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The 2010 World Series of Poker - Many a mickle maks a muckle

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July 23rd, 2010


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01:10 am - The 2010 World Series of Poker
The bulk of this year's World Series of Poker, hereafter the WSoP, recently concluded in Las Vegas. I think history will judge this to have been one of the better ones; grade it a B+ at the very least. The corporate overlords at casino behemoth Harrah's, who own the WSoP brand, will doubtless be pleased that so far it has passed without major scandal or embarrassment.

If there's one thing with which the public associates the World Series, it's the $10,000-entry-fee-per-player no-limit Texas Hold 'Em World Championship held as the main event, which has been responsible for the seven richest (not quite the same thing as largest, but arguably more important) face-to-face poker tournaments ever, generating one a year for the last seven years. This year's tournament had 7,319 entrants, the second highest figure ever after the peak at 8,773 in 2006, a year when legislation was rather happier for the poker industry. This figure alone might be used as a metric for the health of poker at large and would likely lead to a judgment of rude health.

It's hard to directly compare player numbers in other events from year to year as the event is notorious for chopping and changing the precise formats of its tournaments from one year to the next, even as it becomes more and more bloated; this year, the six-week-long series has featured 57 tournaments, each one awarding not just a huge monetary prize but also an exclusive and prestigious bracelet to its champion. Early tournament entry numbers were slightly down on those of last year, but overall there has not been a notably strong significantly decreasing trend. It's certainly relevant to consider that last year there was just one tournament with a buy-in as low as $1,000, and it attracted over six thousand entrants; this year, there were six of them, and they attracted around three thousand entrants each. Perhaps there has been some dilution effect, with a player base split more broadly over more tournaments, and over tournaments hosted by an increasing number of different organisations, not affiliated with the World Series of Poker. The European Poker Tour is stronger than ever, even though the World Poker Tour is probably not doing quite so well any more. There are more regional or national subsidiary tours than ever before, as well. I have a vague suspicion that momentum among high-level tournament players was away from the WSoP in recent years, but this year momentum has been back towards the WSoP.

(Sidenote: game designers with plans to run immense games some day might be amused to note that the way the WSoP copes with such immense entries is by running multiple parallel streams; in practice, they tended not to have more than just - "just"! - two or three thousand players at the same time. For instance, the main event has four parallel "first days" and two parallel "second days", before the field merges to a single third day and continues as a single field from then on.

Last year's Main Event had an issue where the fourth and final "first day" was oversubscribed and even, supposedly for the first time in WSoP history, had to turn some potential players away. This year there were deliberate efforts to try to equalise the numbers in the "first day"s to some extent; the fourth was the biggest again, but things were much better balanced than in past years. I suspect that earlier "first days" are less popular because they necessitate spending extra time, and hence expense, in Las Vegas compared to the later ones. The thought of two or three thousand players in effectively the same game at the same time is still really fundamentally impressive, though.)

On the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence that online poker at large is certainly not expanding in the way it used to and is showing vague signs of a plateau; while the biggest online tournaments are continuing to grow, there is an extent to which many of the middling players are winding down their activities or dropping out altogether, and the poker world derives its strength from new blood at all levels of the metaphorical food chain.

It's as if there are fewer and fewer of the players who are starting out as online poker beginners, and if you've watched poker on TV and decided to give it a try for yourself, possibly when slightly drunk, then you've had already many years of opportunity to do so by now. The novelty is decreasing and the sponsorship is generating diminishing returns. Established players no longer can feast on the "fish", but now have to beat other established winners in order to show a return. However, much as people continue to take up the smoking habit around the world, there still are new poker players out there - quite possibly, more heavily concentrated outside traditional poker stronghold countries - for established players and established poker companies to find.

I specified earlier that the bulk of the WSoP is over. 2007 saw the first signs of "mission creep" as the event inspired a spin-off World Seres of Poker Europe series, taking place over a couple of weeks in September, to date firmly based in London. (Numbers have been good rather than great; I fear that strong numbers for EPT events on the continent will inspire WSoP Europe to spread its wings before long.) 2008 also saw the WSoP stretch even further by virtue of the inauguration of the November Nine concept; the Main Event is no longer played to a conclusion but merely to its final table, with that final table being played as a separate made-for-TV event in, as per the title, November. Additionally, the final table is only played down to the final two, with the final heads-up a separate event still. All to stretch the brand further still!

