“Silver Blaze,” published in 1892, is one of the better instalments in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In solving the mystery in question, Holmes draws attention to what he describes as “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” When it is pointed out that the dog did nothing at all on the night of the crime, Holmes responds that this is exactly what he finds curious.
Holmes’s observation is a brilliant illustration of a basic fact of human psychology, which is that we notice the presence of something much more readily than its absence. Once pointed out, it’s obvious that the fact that the dog never barked despite the supposed presence of an intruder is an important clue, but the other characters in the story are so fixated on the things that did happen that no one but Holmes bothers to consider the things which didn’t.
When this year’s World Series of Poker schedule was first announced, it generated a great deal of excitement. There have been a lot of changes this time around, all of which were well-received by almost everyone. That being the case, what’s most curious about the lead-up to this year’s series is just how little people have to say about it. In particular, there’s a conspicuous absence of the usual pre-series proposition betting.
Compare last year, for instance, Daniel Negreanu got everyone’s attention by offering an open-to-all, even-money bet that either he or Phil Ivey would win a bracelet during the series. It generated a huge amount of action and quite a sweat for Negreanu until Ivey bailed him out with a win in Event #50 – $1500 Eight-Game Mix.
This year, there’s nothing of the sort. It’s only a few days until the series starts, and all signs point to it being a good year for turnout, yet both the poker media and the pros’ Twitter feeds are mostly silent on the subject. Like the dog in the night-time, this curious silence demands the question, “why?”
Ivey sitting out
At least in the case of high-profile bracelet bets, there’s an obvious answer, which is that usual suspect number one is basically taking the year off. No one in recent memory has been involved in as many bracelet-related side bets as Phil Ivey. With their large fields and slow structures, most WSOP events are too time consuming and high in variance to be worth Ivey’s time on their own. In past years, he’s raised the stakes for himself artificially by making a large number of side bets. The magnitude of these bets was such that for most of his final table appearances, the value of a win in terms of side bets far outweighed the actual final table payouts themselves.
This year, though, rumor has it that Ivey has changed his strategy, stating that he’ll probably only play eight or so events and spend the rest of the series playing cash games, where he expects to be more lucrative for him than the tournaments, even with the side bets included.
With change comes uncertainty
Laying odds for bracelet bets is also a tricky affair, as it has as much to do with field sizes as with the skill of the player or players involved. No one expects to win a bracelet bet by taking down the Main Event or the Millionaire Maker; rather, a player who makes good on a bracelet bet is likely to do so by way of a tournament which combines a high buy-in with a relatively unpopular game, such as the $10,000 NL 2-7 Single Draw Championship, which often draws fewer than 100 players.
Field sizes are unpredictable, however, and vary from year to year even when the schedule is relatively unchanged. This year, things have been shaken up greatly, with many new events added and others removed, and it’s hard to know what the effects will be.
The Colossus is expected to have more entrants than any live event yet held; obviously, no one is counting on winning their bracelet there, but what will all those players do afterwards? If most of them are planning on playing it and then switching to cash games and Daily Deepstacks, then there will be little impact, but if many of them end up registering for other events as well – particularly those who cash – then there may be a considerable knock-on effect on other field sizes.
And then there are events like the $10,000 6-Max Dealer’s Choice Championship. The $1,500 Dealer’s Choice was popular last year, but how many will pony up $10k to play this year’s championship is anyone’s guess. Although poker players are gamblers by definition, these sorts of uncertainties may have convinced even the biggest enthusiasts of prop betting to take a wait-and-see attitude to this year’s series.
No Big One
There is also no Big One for One Drop this year. This is relevant because the tiny, intensely star-studded field that million-dollar buy-in attracts makes it perfect for laying odds, especially since most of the players register far in advance. Whereas most side bets need to be negotiated with the players themselves and typically require bets of several thousand dollars at a minimum, an event like the Big One makes it easy for bookmakers and online sports-betting sites to get involved, allowing anyone and everyone to get involved in the action and the conversation.
But that’s not happening this year, since the Big One is held only in even-numbered years. There is the $111,111 High Roller for One Drop, but even at that price point it manages to attract over three times as many players as the Big One and, let’s face it, $100k and $250k Super High-Rollers have become so commonplace in this day and age that no tournament under seven figures is going to attract the attention of fans based on its buy-in alone.
Sports sites are laying odds for who wins the Main Event, meanwhile, but you would be extremely foolish to put any money on that. Phil Ivey, for instance, is currently going at 80-1 on Bet365, but if you believe that anyone is 80-1 to come out on top of a field which will almost certainly include over 6,000 players, then you don’t understand poker tournaments.
The calm before the storm
Don’t let the silence fool you, however.
None of these reasons for the lack of pre-series action has much to do with how the series itself will play out. Once the series kicks off, I have no doubt that there will be at least as many dramatic occurrences and fascinating sub-plots as there are every year, probably more. Between the Colossus, Lucky 7s, Millionaire Maker, Little One for One Drop and, of course, the Main Event, there will be more big fields than any year previous. The adjustments to the Main Event itself may also pull in more players than we’ve seen lately, and then we have the first-ever online bracelet event, plus other innovations and improvements too numerous to mention.
It’s going to be a big year, make no mistake. That curious silence is a hush of anticipation, not indifference.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.