Why I (Probably) Won't Go To the WSOP

Why I (Probably) Won't Go To the WSOP

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Dara O'Kearney explains.

As I write this, it's THAT time of year again. The time when your poker friends want to know about your "plans for Vegas" this year. In the six years I've been playing full time I've experimented with different plans. I've gone early and played a pretty full schedule. I've rocked in late and just played the last few sides and the Main. This year's plan is the one that seems to be taking people by surprise. I simply don't plan to go at all.

When I say this to my friends, they usually assume that means I'm broke. Even if I tell them it's for personal reasons, this does nothing to quell the "Doke is busto" rumours. Having said that, it's still easier than trying to explain the poker based reasons behind my decision. But I will try to endeavour to do just that for the poker literati that are you, the Bluff readers.

A few years ago I would have surprised myself not going. It used to seem like an annual tilt at the "Olympics of Poker" was mandatory for any serious player. Winning a bracelet seemed like the poker equivalent of a gold medal. Winning the Main Event, well, in the words of one young Irish player, that was basically "completing the game".

While I have some personal reasons not to want to give up the best of my summer (not to mention it being the most profitable time of the year to be playing online) and spend five weeks playing poker in a draughty hangar in the middle of a desert almost half a world away, the fact is that every year I've gone I've found the WSOP less and less appealing. This year its appeal dropped below the point where I was motivated to click the 'Confirm Booking' button.

Even if the WSOP is still the closest thing we have to an Olympics of Poker, the gold loses its lustre the more bracelets they hand out every year. Part of what makes the Olympics special is they only have them every 4 years and they limit the number of events. The 100m champion can legitimately be lauded as the fastest man on the planet, and the marathon champ as the finest endurance athlete. If the Olympics switched to being an annual and suddenly started adding new events all over the shop (150 metres running backwards champ anyone?), then you'd have something more closely resembling what the WSOP has become. They hand out so many bracelets every year, just how special is it to win one any more? And while the WSOP Main Event may still be the one we would most all like to win, the notion of the winner being "World Champion" has little credibility these days as poker audiences mature and come to a more sensible view of success in poker.

There's always been a major cultural discrepancy between the way success is measured in live poker and online. Online players talk about statistically meaningful sample sizes, which means looking at how profitable someone is after playing tens of thousands of tournaments. None of us will live long enough to play that many tournaments live, so by sheer necessity success in the live arena has always been evaluated in terms of big scores. However, as the message of the importance of sample sizes has spread out from online poker, the merit attached to winning any one live event has diminished. While there are still few better feelings in poker than having your photo taken behind a novelty sized cheque after winning a big live one, most people now recognize these events as statistical outliers rather than epic achievements. Even among the general live public still blissfully unaware of OPR, ROIs, and Sharkscope graphs, there is a more widespread realization that the winner of any one tournament is very rarely the best player, and generally just the luckiest (the player who ran the best over a tiny sample size).

It is central to the appeal of tournament poker that anyone can win. However, the irony is that the wider this is understood, the less credible it is to present a victory in any one tournament as a feat of anything other than good fortune.

Every year I have travelled to the WSOP, I have come home a little bit more disillusioned with the whole experience. Perhaps the fact that I haven't exactly set the Series alight has contributed to this, but the fact is, apart from what I see as the ongoing devaluation of the bracelets, organisers Harrahs really do seem to show nothing but contempt to their paying customers. If you like playing your poker in a draughty crowded hangar with a lot of substandard dealers and overrun waiting staff, then the Rio is the place for you. Particularly if you enjoy scrambling to the restroom with thousands of others at the breaks, or trying to decide which of the three half decent restaurants in the place you want to take your place in the queue at dinner break. Maybe we are a little spoiled in Europe. PokerStars in particular tend to put on a great show, not just at EPTs, but also regional tours like UKIPTs with top-notch dealers and staff (I recently played poker in a palace at EPT Vienna – yes, an actual PALACE).

While the WSOP Main Event is still the best tournament in the world in terms of structure, field and buy-in, the same cannot be said for the side events. The $1k and $1,500s in particular have been compared to cavalry charges. Not only do UKIPT Main Events boast better structure for lower buy-ins, the UKIPT 300 quid side event does! The picture gets even worse when you move on down the chain to the daily deepstacks the organisers throw on for the tourists who don't want to pony up four figures for an official side event. These are basically live hypers with, as Jen Mason recently summed up perfectly, all of the chips but none of the play. These boast a reg fee that varies between 25% and 40% depending on buy-in, basically making them not just a rip off but long-term unbeatable.

At the start of this piece I joked that when I tell friends I'm not going to Vegas this year, they assume I'm busto. At time of writing, it looks like the lowest ever number of Irish will make the trip this year, leading some to wonder if it means we're all bust. As far as I know, Irish poker has never been in better shape, at least in terms of the numbers of Irish making a good living from the game. Some of the most profitable players have never even set foot in Vegas, while some of the least profitable show up there every year hoping for the one big shot that will revitalise flagging careers. The prevalent staking culture makes it possible from them to do so as long as they can find stakers to back them based on former glories. It seems like the poker world as a whole has grown up to the point where we realize there's no longer a direct link between one-off binks in live events, even one as big as the WSOP, and real long term success. Pros have long since realized that showing up a few times a year at big buyin events with thousands of runners is not a reliable, or even sensible, way to go about making a living.

So that in short is why I (probably) won't be in Vegas this year. The reason for the parentheses is that for all the negativity expressed in this piece about the WSOP, the one big exception is the Main Event. Still the best tournament in the world, this has the best structure, and thousands of players who would be minus EV in the Sunday Storm or any other $10 online donkathon. As a result, I may find myself on a plane heading to Vegas a few days before it starts, ruefully reading Bluff on the plane and realizing what a hypocrite this piece makes me look.

Tags: Dara O'Kearney, WSOP, World Series of Poker