July 23rd, 2010


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. Collapse )

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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. Collapse )

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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