The organizers of the World Series of Poker have just pulled off a remarkable feat. A seven-week poker series involving tens of thousands of players, along with a record-breaking 88 bracelet events, is now in the books. And it all took place during a pandemic.
Early signs for the success of the series were far from encouraging. A month before the opening event, WSOP announced proof of COVID vaccination would be required in order for players to participate. This produced a predictable schism within the poker community, with a majority favoring the public health measure, while a noisy minority asserted that WSOP was infringing on their civil liberties. WSOP compounded the issue by releasing confusing rules about player disqualification in the event of a positive COVID test.
Adding to the concerns was the increasing evidence that the COVID Delta variant was a particularly nasty, highly-transmissible beast, along with an uptick in COVID cases in Nevada.
But in the end, it all worked out. Attendance was high, thanks in part to an easing of international travel restrictions for the Main Event. And with the exception of a flurry of players contracting COVID towards the end of the series, the dire predictions of mass outbreaks were thankfully wide of the mark.
The series also marked the end of the WSOP’s tenure at the Rio. With a new chapter for the series opening in 2022 at Bally’s/Paris, what does the future hold for the most famous poker series in the world?
Is bigger better?
One of the seemingly uncontested assumptions about the WSOP is that bigger is better. The position of tournament pros who spoke to Poker.org is very clear on this point, and for an understandable reason.
The WSOP is the largest annual faucet that pours money from recreational poker players into the bankrolls of professionals. While amateurs frequently enjoy big scores at the series, and are thus lauded in the poker media, in a statistical sense the money flow is unidirectional. Poker is a game of skill. When the less-skilled compete with the more-skilled, the long-term outcome is never in doubt.
For those who gleefully rub their hands together at the thought of an ever-expanding WSOP, the move from Rio to Bally’s/Paris offers some good news. The conference area at the new digs covers twice the floor-space of the Rio. If Caesars Entertainment and WSOP management choose to allocate this space to the series, it will not only ease the notorious crowding at the event, but potentially provide an immediate route to further growth.
But how big can the series get? And is continual growth the financial panacea that most pros claim?
Additional space in principle would allow more events to be run concurrently. Unfortunately, one of the main drawbacks of live poker compared to its online counterpart is that one can only play a single table at a given time. It’s therefore likely that players will resist efforts to massively overlap events.
To continue the trend of adding more events year after year, the only alternative is to extend the time period of the series beyond its current seven weeks. Caesars Entertainment would likely be happy with such an arrangement. In 2022 the series returns to its mid-summer slot, when Las Vegas is at its least pleasant. It’s a convenient way for the parent company to fill hotel rooms during the fifth season of “ultra-summer.”
Sustainability in question
A bigger question is whether continual growth within a system of finite resources is even sustainable. It’s not working out so well for the planet. In the case of the WSOP, one annual resource that is in short supply is competent poker dealers.
In 2021, one bizarre consequence of this staffing issue was the closure of the Flamingo and Bally’s poker rooms during the WSOP. Not only did their closure deny Caesars the considerable income their cash games generate during the busiest poker period of the year, it compounded the difficulty for cash-game players to find a game on The Strip.
The subsequent permanent closure of the Flamingo leaves Caesars with just two Las Vegas poker rooms: Bally’s and Caesars Palace. As such, the company is becoming increasingly divorced from an investment in the broader poker scene in Las Vegas. The importance of the WSOP as a poker flagship is undeniable. But Las Vegas persists as a poker capital because it offers the game 52 weeks of the year. Any further growth in the WSOP comes with serious disruption to the bread-and-butter of Las Vegas poker.
Conflicting goals, commercial rights
Perhaps a useful starting point for predicting the future of the WSOP is to consider the goals of the interested parties. There are three groups that potentially drive that future: Caesars Entertainment, professional poker players, and recreational poker players.
When you register for a WSOP event, three things happen. Part of the cash you push across the cage desk goes to the prize pool. A fraction of that money goes towards rake. Finally, the process is complete when you sign over to the WSOP full rights to use your likeness in any way the organization chooses.
This process is apparently deemed reasonable by all involved in the transaction. But is it? Is it reasonable for participants in a competitive event to provide the entire prize money, pay the staff, and sign away any interest in the commercial rights of a product that is then widely broadcast?
There is no parallel in any professional competitive event, from football to the world chess championship. Equally, the majority of participants in the WSOP are not professionals. Nevertheless, something about this arrangement seems to be unbalanced. And if the goal of the WSOP is unbridled growth, maybe one important conversation for its future is how the revenue from commercial rights is distributed.
One reason this is important is the staffing issue that faces the WSOP every year. The event deserves the highest quality dealers and floor staff in the industry. That will only happen if those workers are compensated well. Rather than asking players to dig deeper in their pockets by providing more rake, perhaps it’s time for a cut of the potentially-lucrative commercial rights to fund the project. In principle, one can even imagine a utopia in which players pay no rake at all.
Featured image source: Haley Hintze/Poker.org