WPT World Championship was short on the guarantee, but long on integrity

Lee Jones
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Posted on: December 29, 2023 9:00 am EST

In September of this year, when World Poker Tour CEO Adam Pliska announced the $40 million guarantee for the WPT World Championship at the Wynn Las Vegas, he and his team knew they were making a huge bet. At the announcement, Pliska said:

“There could be an overlay. You’re going to have to take that (risk) just like in any other business. It takes a while to build a franchise, but we’re fully committed. We’re ready to put down $40 million and make that our stand.”

Three and a half months later, when registration closed for the main event, Pliska stepped up to the podium, and acknowledged that they had come up short of the guarantee by about $2.5 million. That’s – well, that’s a lot of money. Although I was surprised to learn it’s not even the largest overlay a live tournament ever had.

Some in the poker Twittersphere and other social media platforms were quick to criticize, or even needle the WPT for missing the $40 million mark.

But all this pot-stirring and online repartee is burying the true lede of the story. Reporting from Pliska’s announcement of the shortfall, PokerOrg’s editor-in-chief, Brad Willis, wrote,

The buy-ins were about $2.5 million short, and the WPT would be picking up the rest.

Brad didn’t even give the concept a full sentence, because there was no doubt in anybody’s mind: “[T]he WPT would be picking up the rest.

The WPT thinks that “Guarantee” means they pay for any shortfall

This shouldn’t be a sub-head in an article. It shouldn’t even be a sentence. You know, “Which part of ‘guarantee’ do you not understand?”

But this is the main takeaway from Adam Pliska’s press conference. Why? Because we can point to multiple examples – recent and historical – of tournament organizers finding ways to not “pick up the rest” when the buy-ins don’t reach a published guarantee. The methods vary from subtle to bald-faced, but the ultimate intent is always the same: the tournament organizer won’t cash a check its marketing department wrote.

In fact, we need look back only a couple of weeks. Legendary tournament director Tony Burns – yes, he of Seminole Hard Rock and Moneymaker Tour fame – was going to manage a tournament series at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Then he learned that the MGM was backpedaling on honoring some of the guarantees. I don’t know the details, but the bottom line is that Tony didn’t want to be associated with an event that thought that “guarantee” didn’t necessarily mean “guarantee.” So he withdrew himself from the event.

Until phone calls were made…

Check it out: “Also, the $500,000 Guarantee on the Main Event will be honored in full.” Another sentence that should never have to be written.

Tony Burns, like the WPT, thinks that “guarantee” means “we pick up the rest.”

That’s just how you run a shop

I had the honor – there is no other word – of working for PokerStars for most of 15 years, the first five of which I reported directly to PokerStars founder Isai Scheinberg. Those were the original go-go days of poker, and we were fortunate to rarely miss tournament guarantees. But when we did come up short, nobody even thought about weaseling out of paying the difference. I’m not aware of anybody ever suggesting such a thing to Isai, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be in the room if somebody did.

I know for a fact that Adam Pliska is a fan of Isai Scheinberg. Consider the gala dinner the WPT held to celebrate Isai (along with WPT broadcaster-for-life Vince Van Patten). Pliska and Scheinberg get it – to succeed, you have to make some big, risky bets. If you win all those bets, you’re not being risky enough. But when you lose the bet, you pay up.

That is, you pick up the rest.

The best poker players don’t win every session. Neither do the best enterprises

In the press conference where he announced that the WPT World Championship had fallen short of the $40 million guarantee, Adam Pliska said, “In my mind, we’ve succeeded.”

The keyboard warriors can throw their e-slings and e-arrows, but Pliska, and his team of poker industry legends (Savage, Dunst, Van Patten, Gilmartin, Kerstetter, Bradley, et al), know what they’re about. They will reset and recalibrate. They will tweak the stuff that can be tweaked: buy-in levels, re-entry options, starting flights, and so on.

But more importantly, they won’t tweak the stuff that can’t be tweaked: treat the customers well, put on first-rate events. And when you miss a guarantee, you pick up the rest.

At that same press conference, Pliska also said:

When you set a goal, you always want to reach it. But to hear the feedback that we continue to get and to know that we’re on track, if we’ve contributed two or three million dollars to that and the growth of poker and doing it better, then that is a small investment in the long run for what we’re doing.

Isai Scheinberg probably didn’t hear that press conference, but had he heard it, he would have smiled and said, “Okay. Very good.”

The WPT invested an extra two or three million dollars in the growth of poker this month because that was the right thing to do. That makes every boat in the poker harbor rise. It adds integrity and credibility to our industry, and I would like to see everybody who loves the game – even those who wear the hat of a different brand – stand up and cheer.