Global Poker Index CEO Alexandre Dreyfus has long been promising to “sportify” poker, a vague-sounding claim that he has been nonetheless been elaborating on in slow and steady, piecemeal fashion. For many years, the poker industry was seen as a balancing act between two main interests: professional players, and the businesses which provide both the venue (whether physical or digital) and services necessary for the game to be played. More recently, casual players have come back into focus, as their dwindling presence threatens to undermine the industry as a whole, but Dreyfus’s business philosophy is that there is a fourth segment that has been even more egregiously neglected, which is the poker fan: People who play very little, only in home games, or not at all, but nonetheless enjoy watching poker when offered the chance.

The Global Poker Index – in conjunction with the Hendon Mob, which it acquired in 2013 – forms the foundation of Dreyfus’s plan by centralizing poker stats-keeping and rankings, which are fundamental to fan appreciation of any sport. The second stage of the plan was unveiled late last year, when he revealed plans to start a Global Poker League (GPL). As is his style, he initially described the idea only in very general terms, but has been fleshing out the details as he goes along. Having spoken to him about it on a few occasions now, I can say that he’s not being coy, either; for better or worse, he’s very much an entrepreneur in the aggressive, risk-welcoming modern style, plunging ahead with his vision before the details are fully worked out and confident in his ability to think on his feet.

Behold, the Cube

The latest reveal in the sage of the formation of the Global Poker League came this morning, in the form of a press release announcing “the Cube,” which is both a solution to some of the practical problems involved in turning poker into a spectator sport, and what Dreyfus hopes will be a key visual component in the GPL’s branding. The inspiration in the latter regard was taken from the UFC and its Octagon, which has proved over the years to be a powerful marketing tool and point of differentiation between the UFC and its rival mixed martial art leagues.

The Cube is, as its name suggests, a huge 11-ton glass box, in which live GPL matches will be played out in front of live audiences. It is constructed of special one-way glass, based on the same optical principles as the stuff used by casino security, in police interrogation rooms and other such applications. As long as the house lights are dimmed, the audience will be able to see the players, but the players will not be able to see the audience. It is also sound-proof, but with microphones placed inside the Cube to pick up the sounds of the game and relay them to external speakers. In this way, the audience can be privy to both the action at the table and the players’ hole cards – displayed on large screens above the Cube – without impacting the integrity of the game.

One obvious concern with this system is that the lack of two-way interaction would result in the experience feeling more like television and less like attending a live event. Fortunately, during all-ins or other situations where the needs of game integrity no longer require isolating the players, the house lights can be brought up, allowing the players to see out, while another microphone-based system will allow them to hear the crowd’s reaction via earbuds.

Meanwhile, the Cube itself can double as a multimedia surface, suitable for projections and light shows of various kinds, in the same way that hockey rinks and – again – the UFC’s Octagon are now frequently employed as part of a high-tech spectacle to build audience anticipation before the event begins, and keep the crowd entertained during breaks in the action.

Despite its size, the Cube is built in modular fashion, so it can be broken down and transported between venues, allowing the GPL to travel and host events in cities around the world.

Questions of pace

Game integrity and interactivity are only one of the tricky balancing acts that the GPL needs to manage in order to succeed. Another is the question of game pacing. Traditional live poker is too slow to function as a spectator sport, both in terms of the time it takes to get to see the outcome of an individual hand, and in the amount of time necessary to play out a tournament without overly fast blind levels turning it into a crapshoot. On the other hand, playing a purely digital, online-style poker game in front of a live audience would seem fairly pointless.

The solution that Dreyfus and his team have come up with in this regard is to blend the two, using real chips and a human dealer to call the action, but digital cards to eliminate the time-consuming process of shuffling and dealing, with additional advantages in terms of game integrity and not having to worry about whether RFID failures will cause a card not to be shown to the audience, as sometimes happens on live streams. There will also be a “shot clock” applied to players’ decisions, to ensure that the game moves swiftly.

Unfortunately, audience attention spans and the decision to have each event consist of multiple matches still puts a pretty hard limit on how much time each match can last. The plan is for heads-up duels to last between 30-40 minutes, with a bit more time allotted for matches with more players, up to a maximum of six players in a match.

If we guess that a 6-max match might be an hour or slightly longer, and assume that the pace of play will be much faster than a standard live game, but slightly slower than online, then each individual match will essentially play out with something resembling a turbo sit-and-go structure, which is perhaps not ideal, but at least slow enough to ensure a reasonable skill factor over the course of a season.

Keeping the players on their toes

The most unexpected decision which was revealed today is that the players will not be given chairs, but will rather be standing to play at a higher-than-normal table. There are two reasons given for this move.

The first is one of body language. When a player is sitting in a chair, and especially when that chair is tightly squeezed between the chairs of his opponents, he has limited room to move. Reactions to the outcome of a hand are therefore limited to facial expressions and perhaps hand gestures, which work well for television, but not as much in front of a live audience. These subtler reactions can of course be captured on camera and displayed on those same screens used for the hole cards, but Dreyfus feels that it’s important to give the players room to employ more body language for the audience’s benefit.

The second reason comes down to marketing – standing players mean that both the fronts and backs of their shirts or jerseys will be available for team branding and sponsorship deals, both of which are central to Dreyfus’s plan to monetize poker as a sport. The GPL’s three major sources of revenue are expected to be team merchandise, sponsorships and ticketing, as players will not be paying to play as they are in regular live poker.

When, where and who?

Today’s announcements were only the first of three “waves” of details which Dreyfus has promised over the month of October. There is therefore still a lot to be determined, including exact dates and locations. However, it doesn’t look like we’ll be waiting long to see what kind of legs this idea has, if any: the first season is slated to kick off in first quarter 2016, which is pretty aggressive scheduling, given how much about the league is still to be determined.

As stated earlier, there will be two conferences – Americas and Eurasia – with six teams in each. The teams will be city-based, but the cities in question have not been finalized. There is a tentative list, however, with New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Toronto and Sao Paulo for the Americas, and London, Paris, Prague, Barcelona, Moscow and Hong Kong for Eurasia. Each team’s starting roster will include three players drafted from the GPI 1000 and two “wildcards,” for a total of five. The league will therefore feature a total of 60 players for the first season, and Dreyfus has promised that event scheduling will be done such that enough players will participate on any given game day that the GPL will be “DFS-compatible,” referring to daily fantasy sports.

The season will be a minimum of 14 weeks long, but it’s not clear exactly how many live “Cube” matches will happen, as the season consists of a mixture of both online and live matches, with the live matches sometimes being played in the Cube in front of an audience, while others will be recorded in a studio. Regardless of where and how a given match happens, however, it will be available online as a live stream, with select matches also being televised with commentary. Venues for the Cube matches are also still up in the air, though Dreyfus says that what they’re looking at for the first season is arenas and similar venues with capacities for crowds between 2000 and 5000.

Clearly, dates and venues are not the only details left to be ironed out, but the GPL is looking like a progressively more interesting and ambitious project as the details come out, so it will be interesting to see what reveals we get in the next two press releases we’ve been promised this month.

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