When World Series of Poker officials announced in mid-April that the 2020 WSOP was being postponed due to the uncertainty over the coronavirus pandemic, they promised that players would be playing for “WSOP glory from their homes” this summer.
That promise was met last week when the WSOP announced a total of 85 online bracelet events with 31 set for WSOP.com for players in Nevada and New Jersey, and another 54 for players outside of the United States to be battled for on GGPoker.com. The response from some of the poker community wasn’t all that positive with a large number of complaints focused on the fact that these events will award each winner a WSOP bracelet.
“My reasoning is likely separate from many others as I was indifferent to holding (a bracelet) until I learned of the significance it has with friends I love who love the game,” said Brandon Shack-Harris, who won a bracelet in 2014 and another in 2016. “I realized that some people go their whole lives dreaming of realizing what I was lucky to stumble onto, and had been taking for granted.”
Shack-Harris took to Twitter to tell the story of how Chad Brown being awarded an honorary WSOP bracelet before his passing in 2014 and subsequently learning how much the bracelet meant to Brown forced to him to better recognize and appreciate the personal significance of the award. The history behind and prestige of the bracelet is front of mind for Shack-Harris and others who fear that WSOP executives aren’t keeping that in mind as they make decisions.
“The WSOP does a fantastic job with some things like holding tournaments for an inordinate number of participants and incorporating all types of game formats,” said Shack-Harris. “I don’t think the entity itself cares much about poker overall, and there are frequently sloppy executions of various aspects of the series that have demonstrated this assumption.”
Shack-Harris lists the increasing number of reentry events, smaller buy-in events, and WSOP Europe and WSOP Asia-Pacific as evidence that the WSOP has sacrificed the value of a bracelet. He believes the WSOP should follow examples from major sporting championships like tennis’ Wimbledon or golf’s The Masters in regards to the exclusivity of the titles.
“Not every player is going to agree with every business decision you make. But we are guided by the simple principle that we want the WSOP to mean as much as it can to as many people around the world as possible not the same as it once did to a few,” said Ty Stewart, Executive Director of the WSOP. “Our mission and our opportunity is to present the poker world to the rest of the world and paint the game in a positive light.”
Not all players believe the decision to turn to online poker in light of the unprecedented circumstances created by the pandemic is a bad direction. Mike Leah, who won a WSOP bracelet in 2014 at WSOP APAC, thinks the pandemic provided a catalyst for Series officials to expand their offering.
“The thing that it really did for them is it gave them an urgency to find a partner outside of the US which I think is amazing because instead of being forced to play on WSOP.com, there’s another avenue for WSOP prize pools and bracelets and that’s probably the biggest positive that came out of this,” said Leah.
The postponement of the 2020 WSOP live series came with a caveat that organizers were targeting the fall to host some form a live event in 2020. Shack-Harris believes that adding 85 bracelet events without solidifying plans for the live series sets a dangerous precedent.
“I think there will likely still be a live series later in the year, and offering up 85 online events for a bracelet with no transparency regarding the potential of a live format going or not going bothers me more than anything else,” said Shack-Harris. “If people make arrangements to play online because they feel this is their only shot at a bracelet this year, and then a postponed series shows up out of the blue, I think it’s somewhat deceitful, but probably great business.”
Despite their intentions to hold a live event in Las Vegas this year, Stewart isn’t sure how that can happen as the coronavirus situation changes frequently. Current Nevada gaming regulations limit the number of players at a table to no more than six and not all poker rooms are even open. Travel restrictions in place would also significantly limit the number of players who could attend from outside of the United States.
“We have no concrete pathway to the offline event. We have a partner who is absolutely all-in. We have the opportunity to organize massive prize pools, deliver buzz and energy for the industry, and perhaps most of all, engage an entirely new segment of players,” Stewart argued. “I’m looking at WSOP Online as the biggest ever marketing vehicle for international players and the only failure will be if we can’t convert many of them to playing WSOP Las Vegas when we’re back in session.”
