Are we living in a new golden age of live poker? Numbers are up across the board, guarantees are being smashed and, more importantly, it seems like the buzz is back. Yet, even given all that, there’s still one tournament that has been looming large over 2023, as hard to ignore as the imposing Wynn Las Vegas casino it will call home. We’re talking, of course, about December’s WPT World Championship and its record-breaking $40 million guarantee.
The jewel in the WPT crown is an end-of-year treat we’re all looking forward to at PokerOrg, in part because we know how good the WPT is at throwing this kind of party. We still remember the excellent show they put on last year. But, when it comes to memories of the World Poker Tour, there are few that will have more than the longtime voice of the WPT, Vince Van Patten.
“It was great, it was really fun, but no one cared”
“I thought there’d be no chance of the show going on this long,” Vince tells PokerOrg. “When Mike Sexton and I were doing the pilot show, we thought we’d probably do two of these things and that’s it. But then everyone got to see the cards, and the next thing was ‘it’s the best game in the world!’. It’s a true blessing for me.”
That pilot show went out in 2002, a year before Moneymaker’s WSOP win lit the fuse for the poker boom. If it seems like Van Patten has good timing, it should come as no surprise: he’s literally trained for it. His pre-poker career saw him enjoy success as an actor and a professional tennis player, both jobs where great timing is essential.
Yet his poker commentary career actually began before the use of hole-card cameras made televised poker the unmissable entertainment it is today. His memories of that time give a fresh perspective on one particularly iconic hand: Scotty Nguyen’s famous speech-play that won him the 1998 WSOP Main Event.
“My father [Dick Van Patten] presented the World Series back when you couldn’t see the cards, and then they asked me to do it in 1998 because they knew I was a poker player. It was the year Scotty Nguyen won, with that famous quote, ‘You call and it’s all over, baby!’. It was great, it was really fun, but no one cared – there were maybe three other people watching, because no one could see the cards.”
25 years on from that moment, it seems bizarre that viewers really couldn’t see the cards being played. Blame it on poor memory or the Mandela Effect, but this writer is sure he knew the cards Nguyen held as he watched the hand play out all those years ago. But it’s true: hole-cams weren’t used in televised poker at all until 1999, and wouldn’t be seen at the WSOP until 2002.
Vince explains: “It took Steve Lipscomb to have the idea: ‘Hey, this game is fascinating, but you’ve got to see the cards to make it blow up’. It was always a great game, but people didn’t know what they were missing.”
That soon changed. The coming together of internet poker, hole-cams and Moneymaker’s win saw poker’s stock rise like never before.
The view from ringside
It’s a sport to which he’s had a ringside seat for over 20 years now—longer than his own professional tennis career (and longer than most professional sports careers). While multi-day tournament poker is physically tougher than many would imagine, the game doesn’t put the same type of strain on your body as a career in sport. Yet that doesn’t mean everyone has what it takes to rack up decades at the tables like Doyle Brunson. Over the course of 21 seasons, Van Patten has seen some great talents come and go.
“There are a lot of great players that do well for a year or two,” he tells us, “but a lot of players do well and then they’re gone. It’s a streaky game, and add the fact that you have to be around a casino where there are lots of opportunities to make crazy bets and stuff…If you’re not disciplined, you’ll have your leaks and you’ll go off.”
So speaks a man who knows what it takes to succeed at an elite level of competition but also understands the appeal of prop bets, gambling and casino life. Van Patten started playing poker in his teens, so has decades of experience to draw upon when discussing the game, its players and the hands they play at the WPT. But as well as being a player, he knows more than most what it takes to create an interesting poker spectacle; after all, he’s probably watched more poker than anyone around. The key for him is what players bring to the table beyond their pure poker skills.
“I like watching Will ‘The Thrill’ Failla,” Van Patten says. “You know, I like the entertainers, the guys who are larger than life, have a lot of personality, play a great game and get excited. Watching Brunson win his event was terrific, too.” All of which is not to say he doesn’t also have a deep appreciation for elite poker talent. “Play-wise, I think Darren Elias on the WPT has been so impressive. Doesn’t have to put sunglasses on, he just does his thing, makes people fold hands when it’s not his, and just has great, great instincts.”
Of course, Vince doesn’t work alone on the WPT broadcasts, and his colleagues are no slouches when it comes to picking up WPT silverware themselves. Tony Dunst has big wins on his resume (“He’s very solid, has taken down a WPT event already, and brings that to the commentary”), but it’s his former partner-in-crime, the late Mike Sexton, who provided Van Patten’s undisputed highlight from his years at the WPT.
“Mike Sexton winning his event in Montreal was truly exciting,” he recalls. “Everybody counted anyone over 60 out, you know? Like they just can’t win, they can’t play with the young guys. And Mike didn’t have to brag about it, he just did it. Without extra studying, just his instincts and watching the players. I was really proud of him.”
