Reentry Is Not The Answer Tournament Poker Is Looking For: What The Casual Player Wants

October 30, 2016
Reentry Is Not The Answer Tournament Poker Is Looking For: What The Casual Player Wants

I’ve seen some poker players criticizing the PokerStars Festival New Jersey, wondering why the main event doesn’t have reentry, and why PokerStars didn’t attach a gaudy guarantee to the tournament to try to boost numbers.

Mike Gagliano’s tweet sums up the reentry situation perfectly, but it also highlights what I believe is a severe blind spot poker pros have: What appeals to casual players?

How do we recapture poker’s glory days?

It seems like everyone wants to go back to the golden days of poker, and their vision for appealing to the masses is to add bells and whistles that didn’t exist when poker was booming.

Personally, I’m glad PokerStars has decided to go back to basics (at least when it comes to the poker aspects of the series) and instead of fretting about overlays, and how many satellites they’ll need to run to fill the necessary number of seats, they can focus on what is truly important: Hosting a fun, successful tournament series that lays the foundation for future events.

I’m thrilled that PokerStars is focusing on the long-term success, rather than boosting the short-term numbers at its expense.

And by successful, I mean successful for everyone. The tournament series; the host venue; and the players. As I noted in this column, the success of a poker tournament is highly dependent on your perspective.

It’s my opinion that reentries, late registration, slower structures, and pretty much everything else poker tournaments have added over the years have contributed to the loss of casual players. And while a lot of these things were meant to mask the declining numbers, they’ve only made the situation worse.

The casual players I’m referring to are not the online qualifiers, or people who play poker a few times a week. The causal players I’m talking about are the players whose mere presence insures poker pros will show up.

It’s indisputable that if the field is soft enough, pros don’t care if the juice is closer to 20 percent than 10 percent; or whether there is a reentry or not; or if the tournament will play out over two days instead of three. For pros it’s about the bottom line, and casual players add to a pro’s bottom line. Follow the money and you’ll find the poker pros.

I’m the guy poker should be catering to

I’m one of the causal poker players I mentioned above.

I play maybe once or twice a month, and mostly in small home games where the buy-in is around $40 with about 15 people showing up to play. I probably play 10 cash game sessions in card rooms a year. I haven’t played a casino-run poker tournament since 2006-ish, although I’ve considered playing a few over the years.

I’m going to the PokerStars Festival New Jersey this week, and I plan on playing one event: the Chad Brown Memorial Tournament. The buy-in is $200, with optional $100 rebuys, and 50 percent of each entry goes to cancer charities.

When I was playing poker professionally a decade ago I wouldn’t even consider this event, given that the juice (even though it goes to charity) is 50 percent. Even if the field was composed entirely of drunk chimpanzees, I’m not sure I’d be plus-EV in this structure.

But EV has nothing to do with why I play poker anymore.

I realize that at best I’m a passable poker player at this point. I’m definitely -EV in all but the lowest stakes games, and might be break-even in small stakes tournaments before the rake. But I also know that I’m a decent enough player that I can get lucky and win a tournament, especially if the structure makes it sort of a crap shoot at the end.

I don’t think long-term because I don’t play enough for long-term to enter into the equation. If I get lucky in the short-term, I’ll win. Even if I expect to lose $20 per tournament in the long-run, I’m willing to lose $200 here and there if it means I have a shot at a single $5,000 score.

I play because I still enjoy playing poker (which I wouldn’t if I dissected hands and worked on becoming a better poker player), and if I lose it’s not a big deal. Poker losses are just disposable income.

Basically, if you’re a good player, you want me to enter a tournament you’re playing in. But over the years you’ve made it less and less likely I’ll show up.

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What is it I want?

If you think I care about a guarantee on a tournament you’re sadly mistaken. I didn’t even realize the PokerStars Festival New Jersey main event lacked a guarantee until I saw it being discussed on Twitter, and I find the Kessler notion that a casual player will skip a $240 ($200+$40) but would play if it was $230 ($200+$30) or some other breakdown, laughable.

Here’s what I, and many other very causal poker players, do consider, and why the Chad Brown Memorial Tournament is the event I want to play:

Does the tournament fall within the days I’ll be in town?

In the past two years I’ve played poker at several casinos: Aria, Orleans, Monte Carlo, Planet Hollywood, Mohegan Sun, and Foxwoods. There might be one or two others I’m forgetting. Every one of these sessions took place because I was in town for a different reason, be it a gaming conference or going to a show and dinner with my wife where we stay over.

Basically, I don’t plan trips around poker. Obviously some casual players do. I play poker if it fits into my existing trip.

Is the buy-in within my price range?

The tournament price points I’m looking for are $100-$600, and again, I’m not really bothered by the rake unless it’s absolutely egregious. Anything more than that and there would need to be some type of extenuating circumstance for me to even consider playing, such as the tournament being a World Series of Poker event.

Will the tournament finish in one day?

Going back to my first point, if I’m playing poker in a casino it’s because I’m in town for some other reason. Two-day and definitely three-day events have little appeal to me. Not only do I not have this type of free time, but spending that amount of time playing poker is unappealing.

Additionally, the longer the event, the more skill is involved, which means my EV goes down even more. Some events are so slow I have a close to zero chance to win, so I have zero interest in playing these no matter how big the guarantee or how low the juice is.

Is it reasonable to think the game will be light-hearted?

On this last point, I actually prefer higher juice and a fast structure that will be off-putting to pros and serious poker players. I think this is the biggest disconnect between poker pros and casual players like myself.

When I play cash games, I go out of my way to play in enjoyable games. I have the money to play higher than I do, but I prefer the atmosphere of low stakes tables, and the lack of anxiety the stakes cause.

If the table is miserable, I get up and leave, even if the game is soft.

I try to avoid tables with sunglasses and headphones, or where no one is talking, or where a single individual is tilting the table.

I want to play in games where people bust out and laugh about it while they reach into their pocket for another buy-in. I don’t want to be in a game where the only time someone opens there mouth is to say “raise,” or to criticize other people’s play.

On reentries

Granted, there are plenty of casual poker players who have different motivations, but I’m not the only person who thinks this way.

And if you think casual players don’t care about reentry you’re mistaken.

Reentry is one of the most off-putting things to casual players for two reasons:

  1. Most casual players don’t have the disposable income to reenter.
  2. It gives off the appearance of favoring pros, and in many cases it is a clear advantage.

This topic actually came up in my regular home game, and two players who resemble me in ability and motivations for playing poker, both said they wanted to play a tournament at Foxwoods, but complained that all the events are now reentry.

Final thoughts

We all play poker for different reasons, but if you boil it down to the most basic motivation it’s:

  • Profitability for professional and serious poker players.
  • The chance to book a big score for casual players.

The way poker has maintained pros’ profitability is by making it harder for casual players to win: longer structures, reentries, and so on.

What they should have done, and what I think PokerStars is trying to do, is give casual players a fighting chance to win. And if this drives more casual players like myself to tournaments, it will also increase pros’ profitability.

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