The European Poker Tour (EPT) Malta kicked off yesterday, with a jam-packed schedule of 76 events, including a lot of smaller, three-figure buy-ins and many oddball formats. This is consistent with what we saw when the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) schedule was announced back in September; that the strategy is to try to offer variety, fun and affordability in order to draw in more casual players to the EPT, rather than focusing on pros.
The EPT is owned by PokerStars and therefore by Amaya, and another thing we’re seeing is increased integration of the EPT with the PokerStars and Full Tilt brands. Both the EPT Malta and PCA schedules include Flipout tournaments, which are a modified version of the format of the same name on Full Tilt. EPT Malta additionally includes the option for players to enjoy PokerStars-like Spin-and-Go‘s.
Spins and flips
The online Flipouts are multi-table tournaments in which players are automatically all-in every hand until the money bubble bursts, after which it plays out like a normal tournament with a standard payout structure. The EPT Malta and PCA versions are more like single-table Sit-and-Go’s, except with a preliminary qualifying round which is played as an all-in lottery. The PCA version allows 27 players, with three qualifying from each preliminary table to play a 9-man final round, which can either pay three seats or be winner-take-all. At EPT Malta, it’s 36 players and 6-max tables, with only one player advancing from each table, but all six seats at the final table being paid (click here for a typical structure sheet). In both cases, the preliminary round is prolonged slightly by making it a multiple-elimination format, rather than direct, but the outcome will still be decided in a matter of minutes.
The Spin-and-Go’s, meanwhile, are not scheduled events like the Flipouts, but rather an on-demand option for players looking to kill time between other events. These will work almost identically to their online equivalents, with three players, a €50 buy-in, a hyper turbo structure and a randomized payout. The main differences from the online Spin-and-Go’s are that the maximum possible payout is only 20x rather than 10,000x the buy-in (i.e. €1000), there are no consolation prizes for the losing players on these jackpot spins, and the payout is determined not by a computerized random number generator, but by the spin of an actual physical wheel.
Although aiming for brand synergy seems like a fairly natural thing to do, the question is whether these online innovations will translate well into the physical space.
The advantage for casual players
There’s no question that either of these formats increase variance; both are fairly literal ways of bolting a pit game onto a poker experience. In the case of Flipouts, what you have is effectively a pit game which serves as a satellite to a single-table poker tournament. The Spin-and-Go’s work the opposite way; the effective final outcome is the same as what you’d get if you played a normal three-man winner-take-all event, but with the winner then obligated to risk a portion of her winnings in a game of pure chance.
It’s also pretty well-understood that variance is good for the poker economy as a whole, as it ensures that the worse players stand a good chance of coming out ahead in the short term. That, in turn, simultaneously makes it more likely that these players come away with a positive memory of the experience, and that they will use their winnings to play at higher stake levels, thereby feeding the ecosystem.
There’s no reason any of this is not just as true in live and in online play, so on that level, the formats should adapt well. It’s not hard to imagine that some recreational players will walk away from EPT Malta with decent-sized scores from a Flipout or Spin-and-Go that they would have been much less likely to pull off in a standard format.
A question of player experience
Is it really just about variance, though? If casual players really just wanted to gamble, wouldn’t they skip poker entirely and just go straight to the craps tables? Certainly, we’ve all encountered cash game players who do seem to see poker as a game of chance like any other, but tournament players are a different breed, looking for a different experience.
The more gamble-oriented players treat cash games as they do any other game, plopping some chips down on the table, splashing around for a few orbits, then getting up and wandering off when they get bored. Tournaments, on the other hand, especially live tournaments, are a big time commitment. Whether or not they’re actually any good, if someone is playing in a tournament, it’s because they want to play poker. They might enjoy the decision-making, the social aspect, the direct competitiveness, or some combination of all three, but one way or another, they’re after something more than just a quick rush and want to make sure they get some playtime for their dollar (or their Euro). One way you can tell this is the case is by the popularity of deep-stacked tournaments among casual players, because they make early exits less likely.
Spin-and-Go’s and Flipouts provide instant gratification, not a long-lasting experience. And while it’s true that the former in particular are doing very well online, it’s important to remember that online play has a huge natural advantage in this regard. It takes far less time to get into a game online than it does live, and once the game is over, if the player’s itch has not yet been scratched, there are always countless other options ready to go at a moment’s notice.
By contrast, unless the organizers have worked out some clever system I’m not aware of, the live Flipout player experience will be to line up at a registration desk, hand over cash, get a receipt, wait for the tournament start time, locate their table, sit down, present ID and their receipt to the dealer, wait for the other players to be seated… and then, for five-sixths of them at EPT Malta (two-thirds at PCA), be eliminated within about two minutes. The Spin-and-Go’s will provide at least a little bit of guaranteed play time, but will still have the problem of not being nearly as immediate as their online equivalent; if demand is high, there will be a waiting list, while if it’s low, even just getting the requisite three players might take a while, unlike online where you literally do just click one button and start playing.
Thus, while instant gratification is something that some online players want, and which online sites can provide, I’m not sure that it’s what people attending a live tournament series are going to want, nor something that a live venue is streamlined enough to provide. If registering for a Flipout is much like registering for any other tournament, and if the Spin-and-Go signup process is the same as for other Sit-and-Go’s, I don’t expect to see this experiment producing successful results.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.