A record-busting guarantee
Sadly, Sexton is no longer around to join in the fun when December’s WPT World Championship kicks off at Wynn Las Vegas on December 12. The Champions Cup now bears his name, however, and will come with enough first-place prize money to make even the hardiest of pros sit up and take notice. Last year’s prize pool of over $29 million (almost double the $15 million guarantee) meant winner Eliot Hudon took down $4.1 million.
By all accounts it wasn’t just Hudon who enjoyed himself: the 2022 WPT World Championship won the GPI Award for Best Live Event, and had PokerOrg’s own Brad Willis remarking that it had the sort of buzz tourneys used to have back in the boom days.
“It was special,” Van Patten agrees. “Firstly, the arena at Wynn Las Vegas is just the classiest place, it’s exceptional. Then just the fact we had so many tournaments, back to back to back, with the best players in the world. Huge guarantees, in this beautiful scenario…plus it’s perfect timing: ‘it’s December, let’s go to Vegas and have fun’. It’s a combination of great things.”
The ambition at the WPT is for 2023 to outdo 2022 in every respect, starting with the guarantee. $40 million is the marquee number, and it’s enough to claim the world record for largest ever live tournament guarantee. What did Van Patten make of that when he first heard about it?
“We made it 15 million last year and 40 million is shocking, but all doable. I would say it’s hard to not go to this one. It’s going to take 4,000 players to hit the guarantee, but I think it’s going over. As far as a prediction goes, I’m going with 4,300 players!”
$40 million guaranteed, 4,000 players…crunching those numbers, even the less math-savvy among us (i.e. yours truly) can see that the Championship Event will feature a buy-in of $10k, plus fees. Yet the schedule offers the chance to go lower or much, much higher. The infamous Big One For One Drop will make its return at the 2023 WPT Festival, with its jaw-dropping $1 million buy-in intact. There’s no guaranteed prize pool in place for this one—it’s hard to predict who will have that kind of money available for this three-day event—but Van Patten will be watching with interest, if not taking part himself.
“I can’t imagine dropping $1 million on a buy-in, you’ve got to be a rich person to take that shot, but I will be fascinated by it. I want to see the millionaires go after it, and the interesting thing about it is that it’s all relative – they stay as cool as the guys playing for $1,000.” To date the biggest field for the $1m incarnation of the Big One is 48 entrants, back in 2012, but it’s a different landscape in 2023, with regular super-high-roller events throughout the year. Van Patten isn’t ready to make a prediction when it comes to numbers for this tournament: “I’m just curious about the numbers. Is there going to be 10? Is it going to be 20? You know, 30? I really don’t know.”
From high-rollers to freerollers
At the other end of the buy-in scale, the schedule features a number of more rec-friendly events in the $600-$3,000 range, as well as plenty of satellites. But there will also be a group of players there for free, thanks to various ClubWPT promotions.
One group of ClubWPT players, having already won a $2,500 WPT Prime Championship Passport, will be competing in a unique satellite to win a seat in the $10k World Championship Event. The kicker? They’ll be playing in a tag team with a WPT ambassador. Van Patten will join the likes of Brad Owen, Andrew Neeme, Tony Dunst, Matt Savage and Lynn Gilmartin in teaming up with a ClubWPT player to compete in what should be a memorable event. He’s looking forward to it.
“It’s so exciting when the ClubWPT players come to meet us in Vegas and we love to have them all,” he tells PokerOrg. “They’re always just the most enthusiastic poker players ever, buzzing around and having fun. It’s great, we’re always looking forward to it.”
The potential for those life-changing deep runs is still what keeps the more recreational players coming back to take a shot at the big time, 20 years after Chris Moneymaker became their patron saint. In many ways they’re the lifeblood of poker—a people’s game where anyone can hit a heater—but Van Patten’s advice to them is more practical than theoretical:
“Know where you’re going to eat,” he says. “Whether you want fast food, or something a little healthier, try to figure it out a little bit before because it can be tricky at times, and a little crowded. Also, try to get a good workout. We’re in Las Vegas, it’s fun to be outside for a few hours of the day. Get a walk in, keep your exercise going.”
Take a walk? That’s some sensible advice we can all put into action…the second we bust out.
With more than 20 different events taking place over the course of the WPT Festival, there will be plenty of new memories being made, not to mention new champions, new millionaires and some fresh bad beat stories (is there such a thing?).
And through it all Vince Van Patten will be there, just as he has been since the very beginning: the man with the golden touch, for live poker’s golden age.
The WPT World Championship Festival runs from November 29 to December 23, with the flagship event starting December 12. The Big One for One Drop runs December 18-20. PokerOrg Instant will bring you all the action as it happens. The WPT is livestreaming 14 days of coverage, including final tables for the Prime Championship, the Big One for One Drop and the Championship Event.
Photos courtesy of WPT