This year the dilution and spread of the event has seen the riches and glory distributed among many different winners; the headline, if you will, is that there is not one particular headline story to describe this year's event. While there is sufficient skill in poker that in the long run you can identify players who make far more than their share of the right decisions to win tournaments - which is as good a definition of skill as any - the individual tournament level has thrown up a lot of winners who are more anonymous than either notorious or famous. Making his name as the only (?) player to win two tournaments this year was Frank Kassela, who also picked up a third payday this WSoP even more lucrative than either of his bracelets in the $25,000 six-handed no-limit event.

Arguably the biggest winner of this year's championship was Michael Mizrachi, who won the $50,000-buy-in Poker Player's Championship, a tournament considered one of the most prestigious within the series due to (a) its unsurpassed entry fee and (b) its requirement that players must play eight different versions of poker in turn. The second half of his crowning achievement this year is that he has made it to the November Nine, as by far the best-known of the final table in the Main Event. Mizrachi is otherwise known by his nickname, "the Grinder", and has a very strong tournament record leading to a "player of the year" accolade in 2006. He is also noted for having had a large tax lien filed against him due to unpaid taxes, possibly suggesting a downturn in his fortunes since then, and also for having a brother Robert, a successful poker player in his own right.

It has been a very good year for British poker players, with five of the 57 tournaments seeing Britons pick up champions' bracelets and big fat cheques. Another five (?) tournaments saw Britons finishing in second place, picking up nearly-as-big cheques and, almost inevitably, considerable regret at being "first loser". James Dempsey and Richard Ashby each have the distinction of both a first-place and a second-place finish this year; Praz Bansi is another familiar winner, with Mike Ellis and Steve Jelinek picking up debut bracelets. Among the second-place-only finishers, Neil Channing and Sam Trickett are both familiar faces to TV poker viewers. Hurrah! It has also been a relatively good year for Canadian players, though as is usual the vast majority of bracelets are destined to remain within the United States.

Other than that, the majority of the fascination of the event comes from the natural consequence of getting thousands of crazy ramblin' gamblin' types together: they strike up outlandish wagers amongst themselves. Now the precise details of the bets are only really truly known by the players involved in the specific disagreements, but word does get out - and the fun thing is that it doesn't really matter whether the reporting is accurate or not. Sometimes the fiction can be more fun than the fact.

It has widely been reported that Phil Ivey, probably the consensus choice for the single best poker player alive, has an extremely large bet against Howard Lederer, and this report seems to reflect the consensus; Ivey has purportedly bet five million dollars, at even money, that he will win at least two bracelets at the Las Vegas elements of the 2010 and 2011 World Series of Poker festivals. Ivey and Lederer are known to be long-standing friends and - while the precise legality of the situation may require some deft legal footwork - are both considered to be part-owners of the Full Tilt Poker web site. Ivey won his eighth bracelet this year, fittingly, in the multi-discipline H.O.R.S.E. discipline; in response Lederer tweeted a very succinct "...gulp".

However, while details are very hazy, Ivey's bracelet bet may not be the biggest of its type this year. Tom Dwan, who plays online under the name "durrrr", is associated with some of the most volatile gains and losses in all of online poker; databases suggest prolonged swings over the past few years of five million up, three million down, three million up, seven million down, another three million up, four million up, four more million up and four million down. At the end of this roller-coaster, he is believed to be the biggest winner online so far this year. He announced an intention to bet on himself winning a bracelet this year; while the precise details are not public information, it appears that he got millions and millions of dollars of action. Nobody but Dwan knows the precise details, but there might have been five million dollars, or there might have been fifteen million dollars, riding one way or the other. Dwan managed to get to the final two of a tournament within a week and a half of the series starting, but finished second, much to the relief of his many opponents; Simon Watt, the New Zealander who beat him, made a lot of influential friends quickly.

Could this all be a sophisticated work of fiction propagated across the poker world to thrill the no-mark fans who would never know for sure either way? Plausibly, but just as plausibly not. Dwan is believed to be one of the principals in this remarkable story from 2007. One player here referred to as "Tony" (believed to be Dwan) expressed the opinion to his roommate that he could beat anyone in the world at chess if the opponent started without one of his two rooks. The roommate disagreed, and then this difference of opinion rapidly escalated into a $50,000 wager between the two of them. The roommate specified that the "anyone in the world" in question should be chess International Master Greg Shahade, author of the story to which I linked, and "Tony" comprehensively lost his bet.

