The World Series of Poker Europe (WSOPE) is coming up next month, featuring a total of ten events with buy-ins ranging from €550 up to a €25,600 High Roller. One of the more interesting offerings on the schedule is Event #2, the “Oktoberfest,” which has a €550 buy-in and four starting flights.
As with the Colossus at the main series, the Oktoberfest represents a lowering of the minimum buy-in for the WSOPE, where the only previous event under €1000 was a €550 non-bracelet Ladies event in 2011. This is in keeping with this year’s efforts by the WSOP and the live poker industry in general to bring recreational players back into the game.
Aside from the buy-in, there are a couple of interesting features to the Oktoberfest. Firstly, it features an explicitly variable-speed structure, similar to the PokerStars Bubble Dash or FullTilt Escalator formats, although not quite as extreme. Blind levels will be 30 minutes on the first day – the same as those for the Turbo event – but then slow down to a more standard 60 minutes for days 2 and 3. A few events at this year’s main series featured slowdowns from 40 to 60 minutes, as do many of the other WSOPE events this year, but the Oktoberfest is, I believe, the first WSOP/WSOPE event to feature a full doubling of blind level length after the first day.
What’s interesting about this variable-speed structure is that, combined with a relatively small 5,000-chip starting stack, it means that the tournament will reach the money prior to the end of each starting flight. The event will pay approximately 10% of seats, and the WSOPE organizers predict that only about 5% of players will make it through each starting flight, meaning that about 5% of the field in each starting flight will make the money but then bust out before the end of the day.
Given that the Oktoberfest is a next-day re-entry event, this raises an important question: Should cashing one flight prevent a player from re-entering? In that regard, the WSOPE has elected to follow in the footsteps of this year’s WPT 500, which answered that question in the affirmative; players will be able to make the money, bust out prior to the end of the day, receive a payout for their min- or slightly-over-min-cash, and still be able to enter the tournament the following day.
As always, I applaud experimentation in tournament formats, but I’m not sure either decision is ideal.
I’m aware that this fast-slow blind structure will be popular with many professional and semi-professional players, because it allows for more play when lots of equity is on the line, and less time “wasted” playing for more trivial numbers of chips early on. However, as I argued during the main series this summer, when such an idea was originally being proposed, this sort of structure is unfriendly to casual players for the same reasons that it is beneficial to professionals.
Casual players are, by definition, playing for entertainment value more than profit. Even though they hope to win, the basic economic proposition being offered to them is an exchange of their statistically-expected monetary losses for a certain amount of fun. Speeding up the structure early on significantly decreases mean play time, meaning less bang for their buck. Meanwhile, the upside of a turbo structure for the casual player is more variance, and thus more chance for underdogs like themselves to win. Slowing things down once the money is reached undoes this; the fast-slow structure increases the odds that weaker players will bust out before getting their money’s worth of playtime, while simultaneously decreasing their odds of making a deep run if they do get lucky enough to make it through the first day. In other words, they get less fun for greater long-term expected losses.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to see how the decision to allow min-cashers to re-enter makes financial sense for the WSOPE, but it does creates some potentially weird and problematic situations because of what it does to chip values towards the end of each starting flight (except for the last one, naturally). Obviously, the casino and the tournament organizers would like there to be as many entries as possible, so there’s little incentive for them to deny someone the ability to re-enter. Moreover, min-cash re-entry will likely produce more re-entries from casual players than a more conventional next-day re-entry format. Under ordinary circumstances, most amateurs enter a given tournament only once; here, though, even if a player wasn’t originally intending to fire multiple bullets, cashing on their first attempt is very likely to tempt them to try again, as it both increases their confidence and makes the second attempt feel like a freeroll. On that level, it seems like a good idea.
The downside is that, for players who have or believe themselves to have a positive expected ROI in the tournament, it creates a small positive value to busting out after the bubble and before the end of the day, which can lead to weird and arguably undesirable strategies, or even potential collusion scenarios.
A double-whammy of non-linear chip values
Essentially, there are two forces at work towards the end of each starting flight in this format, which can cause the cash value of a certain number of chips to change dramatically.
The first is ICM, which always happens around the cash bubble of any tournament; right before the bubble bursts, survival is key, so the value of chips in a short stack vastly exceeds the value of that same number of chips in a deeper stack, for whom immediate survival is not an issue, and for whom the only value of chips lies in increasing the odds of a deep run. Right after the bubble bursts, however, the equity value of all chips drops dramatically, as a big portion of the prize pool has now effectively been paid out. Furthermore, the value of the chips in short stacks drops more than that of those in the deep stacks, as ICM becomes less of an issue and the value of a given number of chips becomes more consistent again.
The second factor is that the ability to re-enter has positive value for players who believe that they’re going to be profitable long-term against the field. For instance, with €550 buy-in, if a player believes himself to have a 20% long-term ROI, then there is effectively a €110 consolation prize for busting any flight except the final one, in that this is their expected profit from the re-entry. You could also put it the other way and say that there’s a €110 penalty (an opportunity cost, in economic parlance) for making it through one flight and losing the ability to enter the next one. In the extreme case of a player who is down to his last few chips, the incentive to bust out may even exceed the value of his stack; it’s much easier for this to be true after the money bubble has burst, as the remaining prize pool is smaller and each chip is worth less than it was earlier in the tournament.
Any time the value of chips is not the same for all players, and especially when it changes quickly over time, there is a strong incentive towards cooperative play. For instance, if players were allowed to collude openly, what you’d see on the bubble of tournaments would be deep stacks offering to help short stacks into the money in return for those players dumping their chips back to the deep stack once the bubble bursts. It’s easy to see how this would be a mutually profitable arrangement, if it were allowed: the deep stack ends up with more chips than he started with, while the short stack gets to “borrow” the chips while they’re of high value to him, and return them when they’re of lower value. Of course, it’s very much not allowed, but as a hypothetical, it illustrates why more subtle forms of soft play and implicit collusion are a cause for concern in high ICM situations, especially given how common it is in the modern poker world for players to hold pieces of one another’s action.
Of course, neither of the two factors is unique to this tournament format; the ICM drop as the bubble bursts exists in virtually every tournament format, and the slight compensation for busting versus carrying on with a small stack exists whenever re-entry is an option. What makes this format potentially more problematic is that it arranges for both of these effects to kick in at virtually the same time, while both operate in the same direction. When you can min-cash and re-enter, the value of chips in a tiny stack plummets even more dramatically as the bubble bursts, which only serves to create greater incentives for funny business, whether prearranged or spontaneous, explicit or by unspoken agreement, or even unconscious.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.