Of Tourney Buy-ins, Bracelets, and Motivations

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Engaging with logical, disinterest-capable people in poker such as Andrew Barber or Matt Berkey is not recommended if you like to win arguments. While Andrew can take a more classically objective posture, Matt usually enjoys defending a particular point-within-a-point, and whether you can see it or not, has been almost entirely right when doing so over the years. However, while there is his passion – accuracy on a particular sub-issue – there are many other layers to ideas, and one of them is the interior truth of why we are having this discussion at all.

The interior truth, so much more compelling to those among us who don’t live on data or get the benefit of the doubt, is the reason behind the reason: why does Berkey or anyone get so adamant about something he says he does not care about, namely, should a private organization sell to more and more people? Why can’t I win a shiny WSOP ankle bracelet at the Salute to Tropicana Ave Hookers for $400 this summer without earning his irritation and his disclaimers that he doesn’t care about any of it? Yet his motivation to argue, very likely, has something to do with a fragile idea very important to us in poker.

That said, the economics are not the real point, though they are interesting. The WSOP is not the “ecosystem” nor is it the consumer. It is an organization that is grasping at as much rake as possible and one which has the capacity to move mountains to do so. Mountain moving, as Berkey points out, is a clumsy process and one which damages the bits nearby. Maybe less is more, he resists pleading. But why does he care?

Moreover, it is at this point in the story that we must introduce the elephant in the room, one which is stripping and sucking out cash game resources through the appeal of the tournament. The festival’s maw grows ever wider and wider, and offers both 250k+ high rollers while also skimming through the water for the $400 krill. The $250 algae comes next, apparently. For me, having tumbled back to the bottom, that means seeing that precious $250 go straight out of the mouth of the smaller and starving Sahara or Westgate or Resorts World cash games that I often haunt. It’s very telling that the “rising tides” thing no longer applies during the WSOP as it used to; during the WSOP many rooms that once rejoiced in overflow and notoriously soft games will sit empty.

The WSOP tournament, in other words, is fun but not ultimately the best thing for everyone; that is part of Berkey’s point. The WSOP is not the defender of the ecosystem; Berkey is. Yet he struggles to hold his ground because the consumer doesn’t care for the ecosystem either. The consumer drives from Billings to play $400 tournaments and spend XXX on extra rake, travel, food, and fun that he could have put in his cash game ecosystem at home. See where the money goes? (Mason Malmuth was very wise to point out in his Cardrooms book that it is not the consumer who is necessarily best at making the rules.) Nor will our $400 tourney runner necessarily move up to $1000 tournaments, one of the flaws in Berkey’s conception because he never truly intends to improve as a player. The WSOP is strictly tourism for most of coach class; the Bobby’s Room econ team has some blind spots about what goes on outside its funny mirrors.

Now we’re ready to realize the interior truth: the WSOP just isn’t sacred anymore. It is scaling the series, more and more in a way that cheapens the experience a tad. Berkey argues against this happening without saying the words, because they are interior words, embarrassing words. This isn’t Rounders anymore; this is the Conventioneer Poker Series. Let’s get to 100 bracelets and 1,000,000 entrants. “I want him to think I was pondering a call, but all I was really thinking of was Vegas and the $400 Ankle Biter at the fucking Walmart Resort.”

This isn’t just the surface supply and demand squabble, this is something that stings and drives reasonable people to take hard positions. In particular it stings a generation of players because it unmasks what poker essentially is and was to them, what the WSOP meant in their youthful dreams. Big numbers are important, and no one really resents your deep run at the Ankle Biter. However, illusions are just as important, far more important than that debate you want to win.

The WSOP as hard-earned poker pilgrimage is disappearing. You can scream as much as you want about numbers at me or about that special smell of the Main, but the math cuts both ways – as we bring more and more debased versions of the Main to everyone, everywhere, all the time, at any price point, the luster leaves the pony. At this point, the WSOP is merely a good festival, and one with competition we’d never thought we’d see from the WPT and the other hungry hippos. Name all the bracelet winners from last year. Hell, name the Main Event Champ.

The truth as they say, may set you free, but more realistically, it just hurts.

3 thoughts on “Of Tourney Buy-ins, Bracelets, and Motivations

  1. I couldn’t agree more. And I think there are some interesting wrinkles to this story.

    First, the move from Rio to Horseshoe – rebranded from Bally’s but not renovated at all except for minimal investment in the Lobby area. Having the WSOP centrally located gave it a popularity boost, since the Rio experience felt more like a hobbyist’s convention than a mainstream Vegas event.

    Second, the flow of dollars from cash games to tournaments benefits the skilled players, some of whom in turn become sponsors and shills of the tournament operators. If you review the livestreams of the ME or smaller events, an observer may be surprised at the white belt skill level that some of the players display – they’d be wrecked in my home cash game or at any local cardroom. Yet, when you fill an event with 50% white belts, some of them will inevitably end up at the final table, perpetuating the dream and the myth of thousands.

    As something of a counterpoint, my limited experience in 2022-23 (spending 4-5 days in the city) was that the cash games in the near vicinity of Horseshoe were pretty well attended.

  2. One more point worth mentioning: The satellites – despite their rake – become more enticing because of the inflow of rec players to the WSOP. I seldom used to play them but should probably consider doing so.

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