WSOP Hybrid Main Event Concept Raises Questions, Causes Concerns

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The WSOP's decision to end 2020 with a hybrid Main Event has been with praise and criticism.

The recent announcement from the World Series of Poker of a hybrid online-live event that will crown the 2020 WSOP Main Event champion has drawn strong reactions from the poker community. Many players were quick to question the safety of holding a live event in Las Vegas given the current status of the global pandemic while others had questions about the confusion over the status of the title of the “Main Event champion”.

The new event, which has a $10,000 buy-in and will run on WSOP.com in New Jersey and Nevada and GGPoker.com in international markets, is a freezeout event similar in format to the traditional annual WSOP Main Event.

With COVID-19 restrictions around the world making a traditional live Main Event impossible, the WSOP created a hybrid format The final nine players from the NJ/NV online event will travel to Las Vegas to play down to a winner while the final nine players from the international market will travel to Rozvadov, Czechia to play down to a winner. Those final two players will then meet for a heads-up match in Las Vegas with $1 million on the line.

This follows a summer in which WSOP organizers held 85 bracelet events across the two online poker sites. The news was initially greeted with a mixed reaction from the poker community. Veteran pro David ‘ODB’ Baker tweeted his support for the idea and pushed back against some of the backlash directed at the WSOP for extending its brand even further.

One of the most vocal was the player who thought he’d already won title of “2020 WSOP Main Event Champion”.

Stoyan Madanzhiev, the 29-year-old Bulgarian who won the $5,000 Main Event as part of the WSOP events on GGPoker in early September, was confused about how this new event was to be recognized and shared a photo of the bracelet he received for his victory and the accompanying certificate which seemed to indicate to him he had won the Main Event of the 51st Annual World Series of Poker.

Ty Stewart, Executive Director of the WSOP, saw the criticisms online and believes the WSOP Online events are aligned with other series’ that the WSOP has run outside of the main summer festival.

“We’re certainly not seeking to diminish Madanzhiev’s accomplishment, to win the biggest online poker tournament in history. That’s a staggering accomplishment in and of itself,” Stewart said. “But we were very careful to always position this as “WSOP Online” akin to “WSOP Europe” or a “WSOP Circuit” Main Events. It’s also one of the reasons we specifically avoided having it as a $10K buy-in.”

Barny Boatman, a founding member of the legendary Hendon Mob, is part of a chorus of players who has no desire to recognize either of the winners in the same breath as Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, Phil Hellmuth, or Chris Moneymaker.

Stewart says the winner of the upcoming hybrid event will be recognized as the new world champion, taking the reins from Hossein Ensan, winner of the 2019 WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas and get all the accolades that accompany the title.

“I’m sure we will find a place to celebrate Madanzhiev’s accomplishment in the venue. But in terms of the almanac of Main Event champs, December will determine whose banner will be raised when we are fortunate enough to have a live WSOP,” Stewart said.

Outside of the historical implications, many players expressed concern and disappointment that the WSOP was hosting a live event in the midst of a global pandemic. Steve O’Dwyer pointed out the rising numbers in the United States.

According to Stewart, each of the nine players who make the live final table in Las Vegas for American players will be subjected to testing prior to play. Any personnel involved in the production of the show will also be subjected to the same testing allowing the WSOP to create a “production bubble” where only those who have passed the testing will be allowed entry. Players will not be require to wear masks and plexiglass will not be in use.

“There are only nine players in each bracket who are asked to voluntarily come to a live setting, where they will be protected by the most advanced Covid-19 testing prior to facing their competitors,” Stewart said. “Our strategy here was intentional to keep the majority of play at home or in a controllable environment and keep the finale live environment small, manageable, and at the option of those with most to gain.”

Those same protocols will be used for the heads-up finale in Las Vegas on December 30.

The decision to hold a made-for-TV WSOP Main Event before the end of the year lead some to wonder if a contractual obligation with ESPN forced WSOP’s hand. Stewart dismissed this theory and indicated that the production costs are being absorbed by Caesars and GGPoker.

“For the first time in over a decade, WSOP and its partner GG will be fully subsidizing all the costs of this production to guarantee the television coverage, given timelines and scope of programming could not be delivered in 2020,” Stewart said. “Given that investment, and our $1M money added, the 51st Main Event will be a marketing expense. Which is fine with us. We are in poker for the long haul.”