The 46th Annual World Series of Poker is underway, with the much-anticipated $565 buy-in Colossus set to kick off today. Meanwhile, Event #2 – $5000 No-Limit Hold’em – is moving into its third day, with businessman Carl Westcott in the chip lead.

Generally speaking, higher buy-in tournaments attract smaller fields, and at $5000, Event #2 is among the pricier events on the schedule, so you wouldn’t expect a huge turnout. The actual number number of entries was 422, making for a $1,983,400 prize pool after tournament fees. How do those numbers compare with previous years, and what, if anything, do they tell us about what overall attendance is going to be like this year?

Many variables

Comparing one the prize pool of one tournament to another is a tricky proposition, because there are a great many factors which can contribute to a tournament’s size. Obviously, given the popularity of No-Limit Hold’em, tournaments for that game draw far more players than those for other games. After that, the largest factor is clearly marketing: specially-named tournaments like the Main Event, the Millionaire Maker, the various One Drop events and even the Monster Stack produce prize pools many times larger than the generic NLHE events.

After game and marketing, the next largest factors are format and other gimmicks. Smaller table sizes, turbo blind levels, shootout formats and essentially anything other than plain vanilla, full-ring, regular speed Hold’em all tend to attract fewer players.

Fortunately, even if we ignore anything even slightly out of the ordinary, there are still about 15 plain vanilla, full-ring, unnamed No-Limit Texas Hold’em events at the WSOP every year, which gives us a decent amount of data to work with. Having eliminated all of the larger factors, what remains to distinguish one of these events from another are three variables: the year, the buy-in, and when in the series the event takes place.

I gathered data from the last five WSOP series, from 2010 through 2014. In total, there were 75 straightforward NLHE WSOP events during this time period with buy-ins between $1000 and $5000. Out of these 75, only nine produced prize pools of under $2 million, so already Event #2 is not looking great, but let’s see if we can figure out why.

The year-on-year decline of poker

Sadly, the poker industry in general has been on the decline for the past few years. As I’ve said before, the mid-2000s poker boom was probably never sustainable to begin with, but Black Friday and the continued woes for online poker in the United States have not helped matters any. Looking at our data, the fall-off is plainly visible.

There was little change between 2010 and 2011, but ever since Black Friday, the numbers have dropped year on year. Fortunately, the smallest prize pools generated have remained consistent at around $1.5 million, but the ceiling has been coming down steadily. Last year, the average prize pool was around $2.4 million – a full $300,000 smaller than the minimum prize pool of 2010.

Extrapolating the trend to this year, it looks like we might see an average of only around $2 million, in which case Event #2’s figures might seem to be just about right. If you look at specifically $5000 buy-in events, however, things seem even more grim.

Buy-in versus prize pool

Obviously, we don’t expect the prize pool for a tournament to grow linearly with its buy-in. The more expensive a tournament is to play, the fewer players are able to afford it. If registration dropped off sharply enough as you increased the buy-in, you could even imagine seeing a larger buy-in generating a smaller prize pool. Looking at the data, however, we see that prize pools do tend to grow as the buy-in does, albeit very slowly.

The biggest and clearest jump is actually between $1000 and $1500 buy-ins. It appears that players don’t differentiate very much between these stakes, and the $1500 events attract almost the same fields as the $1000s. All other things being equal, a $1500 event tends to generate approximately half a million more in prizes than an equivalent $1000 event.

For $2500 events and above, the effect is less. The minimum prize pools have tended to grow slightly, but there is very little to separate the largest pools generated at $1500 versus $2500 and $5000. However, it’s worth noting that of the five $5000 events we’re looking at (there having been exactly one each year), none of them has ever produced a pool of less than $3.25 million. The fact that this year’s Event #2 failed to reach even $2 million therefore seems to bode quite poorly; the drop relative to last year is about $1.3 million, while the largest previous drop from one year to the next was from $4.7 million in 2012 to $3.7 million in 2013.

Too early in the series?

There’s one other factor which we might hope to look at to redeem Event #2, which is the fact that it is being held right at the very beginning of the series. The Main Event is of course the WSOP’s greatest draw, and it takes place all the way at the end of the series, in July. Only professionals and Vegas locals are likely to stick around for the entire series, so you might expect that field sizes and prize pools would grow significantly over the course of the series, as the Main Event approaches.

Although this turns out to be vaguely true, it’s a pretty small effect which is largely outweighed by the other factors, as well as simply by random noise. Here are the last five years of prize pools, plotted against Event number, with the best-fit trend line marked in light blue:

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t spot any trend there at all, but it does turn out that the average prize pools do rise slightly as the series goes on; it’s just hard to see the effect because it’s on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars, while the variance is on the order of a couple of million.

Even if we’re feeling generous and are willing to assume that $500,000 of Event #2’s shortfall is due to it being so early on and so far away from the Main Event, it is still underperforming by almost a million dollars.

Could there be something else going on?

It remains to be determined whether Event #2’s poor showing is indicative that we’re going to have a disappointing turnout this year on the whole. It’s possible that there is something else going on that we haven’t yet considered.

Maybe the Colossus has something to do with it, for instance; given the nearly tenfold difference in their buy-ins and different target markets, it’s unlikely that the Colossus is poaching registrants directly from Event #2. It is, however, creating huge lineups at the Rio and other related hassles. It could be the case, then, that a number of players who would otherwise be interested in a $5000 tournament have opted to save themselves the headaches and stay away until that particular circus is over and done with.

The next generic NLHE event in this series won’t be until June 8th (Event #20 – $1500 No-Limit Hold’em). At that point, we can check the numbers again; it may turn out that Event #2 is just a blip, but if Event #20 also struggles to clear $2 million, then it may be a sign of a disappointing series overall. In the meantime, we can hope that the Colossus proves to be all it’s cracked up to be.

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