When Is a Poker Tournament Structure Too Good?

March 17, 2018
When Is a Poker Tournament Structure Too Good?

Poker tournament structures have advanced to the stage where aside from a select few players, minimal complaints are heard. The tournament has to end at some point, and last weekend at Parx Casino in Bensalem, PA, the structure of the Big Stax 500 event was too good to allow for that to happen. Dan DaConti and Ryan Eriquizzo battled until close to 10 a.m. for a first-place prize totaling less than $100,000.

Where does the balance end between offering late-stage play and keeping players for an ungodly hour to finish out a tournament? The answer lies in the middle.

Bang for the buck

The nature of poker is for players to never be in full agreement over what makes for a quality poker tournament structure. Longer levels? More starting chips? The distance between the two points is bridged by an agreement over shorter days and a better hourly rate.

The majority of “main events” are three days, with Day 3 wrapping up sometime before midnight. World Poker Tour tournaments last up to six days but with prizes of over $1 million up for grabs at times, the added days make sense.

The Big Stax 500 has no reason to include 90-minute levels other than for vanity. Most WPT events have 90-minute levels in the late stages of the tournament, a time that befits a $3,500 buy-in.

No Need to Give the Pros an Edge

The Parx Big Stax structure is famous for 90-minute levels on Day 3 which sound great in theory but carry a severe downside. Recreational players think they have a chance in a “better structure” but are at a severe downside against the pros who benefit from more hands in a longer sample.

Take the Parx 300, for example. Justin Liberto, Kevin Grabel, and Vinny Pahuja played three-handed for over eight hours until they decided to chop past 8:00 am. All three of those players owned at least one Parx Big Stax chop participation or outright win to their name prior to the event and managed to outlast a field of 2,267 entrants.

DaConti is a more accomplished non-professional than most with multiple final tables to his name.

The average recreational player doesn’t have a prayer of outplaying any of those three for that extended period of time. Shorten the levels, increase the variance, and watch more recs win moving forward.

Chris Moneymaker convinced an entire nation they too could win at poker. A small buy-in doesn’t always equal parity and Parx has proven that. Joe Palma won back-to-back Parx 300s in 2017. Grabel won the 300 and 500 in the same series in 2016.

The World Poker Tour is famous for 60-minute levels at their final tables, a cutback from the 75 or 90 that are in play leading up to six-handed play. Season XVI is an empirical testament to shorter levels benefitting the recreationals and less experienced as time after time, a final table full of pros have been brought down. Look no further than Paul Petraglia winning in Jacksonville. The more money that is in circulation among recs, the better off the long-term future of poker is.

What is the right answer?

Parx has the right to run their tournaments however they would like and it is clear that the market isn’t ready to give up the 21-hour Day 3s just yet. The question for Parx becomes: do they protect the recs from themselves and shorten Day 3 or do they predict that they will have thousands upon thousands turn out for years come?

It’s not an easy answer from a business perspective. Turnouts out in Parx events don’t appear to be in danger but this is new ground. Marathons are part of poker tournaments but playing until 10 am should not be.

The quickest way to keep money moving is to get players in and out the door at a reasonable hour. That’s the logical first step.

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