Here’s the thing: I’m not a young man, and I’ve been off the road for a few years. More than a few people greeted me at the Wynn this week with–if not the words, at least the look in their eye–”Man, I thought you were dead. Or at least retired. But probably dead.”
So, after four days of watching, chatting, and reporting around this 2022 WPT World Championship, I started to doubt my eyes and ears. Neither are what they used to be, but every day I found myself thinking, “This is, like, a pretty big deal, right? I’m not making it up, right?”
I checked myself for recency bias, confirmation bias, and the standard blood pressure and equilibrium anomalies. After four days, I asked myself, “How exactly did the WPT pull this off? In December, not two years removed from COVID lockdowns, in a down economy, this close to the holidays…how in the hell did the WPT pull this off?”
This is, outside of the WSOP Main Event, the biggest $10,000 buy-in event of the year by a long way. When the tournament bean-counters tallied all the buy-ins up last night, the total prize pool sat very close to $30 million, nearly double the $15 million guarantee. Every one of the six people at the final table will earn more than $1 million. The winner will get more than $4 million.
So, is this monster event a real Godzilla or a lot of smoke and mirrors to make it look big? Here’s where my old brain landed on how the WPT did it:
Priming the pump
Back in the days before we got our water from Fiji and 7-11, old timers had to find a way to get their water pumps working. So, they’d pour some water down into the pump to get rid of any air pockets that might stop the fresh water from making it to fresh air.
The WPT pulled off the poker variety of priming the pump. It’s not a new trick, but it’s one that’s not been employed as effectively in recent years. We saw the World Series of Poker explode after qualifiers like Chris Moneymaker started showing up in 2003. In more recent years, we saw PokerStars adapt the idea to simply begin giving away lots of seats in the first PSPC.
The WPT worked this strategy in a lot of different ways, including pushing lots of paid satellites on different platforms and giving away approximately 120 buy-ins ($1.2 million) to this event.
Like the PSPC and its Platinum Pass giveaways, the marketing spend on free seats can artificially inflate the prize pool of a tournament. In this case, the WPT inflated this event by less than 5%. So, the spend isn’t as important as what it accomplishes.
Right or wrong, just like the WSOP or PSPC being flush with recreational players or rank amateurs, professionals flock to events with, all due respect, softer spots. So, when there are months of news about satellite and giveaway winners stacking up, the vast majority of tournament pros are going to mark the date on their calendar. That buzz only gets louder as the event gets closer, and by the time you get to Day 1, it’s so loud that people are lining up to rebuy before they’ve even lost their first bullet.
Feel the boom
One of the first intangibles I noticed when showing up at the Wynn this week was how much the energy at the WPT World Championship felt like the early days of the poker boom. It was nothing I could quite put my finger on, but there was something very familiar but nearly forgotten about this event.
Over the course of a few days, the pieces of evidence started to stack up. The WPT had hosted a big welcome party that doubled as a thank you to the players and the people who qualified to be here. It brought in celebrities and Vegas performers to class up the crowd. The WPT put together a big VIP lounge with games, good furniture, and food.
During the tournament, the WPT gave away money to players who were already playing. Its ambassadors were pushing the event hard on social media. It partnered with some of the best-known names and content creators currently working in the business.
The WPT brass and executives didn’t hide in their offices. They were out and among the players, glad-handing and letting it be known that they were there to listen to the players.
Put another way, the WPT didn’t take the “if you throw a tournament, people will come” approach that seemed to dominate the years since Black Friday dramatically altered the poker landscape.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t mention the way the WPT handled the invited and uninvited members of the media. The WPT began working months in advance to bring media outlets to the event and treated them (read: us) very well throughout the event. More than making sure the media was comfortable and had adequate access to the tournament and its players, the WPT did something few operators do: it invited the media to come and then didn’t put a leash on the reporters and content creators. There was no harsh quid pro quo. The media were allowed to work without chaperones on their heels and handlers making sure they didn’t peek behind the curtain. Sure, we’re only four days into the Championship and the media hasn’t found something scandalous to challenge the WPT, but at least in these easy times, the WPT is handling its outside media very well.
Location, location, location
There are a lot of nice properties in Vegas and around the world. I’ve been to poker tournaments in a lot of them. It’s rare to find a place like the Wynn.
The Wynn’s reputation as a hotel and casino property need no introduction. Since it opened, the Wynn has built its brand on catering to people with a certain expectation of “something better.” Moreover, poker players have long enjoyed how the Wynn treats its people with a little something extra.
Until you’ve been here for a few days, you might not even notice it, but there is something else that stands out far and above most other places you’ll visit: no matter who you are, how you’re dressed, or how much money you’re spending, the staff of the Wynn make you feel like you’re the most important person under the Wynn roof.
I ordered breakfast here a couple of days ago, and when it was a few minutes late, the man who brought it to me acted like he was apologizing to the President of the United States for his tardiness. The same day, part of the IT staff heard a request to put a tournament clock in the media room. The Wynn sent a team of three people who worked fast and with every apology for interrupting our work (which they weren’t really doing). By the time the IT guys left, they felt like friends we hated to see go.
From the security staff to the baristas to the executives, the Wynn treats poker players less like convention cattle and more like VIPs they’re hosting in their high limit rooms.
Yes, it’s just Hospitality 101, but it stands in stark contrast to other places I’ve been with long lines, budget hotel-style rooms, and staffs who consistently behave as if their job requirements are mere favors to the guests.
The WPT has inked a multi-year deal with the Wynn to host this tournament, and the venue alone will go a long way toward convincing people to come back.
Same time next year?
While this missive is a glowing review for the WPT, I’m no pollyanna. This tournament, as near as I can tell, has not yet suffered some weird PR meteor falling from the sky and knocking the train off the tracks. The unqualified success still has to make it the final table before we can tie a blue ribbon to it. Beyond that, if it’s not repeatable, the 2022 WPT World Championship may only stand out as a bright spot in a very average pool of poker events in modern poker.
I wouldn’t suggest the WPT got lucky with this event’s success, because I’ve seen the work that it takes to put on a show of this magnitude. But to convince the more jaded and tired of poker players and public that this spectacle wasn’t just a stroke of good fortune, the WPT will have to find a way to repeat what it created here.
In short, the WPT has set a new high bar for what a major tournament looks like. It’s not just up to other operators to try to reach and climb over that bar. The WPT just set the bar for itself, too, and it now goes into 2023 having to prove it can continue to be the WPT it revealed this week.
Photos by Joe Giron, PokerPhotoArchive