The online series puts the lack of online poker regulation in the United States into the spotlight once again. Only players physically located in Nevada or New Jersey will be able to play the bracelet events on WSOP.com and GGPoker does not accept players from the United States. Pennsylvania has had regulated gaming, including poker, available since last summer, but Stewart indicated the company is still in the development process of getting up and running in that state and was unable to give a timeline for their launch there. This leaves a large percentage of the United States on the outside, unable to play without traveling and Leah believes a high number of the complaints are coming from players who simply can’t play.
“I think if you went through the people that have negative feedback or complaints about this, probably at least 80% of them are from people who are not in New Jersey or Nevada or the rest of the world or somewhere where they can play,” said Leah. “I’d be disappointed as well, but people have been disappointed about unregulated poker in the US for a long time so this is just something that brings it to the forefront again.”
The complete GGPoker event schedule has not been posted, but it is expected to include only Hold’em and Omaha event. The 31-event schedule from WSOP.com also includes only those two games. The lack of mixed games – traditionally a staple of the WSOP schedule – has also upset many players that feel the online product isn’t a proper reflection of the history of the Series.
“I’m disappointed too and you best believe you may see even more mixed games at the next live WSOP,” said Stewart. “But while much of the summer schedule will feel familiar to the spirit of WSOP at the Rio, this is WSOP Online, and online is dominated by flop games. If we gave GGPoker a little more time to develop, who knows. But we are not going to ask them to rush a new unproven derivative to the market in time for the summer.”
Some in the industry have made the suggestion that the bracelets awarded this summer shouldn’t be held in the same regard as events won in a live tournament. The argument is similar to the one that people made when Caesars expanded the tournament offering to Europe with bracelet events in 2007 and Asia-Pacific in 2013. Rob Yong, owner of the Dusk Till Dawn cardroom in England and partypoker partner, floated the idea of awarding silver bracelets for events not held in Las Vegas.
“I understand the argument, the sentiment of it, but I also know that a lot fewer people would play,” said Leah. “With bracelets, they’ll be even bigger but if you take them away you’re going to lose some of the interest and obviously the prize pools will be smaller and make people not want to play as much. I think a lot fewer people will play. If it’s a bracelet event I know I’m going to do my best to play every single event.”
Leah, who lives in Canada, has already begun the search for full-time childcare for his one-year-old son to ensure he can play as many of the 54 events as possible. Stewart thinks any attempt to diminish any bracelet win is going to be difficult given the expected turnout for the online events and feels comparison of various events and eras isn’t worth the headache.
“The relative value of bracelets is not up to me to determine; large fields vs high rollers, Europe fields vs 1990’s Binion’s,” Stewart said while indicating the bracelet design for these 85 events is a differentiating factor. “But I have my strong point of view on this series. Based upon the numbers we project for most of the events, these will statistically be some of the hardest bracelets to win, ever. And the prize pools will be such that it will be very difficult to try and diminish the accomplishment.”
The original 2020 WSOP schedule had a total of 101 events, with 14 of them being played exclusively on WSOP.com. A sevenfold increase in the number of online events is a gigantic leap with huge revenue opportunities for the WSOP. Leah doesn’t think the online events will ever be able to replace or replicate the summer camp, bucket list feel that the live tournament series is famous for.
“I don’t think anything’s ever going to change the annual WSOP in Vegas every summer because that’s everyone’s favorite thing of the year. But adding to it, maybe an online bracelet series at some point in the year on WSOP.com and GG ends up being an annual thing and I could see that as being a pretty positive thing.”
Going from 85 online events this year to a smaller number next year goes against the WSOP’s previous expansion online. Since launching online events in 2015, the total number of them on the schedule has gone from one (2015, 2016) to three (2017) to four (2018), to nine (2019) with 14 originally scheduled for 2020. Stewart believes the unique set of circumstances presented to them this year doesn’t mean they’ll end up with a similar schedule once a full schedule can be played live in Las Vegas.
“I don’t foresee we’ll have this number of online events again. But there certainly is a place for online bracelets on an every year basis,” Stewart said. “I am optimistic this year will be huge, and then we can evaluate. Everything we do is on a year to year basis to test the reception. The same players against the idea of a vast online series now may be demanding it in the future.”