888poker has embarked on an interesting new strategy to get low stakes online players into the live game. They’ve launched a series of live events known as “888live Local” at card rooms and casinos in a number of European countries, plus Australia. Depending on the location and local currency, these tournaments have a buy-in of €220, $220 or £220, but more importantly are fed into by small and micro-stakes buy-in online satellites on 888poker.

What’s new about that?

Online qualifiers to live events are nothing new, but what’s different here is that the tournaments themselves are so low in buy-in by the standards of live events. Generally speaking, in the past, online qualifiers to live events have been for major events with four- and five-figure price tags, such as the WSOP Main Event or the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. Although such satellites were a big part of the poker boom, with millions of players seeking to emulate Chris Moneymaker’s run, there are several problems with that model in the modern poker economy.

For one thing, the online game is now tough enough that anything with a $50 price tag and higher tends to be pretty shark-infested, so for a satellite to draw in many recreational players, it needs a very low price tag, or for itself to be fed in turn by microstakes super-satellites. This, in turn, requires a large user base, which few sites have with the exception of PokerStars. It also means that any given player’s odds of winning a seat are extremely small, which can lead to recreational players feeling bored and discouraged and eventually quitting the game.

Compounding those problems is the fact that most players will need to travel to attend a major event, and many of those playing at the microstakes could not readily afford a plane ticket and hotel. This means that most of the qualifiers need to award travel packages along with the seat, which further reduces the number of seats which can be awarded.

Finally, there’s the intimidation factor involved in shooting up all the way from microstakes to get on a plane and fly to Las Vegas, the Bahamas or wherever in order to play in a $10,000 tournament filled with top-notch pros. Although it’s a nice adventure to dream about in theory, many players probably end up finding the experience more stressful than enjoyable in practice. Most tournaments don’t pay out many seats, after all, so the most likely result of such an adventure is to fly home with the sense of having blown a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

The small-stakes advantage

With those considerations in mind, 888poker’s plan makes a lot of sense. No one is going to travel far to play in a €220 event, so no packages are needed. Therefore, the satellites will be played mostly by locals or at least by people who can easily make the trip. Although this cuts down on the pool of players likely to enter, the buy-ins are so modest that not many entrants are needed in order to award a ticket.

220, in whatever currency, seems like a bit of a sweet spot on the excitement-versus-stress scale for many players as well. Just look at the popularity of the PokerStars Sunday Million and its satellites. It’s a big enough buy-in that even a min-cash is satisfying for a low-stakes player, yet not so big that anyone is likely to lose much sleep over a bust-out. And unlike the Sunday Million satellites, the tickets awarded by 888live Local are not exchangeable for tournament credit, so they won’t become infested with small-time grinders with no intention of actually playing the event itself.

A personal perspective

I have a feeling that 888poker is onto something here, largely because I and a lot of people I know are precisely within their target market. When the World Poker Tour comes through Montreal, my brother-and-law and I often make the trip out to Kahnawake to play a side event in the $100 to $350 price range. We’re able to pay these buy-ins out of pocket, but still, if I could try to win my way in for less online, I would likely do so. Meanwhile, we have many friends who are amateur players and have expressed a desire to come along and try their luck, but can never really justify the buy-in to themselves… those people would definitely be into something along these lines.

Unfortunately, the only qualifiers, online or off, for WPT stops are for the main events, and even I can’t justify playing the satellites for those, nor would I feel entirely comfortable sitting down in that sort of event if I won. So, to my eyes, there’s clearly some lost potential here.

Early results are promising

My personal feelings seem to be corroborated by the early results being seen by 888poker. According to 888LIVE Events Operations Manager Mouhcine Jalili, their initial hopes were to hit about $1 million in prizes over the first twenty or so events, a target which they’ve exceeded after only ten.

Of course, when you crunch the numbers, this still means the events are pretty small in the grand scheme of things, with an average field size of a few hundred players. That’s part of the point, though: these are events of a scale that any reasonably-sized casino or card room can handle, at a price point that isn’t too scary for people used to the lower buy-ins you see online. These aren’t events for people already deeply immersed in live poker, they’re a way for online players to get their feet wet and maybe consider making the cross-over.

Finally, it’s significant that this experiment began in January, just as the World Series of Poker announced its 2015 schedule which includes the first-ever online bracelet event, which, incidentally, is scheduled to kick off tomorrow. As both online and live poker numbers continue to dwindle, it seems that more and more operators are recognizing the need for the two halves of the industry to work together. We’ll have to wait and see how the online WSOP event is received, but in my opinion, both WSOP and 888poker are on the right track.

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