There’s More Than One Way to Flatten a Structure

I talked on Tuesday about the fairly poor turnout for World Series of Poker Event #55: $1,500 DraftKings 50/50 No-Limit Hold’em. Like the Double Bubble events at last winter’s PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, this was an experiment in ultra-flat payout structures. The reasoning behind such events is that players have been calling for years for flatter structures with more seats paid, better prizes for the early cashes and less money up top, saying that such a structure would be better for the casual players who like to walk away with something. Well, it looks like there’s a limit to how far you can push that, because these events which pay a full 50% of the field don’t seem to be doing the trick.

My conclusion was that you don’t want to mess around with payout structures too much, because people are already accustomed to the usual one, with around 10%-15% of seats paid and exponentially growing prizes as you progress through the money. But there’s at least one way to distribute prize money a bit more evenly which doesn’t involve changing the payout structure at all: the bounty tournament.

Event #62: $1500 Bounty No-Limit Hold’em is going into Day 2 today, and it drew 2,178 players. That’s more than any other $1500 event at this year’s series except, of course, for the Monster Stack and Millionaire Maker. It’s also almost twice what the 50/50 got.

Bounty tournaments are nothing new of course, but the fact that they’ve been around for years and still appear on tournament schedules, drawing decent fields is testament to how successful the gimmick is. There are three reasons for this.

The first is that it’s true that players like to walk away from the tournament with something, no matter how small. You have to win a lot of bounties just to pay off your buy-in – three, in the case of the WSOP event – and for most players who make the money, the bounties will only make a small difference to their final payout… but it’s still money in pocket.

The second is that it’s immediate gratification. It takes a long time to reach the money bubble in most tournaments and bounties give recreational players something to hold their attention through that long grind. Moreover, winning bounties helps players to relax; after winning one bounty, you’ve mitigated your possible losses. After winning two, your buy-in starts to feel pretty trivial. And once you’ve won three or more, you’re freerolling, at least the way the WSOP does it.

The most important reason that bounties succeed, though, is precisely where 50/50 style structures fail, in that bounties stimulate action while earlier bubbles and/or multiple bubbles discourage it. The money that’s distributed through bounties doesn’t go to players who opt to stall, fold and steal blinds in order to survive, but for the players who are willing to sling their chips around and play some poker. Both gimmicks may encourage recreational players to deviate from their regular game to their detriment, but the difference is that bounties encourage them to deviate in a way which is more rather than less fun for both those players themselves and everyone else at the table.

In my opinion, this is a good direction to look in when attempting to innovate in tournament formats: mechanics which distribute some of the prize pool money early, and in a way which encourages active play. The tricky part is coming up with ideas which don’t encourage unwanted or unethical behavior like chip-dumping and random open-shoving, and which are easy to implement in a live setting. Those difficulties are a natural consequence of where we’re at in poker’s evolution, however – all the low-hanging fruit has already been picked, and now we have to be more clever in order to move forward.

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

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