A couple of months ago I quietly geeked out over the latest installment of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. Most of the tournaments were slightly bigger still than they were last year; "10% bigger" seems like a reasonable guess. Two tournaments stand out, though; the tournament with the highest entry fee, the US$50,000 "H.O.R.S.E." tournament (which gets its name because players rotate between five different poker games, so abbreviated) went from 143 entrants last year to 148 entrants this year, though I note that the prize pool went down.
The biggest news is that the main event, the World Championship of Poker as far as most people are concerned, the US$10,000 No Limit Hold 'Em event only had 6,358 entries. While that is a hideously large event by any standards, the trend over recent years has been strongly positive - from 631 entries in 2002 to 839, then 2,576, then 5,619, then 8,773 last year, then down to 6,358 this year. (The winner's prize dropped too, from US$12,000,000 last year to a piffling US$8,250,000 this year.) Some analysis blames the UIGEA, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 in the United States, which has toughened times up for the online poker industry; at least one major player has pulled out of the US market altogether as a result, with many other major players waiting on the result of a test case, should one ever happen. The other consequence is that it also became rather harder for online poker rooms to offer satellite tournaments which offer entry into the US$10,000 main event as a prize. These satellite tournaments still took place, but in practice they offered prizes of US$10,000 of credit rather than of US$10,000 worth of tournament entry, and many - perhaps 75% of - people decided to take the US$10,000 cash and run rather than play another tournament with a very high chance of losing it all (or a small chance of turning it into millions).
Some might view this as evidence that poker has peaked, but I tend not to agree. Respected (and hilarious) blogger Dr. Pauly commented "Even with the UIGEA, PokerStars paid out more satellite winners than last year. Only a percentage of seat winners actually showed up at the Rio. And imagine how large the field would be without the UIGEA? Over 10,000. Easily." and this seems entirely plausible to me. Instead, I would tend to ascribe part of the downswing to frustration to the way that the tournament was organised over the year; since the World Series stopped being Benny Binion's event at Benny Binion's casino, the new owners haven't done nearly so well at making friends with their players, and the tournament (while prestigious) is just one tournament out of very many poker tournaments, both online and offline. Even the US$10,000 entry fee isn't as distinctive as it used to be.
The World Series of Poker has spun off its own circuit of events, but this competes with tours of poker tournaments around the globe, from the grand and high-stakes World Poker Tour to a number of much smaller ones even within the UK. For instance, the European Poker Tour is a pretty big deal; on its most recent swing to London, Victoria Coren was victorious in a field of 398 entrants, each paying £3,500, winning £500,000 for her trouble. (Victoria is well-known and popular in the field as a journalist but also as a TV poker host, commentator and player. Her performances on TV were often not enough to win, but her off-screen results even before this bore high regard.) Last year's European Poker Tour Grand Final in Barcelona attracted 706 entrants, each with a €10,000 buy-in (technically €9,400 prize money + €600 fees) the winner taking home €1,825,010. This year's EPT is looking like being over 50% bigger than last year's, starting with an event in Barcelona where 543 entrants paid €8,000 (in the same vein as above, €7,700 + €300 - an admirably restrained rake) to play and first prize was €1,170,700. Accordingly, poker is doing at least as well as ever in Europe.
The World Series of Poker then struck back by inaugurating a clumsily-titled event, the World Series of Poker Europe (shouldn't there be at least a colon in there?) with a concerted attempt to emulate the tightly-focused, high-stakes nature of the original series in Las Vegas by having only three events, but all prestigious ones: £2,500(+£150) H.O.R.S.E., £5,000(+£250) Pot Limit Omaha - because PLO is the quintessential European game - and a £10,000(+£350) No Limit Texas Hold 'Em Main Event. This attracted an extremely strong field with many top professionals from the USA; truly this had the feel of a global event rather than being primarily European, as the EPT events might be accused of being. The £10,000 buy-in is a pretty chunky one; outdone by the US$25,000 of the World Poker Tour's Grand Final, but at effectively US$20,000 plus, one of the biggest tournaments anywhere in the world.