There are all manner of crazy bets going on. I can't substantiate this, but I'm sure I remember reading that one three-time bracelet winner tweeted (presumably in error, because he soon deleted it) that he had entered so many tournaments this year and taken part in so many side bets that he was over $300,000 down for the whole series. It would be quite a feat, of sorts, to earn a prestigious title and still lose money over the duration of the series, but I don't think that the famous player in question even managed the more desirable half of the accomplishment.

It takes a certain sort of degenerate gambler with a certain sort of disregard for money to engage in such crazy wagering; while all these participants are likely to be very wealthy indeed, it takes a sort of mentality where the money is almost irrelevant and it's the act of winning that gives people their buzz these days. Perhaps it's not enough just to win; perhaps it's more important that the other participants very visibly and very clearly lose. Cigar Aficionado magazine - and I didn't know such a thing existed - had an article in 2002 about some of the craziest bets that have worked their way, in fact or through fiction, into legend. One relatively common type of wager is that someone will bet on themselves to lose an agreed sum of weight by an agreed deadline; some successful poker players are known to stake very considerable sums on their own confidence to make the weight, when in practice they may well not be able to have the willpower. Such weight betting isn't healthy, it isn't responsible and it isn't clever.

I'm deliberately going not to name names, because I know this has the potential to be a rather trigger-y subject, but the craziest of this year's known proposition bets saw Player A bet Player B the exceptionally considerable sum of money C that he could cut his body mass from D to E, quantities on which I will not pass judgment, by deadline F - and Player A made the target weight, with two pounds to spare, by methods which in my inexpert opinion seem extreme and unwise, though obviously physcially temporary. Player B, who has agreed to pay off the bet at a somewhat startling monthly rate for presumably years to come, had previously won a very considerable sum of money by the same method in the previous year; the whole story was reported upon by Author G, who - almost inevitably - won a considerable sum of money in the same way himself this year. I hope this is sufficiently vague in order not to distress.

That may have been the craziest wager, but despite everything it has competition for the craziest incident at this year's series. A dishonourable mention to the dozen or so dumbnutted men who decided to enter the ladies' tournament. While legally they can not be prohibited from entering, technically participation in the World Series at large is at Harrah's discretion and bans and suspensions have been threatened, and may well have been implemented, in response to the blatant (and, in at least one case, overtly misogynistic) disrespect shown.

But we can top even that to finish discussion of this year's World Series on a high. Phil "Unabomber" Laak attempted to set a world record, overseen and certified by adjudicators from the well-known publisher of record in such matters, for marathon poker play. The chronology runs that Larry Olmsted played for just over 72 hours straight (i.e., including the sanctioned five-minutes-per-hour breaks) in 2004; Dave Cain struggled past this to 74 hours in 2008, then Britain's Paul Zimbler pushed the limit 48 minutes further in 2009, raising over £30,000 for charity by doing so. Phil Laak targeted 80 hours, managed it, found he was able to keep going, kept going and eventually called it a day after ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN hours. For the best coverage, start at June 2nd on Laak's own blog and work your way forwards through time.

Unrelated to poker, but on the casino theme, I was really impressed by Casino Backgammon, a new table game recently introduced to at least one Las Vegas casino. It has an instantly very familiar design based on backgammon, it has a lovely sense of internal progression, it has logical structure and - strange to say - it has as much narrative as you could hope for considering that the gameplay is really, really simple and relies purely on the results of two or three rolls of a pair of dice. Players must make two identically sized bets. The first is won by advancing two backgammon pieces past a "bar" (backgammon terminology for a line going across the board) based on a single roll of two dice; the second is won by advancing the pieces all the way off the board within two (or, with a bonus, three) rolls.

Most deliciously, the first bet is very visibly paid off at odds that are clearly in the player's favour - but you can't make that wager alone, and the compulsory second bet pays out rather less generously. Taking the two together, the whole game has been analysed typically to have a healthy 4% rake in the casino's favour. However, the design is elegant and, well, kinetic; this might just be the long-sought (dreaded?) casino game which is simple fun as a game activity by itself, rather than all the thrill relying on the sums of money won or lost through play. If there's any justice in the world, Casino Backgammon will take off like wildfire and the usual suspects of craps, roulette and blackjack will finally have a worthy challenger.

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