Deeper Stacks, Shallower Pockets

Deeper Stacks, Shallower Pockets

Monday, 10 May 2010

For the vast majority of poker players, going to Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker is unrealistic. Sure, Harrah’s may have dropped the price of the smallest buy-in to $1,000 last year, but when you’re a pub player, used to spending a tenner a night on poker, that’s a little out of your price range.

Most players understand that a trip to Vegas is special, and that maybe they have to up their ante a bit to get involved, but they would typically want to go for a week and play in a number of tournaments. For a “WSOP holiday”, that’s around the $6 to 10k mark, possibly more.

Thankfully, in the last few years a number of side festivals have mushroomed up which in some way emulate the Series, but are for the much shallower of pocket. The problem for the punter was that for the smaller buy-in tournaments (and this could mean anything up to $200), the structures were appalling: 2,000 starting chips and 20 minute blinds were not uncommon. In fact, outside of the Series, many of the casinos still run these crapshoots.

The problem for the casinos was that tournaments are costly things to put on: the revenue is geared to the buy-in, so for a $100 tournament, the casino figures to make no more than $20 per player. Given the uncertainty in the number of runners, the extra staff needed for the tournament and the admin involved, they would usually want them over with as soon as possible.

However, the huge influx of poker players during the Series means that some of the successful card rooms can afford to be a bit more extravagant, offering deeper starting stacks and slower blind structures. The result has been that there are plenty of good choices for the player prepared to pay $100 to $500 for their tournament buy-in.

There are no fewer than four card rooms in Las Vegas which have a branded poker festival during June: the Venetian, Caesars Palace, The Golden Nugget and Binion’s. Each festival has at least one tournament per day, with starting stacks in the five-figure bracket and with very generous blind structures. To cap it all, they give promo rates at their resorts for those playing in their events.

Last year, I caught up with Kathy Raymond, who has been the director of poker operations at the Venetian since it opened in 2006 (and previous to that was the director of poker operations at Foxwoods), to ask her about their festival, the “Deep Stack Extravaganza.”

“We created the Deepstack in February 2007,” she explained. “We had previously gone to a deep stack structure for our Saturday tournament, and it had become very popular. As poker players became more educated in the game, so the need for better structures increased.”

Now the Venetian has four Deepstack festivals a year, the biggest of which is of course in June, getting up to 900 runners for their biggest events. They will actually increase the number of tables this year to at least 119, so plenty of tournaments will break the 1000-runner mark.

The significant difference to the WSOP is that the buy-ins for these events tend to be $300 or $500. “Our objective is to satisfy that massive number of players who don’t have deep enough pockets for the Series,” claims Kathy. “We’re not competing with the Series – it’s a complement to it.”

It didn’t take long for others to follow their lead. Caesars brought out their Megastack festival, the Golden Nugget introduced their Grand Poker Series and Binion’s reinvented the series which was once the WSOP by attempting to shadow events at the Rio each day (for a fraction of the buy in) during their Binion’s Classic series.

Most attractive of all is the chance to stay at these resorts at promo rates. The Venetian is a four star/five diamond hotel whose rates are around the $150-$180 mark per night. Deepstack players get a special rate of $119. The table (below) gives you the basic info for each festival along with summaries of the promo rates and details of the tournament structures.


Notes are at bottom of the page.

One area which suffers in comparison with the WSOP is percentage payout. This is, again, about basic cost to the casino. Dealers will get paid a stock amount per hour whether they’re dealing $300 or $3000 buy-in tournaments. Thus, at the lower end of the scale, tournaments tend to be relatively worse value (note, by contrast, that the DSE $1000+ tournaments are just as good if not better value that their WSOP equivalents).

However, I would still say that in absolute terms the punter is getting excellent value. Let’s say that in a $340 buy-in tournament you’re getting on average six hours of poker for a “fee” (and by this I mean what you contribute in total minus the amount that actually ends up in the prize pool) of around $50. That’s about $8 per hour including tipping dealers – not a bad cost at all!

Most of the festivals offer something by way of comps too. Both Caesars and the Venetian give a $10 food comp to every entrant. The Venetian actually did a full buffet every single day for one series they did. “If we were following the almighty dollar, we wouldn’t be doing this,” notes Kathy Raymond.

For those who have never been to Vegas, rest assured that the card rooms are very comfortable and pleasant. Both Caesars and the Nugget hold their tournaments in special function rooms. Those who find themselves outside of the card room proper for the Venetian DSE (approximately a third of the runners on a busy day) will definitely have drawn the short straw, but those inside have a seat in one of the plushest card rooms in Vegas.
The cocktail waitresses in the Venetian are abundant (both in terms of their endowment and their presence), but elsewhere finding a drink might be a bit of a struggle. In Caesars, for example, I have to say I found them to be a bit thin on the ground.

One other thing which I hope will be cleared up in the future is payout structure. Given the number of runners in the Venetian tournaments, this is not an issue for them. However, I was in a tournament at the Nugget which paid 9/109 and then one which paid 18/130. In Caesars I was in one which paid an unbelievable 9/130! That’s a pretty squeaky bubble (five times the buy in for the smallest cash)! It’s pretty simple these days to have prize pools which don’t jump table by table – all the information is out there on the internet.

Being a fan of Omaha myself, it’s particularly nice to have such a great selection of non-Hold’em events in all the festivals. Even in Omaha-phile Europe, finding a decent structured Omaha tournament with a good amount of runners is a rarity, but during the Series you can fill your boots. The Nugget and Binion’s are particularly generous on this front, holding no fewer than 30 non-Hold’em events between them, all with buy-ins of under $300.

In summary, I wouldn’t go to these events expecting them to have as good a structure as the WSOP tournaments. In the smaller events – the $300 ones and below, the deep stacks you are given will get caught up over time by the 40-minute blind structure such that, by crunch time, the average M has dwindled to around 8 or so. See my previous Pickleman article on tournament structures for more on this.

However, these tournaments are certainly not crapshoots, and for the first few hours at least, you’re getting a lot of deep stack play. Couple that with the opulence of some of the card rooms and the comps and discounted room rates and you’ll find that, in terms of value for money, these are probably some of the best tournaments in the world right now. If you thought Vegas during the WSOP was only about the high rollers, think again.


1. Venetian buy ins up to $5k - see their schedule
2. Venetian: 0.5% of prize pool held for overall winner prizes; Nugget: $20 from each prize pool
3. Caesars now allowing re-entry during late reg period
4. Binions and Nugget have other buy ins e.g. 225 for Nugget and 300 for Binions - both lead to a better pay % payout, but not reaching the 85% standard of Ven and Caes. Ven has many 550 buy ins with the same 85% payout; the payouts for the bigger tournaments (e.g. Ven $2100) are comparable with the WSOP
5. Binions staying at Four Queens - at present the Hotel is closed at Binions
6. Venetian has added more tables: 119+ this year
7. maybe 2 days depending on field size for Caesars

Tags: Pickleman, Alex Rousso, Strategy