The organisers had announced an expected 750 participants in the main event for a £7,500,000 pool and a £2,500,000 jackpot and will probably be disappointed that the actual field was just 362. Perhaps the buy-in was just too high, perhaps the EPT events were too close in time, perhaps the plan to split the event between three London casinos was just considered a turn-off. (My gut feeling is that the WSOPE may well not be in London next year unless there can be a new poker venue with space for at least sixty tables in which to centralise the action. Whether this is a new casino, a new poker club or just a hotel managing to get the regulatory approval to host is open to question. Heck, the
If you've followed that link, you'll have spoiled yourself for this: the winner of the Main Event at the inaugural World Series of Poker Europe was one Annette Obrestad of Norway. The reputation of Scandinavian poker players is that they play prodigious quantities of online poker with phenomenal skill at a spectacularly early age, and Annette lives up to the billing perfectly, with a twist. Annette isn't a funkily deceptive Norwegian name, it's as much of a girl's name in Norway as it is anywhere else in the Western World. Oh, and she only turns nineteen tomorrow, as I type.
I'm sorry, I'll read that again. An eighteen-year-old young lady from Norway beat 361 of the best poker players in the world to win the first prize of one million pounds sterling, or just over two million US dollars, at the main event of the first World Series of Poker Europe. Exclamation mark, exclamation mark, exclamation mark.
In the Daily Telegraph, regular cricket journalist Martin Johnson was entered into the same event and has been writing up his experiences, emphasising his (presuambly faux) naivety and inexperience at the game. (He turns out to place in the money, but only barely above the bubble, taking home a still-rather-handsome £27k.) Seems to me that there's no need to make up a Plimpton-esque story about some wacky journalist trying his arm at big-stakes poker and coming out ahead when the real winner is, with all due respect to eighteen-year-olds, ladies and Norwegians, a priori far more unlikely. (Besides, Lennox Lewis playing in the Las Vegas main event in '06 was a much funnier reveted take on the central principle.) This would be considered too fantastic and unbelievable for Roy of the Rovers, should for unpredictable reasons a story about a poker kid be considered suitable material for a fantasy sports comic; in a reference that others among you might get, she is the Norwegian Hikaru no poker. Annette no poker, perhaps. She certainly does know poker - and, Bo, you don't know Diddley.
All that said, the story is far more believable than that and nobody is making wild accusations of real life poker being rrrrrriggggged, only with more "r"s and more "g"s. She has cashed in live poker tournaments in the past - four of 'em, count 'em! - and has very considerable previous form online. (I strongly suspect that her rather blue appearance in that photo is the result of questionable lighting; the alternative hypothesis that she is a blue-skinned poker-playing alien from the planet Neptune can be rejected.) While the claims that "she was long ranked the world's best online tournament player" are probably hyperbole, the stories of her online poker experience were already going around last October and this interview with her in August is also worth a look. She is the real deal and, by reputable account, happens to be perfectly lovely with it. If you look through the hand-by-hand, she certainly plays almost suicidally reckless poker - but, hey, evidently it works. (At least once.)
Everybody loves a good prodigy tale and this one is all the more wonderful both for being factual and for shattering stereotypes. My heart leaps just a little, in an I'm-a-married-man-and-don't-perv-over-ei
To coin a phrase, I think this victory makes Annette the Sofia Polgar of poker. Context: in 1989, at the age of 14, Sofia had a similarly remarkable 8½/9 result in an open chess tournament against vaguely comparably strong Soviet grandmaster opposition. One bio calls it "the highest performance rating of any chess player, male or female, in any open tournament in chess history"; there has been some quibbling over that claim (not least because tournament ratings when players score 100% are not necessarily well-defined) but Annette's result shatters the world of poker of today much as Sofia's shattered the 1989 world of chess. That said, Sofia Polgar is the least successful of the three prodigious Polgar sisters. That gives Annette something to work towards; another bracelet or two (cf GM norm, perhaps?) here and another million win or two before she's the full Judit Polgar!