Thoughts on PokerStars EPT Switching to Flatter Payout Structure

Steve Ruddock : August 23rd, 2016


The PokerStars European Poker Tour (EPT) recently adopted a new payout structure for tournaments, and like most of the other changes PokerStars has implemented over the past two years, the new payout structure has divided the professional poker community.

Before the change, the tour was paying a maximum of 15 percent of players, but under the new structure, at least 20 percent of the field will cash in EPT tournaments.

The EPT isn’t alone in these types of changes, as you may recall the World Series of Poker moved towards a flatter payout structure prior to this year’s series. In 2016, the WSOP started paying 15 percent of the field instead of 10 percent.

According to Neil Johnson, the Department Head of Live Poker Operations for PokerStars:

“For EPT13, we are expanding our payouts out to 20 percent of the field. It isn’t going to have the top-end impact that some people may think as we have decided that the minimum cash for all the players that we are adding between 15 percent and 20 percent will be between 1x-1.2x your buy-in. It’s been something that we’ve been working on right down to the wire to make sure that the impact is overall a positive one for all players and also fits our goal of having more winners.”

Originally this change would have also been made to the higher buy-in events, but after listening to player feedback, the EPT announced High-Roller and Super-High-Roller events will continue to use the old 15 percent payout structure:

Players concerned about change

Despite Johnson’s assertion that top-end payouts will be minimally impacted, the change has rankled some professional tournament players.

The changes, designed to increase the number of recreational players who walk away from an EPT event with money in their pocket, not only reduce top-end payouts (where pros like Strelitz feel their money is made) but they are also likely to reduce the anxiety and length of money bubble situations; another situation where pros feel they have a much higher edge over recreational players who may fear busting out before the money bubble is burst.

The flip-side of this argument is the flatter structure will be more appealing to recreational players and create more repeat customers – both of which would make the fields of tournaments softer, and therefore more profitable for winning players.

Johnson explained some of the data that drove the decision in an interview with

“One of the interesting statistics we found is that 46 percent of the players on EPT Season 12, played only 1 or 2 events…


“… We saw that if we would pay out 20 percent instead of 15 percent, we could give 5 percent of the field a do-over. It’s effectively like saying ‘Thanks for coming, I hope you had a lot of fun. Sorry you didn’t make it into the big money, good luck the next time because here’s money for another shot.” If someone has a buy-in to play another poker tournament, that’s a good thing. So that’s the direction we ended up going.”

The change is less about catering to professional players (something the poker industry as a whole has been moving away from in recent years), and more about satisfying recreational players.

More so, the EPT is challenging the notion that tournaments have to be beatable by x number of players to be successful.

Somewhere along the way, poker players definition of a “good” tournament and the industry’s diverged.

Past is prologue

In the past, poker tournaments were seen by professional poker players as something along the lines of writing for the Huffington Post. Few writers are actually on the Huffington Post’s payroll, but for those writing for free, there are other advantages to consider – exposure and experience to name two of the biggest reasons.

Pre-poker boom, poker tournaments were a way to entice new players by turning a poker game into a lottery of sorts, where you could plunk down a predetermined amount of cash and take a shot at a big payday. These recreational players who busted early and didn’t get their poker fix might head over to the cash game tables, and the ones who cashed might catch the poker bug and do the same.

For professional poker players did a few things:

  1. Tournaments brought in new players;
  2. gave them a chance to play in a lottery slightly skewed in their favor; and
  3. gave them something to do during the day, since cash games tend to only get good at night.

But during the poker boom everything got flipped on its head; tournaments suddenly became very profitable, live and online.

Online tournaments are profitable because there is little overhead. There’s no travel cost, dealer tipping, or significant rake to pay. Online tournaments also have lower price points, and allow players to jump right into another event and increase volume, both of which decreases overall variance.

Live tournaments became more profitable for different reasons.

In addition to the thousands of new players that flocked to poker tables with dreams of becoming the next Chris Moneymaker, if you landed at the final table of a major tournament, or the feature table of ESPN’s WSOP coverage, you’d land a five figure sponsorship deal, as Brian Balsbaugh noted during the inaugural episode of Daniel Negreanu’s new podcast.

Live poker tournaments, for the first time, were suddenly very lucrative, and not just for the best of the best, but for a significant percentage of players who would have had no chance of being a profitable tournament player pre-poker boom.

Joey Ingram, who missed the early part of the poker boom, was shocked by Balsbaugh’s words, and wrote the following on his new website (check it out, it’s GTO):

“Brian’s agency were handing out patch deals with people who made final tables for 5 figures and that turned into patch deals for anyone who was getting on TV. I almost don’t believe this was the same poker world that I am involved with now. I imagine that with so much easy money floating around most players didn’t feel very inclined to work hard on getting good at the game. I guess it shows in that not many of those people are still around the poker world today.”

But this didn’t last. It couldn’t.

As the poker boom fizzled out televised poker’s popularity waned, and the “dead money” players all but disappeared. Most of the remaining players, and the new players who showed up to play in tournaments with four- or five-figure buy-ins were at least competent.

The edge over the field shrank, and so did the off-the-felt opportunities.

The sponsorships dried up, and a huge number of people who were accustomed to big ROI’s, or were chasing sponsorship deals, found out what it was like to play poker tournaments before the poker boom.

Bottom line

What the new payout structures (along with the WSOP’s decision to speed up the earlier parts of poker tournaments to get to the money faster) seem to be is a return to the old days. A time when only a select few could profitably play tournaments, and the goal was to give the non-pros a good experience that might see them gamble in other parts of the casino, or return to play more tournaments.

Other than outlier period during the poker boom, live poker tournaments are more marketing tool than path to becoming a professional poker player. Paying 20% of the field should help the EPT attract more repeat customers.

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