker Main Event is Becoming Too Skillful

Steve Ruddock : July 18th, 2016

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During the first few days of the World Series of Poker Main Event I have made it a habit to quickly peruse the remaining chip stacks when the tournament gets down to somewhere between 1,000 and 200 players  looking for big name pros. In past years I would have to look pretty hard for these names, but more recently the number of professionals making deep WSOP runs is on the ascent.

With 200 or so players remaining, I was shocked to see the 2016 WSOP was still chock full of “name” poker players. With just 27 players remaining there are still an inordinate number of recognizable names in the hunt. Tom Marchese, Jared Bleznick, Cliff Josephy,  James Obst, Griffin Benger, and Antoine Saout to name the most recognizable names.

Quite frankly, this is not a good development.

With scant exceptions, the WSOP Main Event has produced relatively anonymous final tables during the modern internet era of poker. The chances of having more than one previous bracelet winner, or repeat November Niner was slim. This gave amateurs thinking about paying $10,000 to play in poker’s grandest tournament some hope that it could be them, sitting at the final table and playing for millions of dollars.

But recent structural changes, designed to make stacks deeper, and play more skillful, may be dashing that dream. The implications of this won’t be seen for a few years, but if the slower, more skillful structure does turn off more recreational players it could be bad news for the Main Event, as attendance has been relatively static for a decade.

Attendance is steady

  • 2001 WSOP — 613 entrants
  • 2002 WSOP — 631 entrants
  • 2003 WSOP — 839 entrants
  • 2004 WSOP — 2,576 entrants
  • 2005 WSOP — 5,619 entrants
  • 2006 WSOP — 8,773 entrants
  • 2007 WSOP — 6,358 entrants
  • 2008 WSOP — 6,844 entrants
  • 2009 WSOP — 6,494 entrants
  • 2010 WSOP — 7,319 entrants
  • 2011 WSOP — 6,865 entrants
  • 2012 WSOP – 6,598 entrants
  • 2013 WSOP – 6,352 entrants
  • 2014 WSOP — 6,683 entrants
  • 2015 WSOP — 6,420 entrants
  • 2016 WSOP — 6,737 entrants

As you can see above, the attendance for the WSOP Main Event has been quite consistent over the past 10 years,, with an average of 6,670 entrants.

Over the same time period, attendance has ranged between 6,352 and 7,319 – a difference of 13 percent. Furthermore, if we remove the best and worst attended Main Events during that time period attendance ranges between 6,358 and 6,844 – a difference of only seven percent.

You can draw several positive conclusions from this data, but if we go back one additional year a different storyline emerges.

The average attendance over the past 10 years (6,670 players) is a marked decrease from the WSOP Main Event’s high water mark, set in 2006. The 2006 Main Event saw a record 8,773 players pony-up the $10,000 entry fee; 24 percent more than the average of the 10 subsequent years.

Furthermore, the WSOP Main Event saw attendance grow in 30 of the 31 years between 1971 and 2002. You can’t find a 10 year period where attendance hasn’t grown by close to 100 percent – and in most cases 10-year growth has been exponential.

The new trend is one of static numbers and up and down years, which might signal the WSOP has hit a ceiling well below its high water mark of 2006 – with current conditions, such as the current status of online poker being the main culprit.

So who is missing?

The consistency in attendance seems to indicate that the WSOP has a core group of players, and a somewhat static but rotating number of qualifiers, both live and online, and recreational players.

There are still players who are playing to just to play (see tweets below), but this group isn’t growing, and could in fact be shrinking if we assume more players are qualifying online since 2014 – WSOP.com launched in Nevada and New Jersey following the 2013 WSOP.

These stories, which would barely cause us to bat an eye back in 2006, are few and far between these days.

Can anything be done?

Part of the problem is the way poker is sold in 2016.

In 2004 everyone with a modicum of poker knowledge thought they could catch some hands and make a couple big bluffs and win the WSOP Main Event like Chris Moneymaker did. In 2016 poker is marketed differently; now we’re told you need to really work on your game to have a shot of winning, and the new slower structure makes this theory a reality.

If the final table of the Main Event starts looking like the final tables of Super High Roller tournaments, the WSOP will likely have a major problem on its hands.

In my opinion, the WSOP is at least one, and probably two days too long, particularly in the early stages.

I realize this way of thinking is probably anathema to professional players, but consider for a moment that to cash in the WSOP Main Event (something that occurred on Day 3 this year) a person has to be available for a minimum of four days if they play Day 1c, and as many six if they play Day 1a.

To make the final table, an amateur player (likely not accustomed to playing poker 12+ hours per day for a week straight) will have to be in Las Vegas for as many as 10 days, and play grueling poker sessions on most of those days – likely against top players in the latter stages of the tournament.

This is not only a logistical nightmare for your typical 9-5 poker enthusiast (pretty much their vacation for the year), but as we’ve learned from Super High Roller events, people of means who might want to play find quicker structures far more appealing.

Considering the logistics and coordination of playing in the Main Event, and the extreme emphasis on skill, is it really any wonder amateur players are no longer clamoring to play in the WSOP?

Effectively, this is killing the Moneymaker storyline that anyone can win the Main Event.

The key, in my opinion, is getting to the money as quickly as possible, something I discussed at length in a previous column you can read here.

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