Super High Roller Tourneys Are A Great Marketing Tool But Have Plenty Of Problems

October 3, 2017
Super High Roller Tourneys Are A Great Marketing Tool But Have Plenty Of Problems


Six-figure buy-in tournaments weren’t wholly unknown in the poker world, but as a line of demarcation, the Super High Roller era started when the Aussie Millions took a chance and ran a $100,000 buy-in tournament in 2006.

Just ten players registered for that event, but the buzz and interest were enough that the event returned in 2007, with attendance nearly doubling to 18 players.

Despite its humble beginnings, Super High Roller tournaments have since blossomed, essentially taking over the poker world.

Dozens of SHR events take place every year, with buy-ins ranging from $100,000 to $1 million.

Not surprisingly, SHR’s are among the most talked about and closely followed areas of poker. They’ve also become one of the most hotly debated topics in the poker universe.

On the plus-side, Super High Rollers get a lot of attention and are a great marketing tool, but they’ve also created several issues.

These issues range from the benign, like how they impact the all-time tournament money list, to more  serious:

  • Are these high buy-in tournaments sustainable, and what impact it would have on poker if the SHR economy collapsed?
  • The ethics of staking and swapping, and any potential collusion that may occur because of it.

The Super High Roller economy

Despite being “open events,” the hefty buy-ins have made these events ultra-exclusive.

SHR events are for the wealthy and the best of the best in the poker world – and as I’ll explain in a moment, even the most successful poker players often require financial assistance to play in these tournaments.

This exclusivity has led to the creation of what amounts to a separate economy within the poker economy.

There’s a group of poker pros who almost exclusively participate in these events. They play these events in between private or sectioned off high-stakes cash games (which is another can of worms that will be saved for another time), and their money rarely mingles with the typical poker player you’d run see playing WSOP or WPT events.

This is all well and good, but it’s also flirting with disaster.

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The potential risk

Money tends to flow upwards in poker.

Aside from a few people who jump in mid-stream, winners from lower stakes move up in stakes and lose to the existing winners at those stakes. This process tends to repeat itself all the way up to the biggest games in the poker room. Or, at least it used to.

In the case of Super High Rollers, there is rarely new money injected into the economy other than a few wealthy businesspeople with an affinity for poker, who enjoy testing their skills against world-class competition.

Instead, the money tends to get passed around between the top players (who are often swapping,  selling pieces, and in some cases, sharing bankrolls) with only a few influxes of new cash.

Reason being, unlike jumping up in stakes in cash games, or even jumping from $1,500 tournaments to $3,500 and then $5,000, the jump from the typical $5k or $10k Main Events to SHR’s is far steeper, and few tournament grinders are going to be able to take that leap.

The buy-ins aren’t doubling, they’re going up by 1,000 percent or more. There just isn’t the typical infusion of new players into the SHR economy, as the few new players that burst onto the SHR scene tend to be heavily backed and proven tournament wizards.

And therein lies the problem.

What happens if someone decides to take their ball and go home?

Meaning, what would happen if a player went on a heater, and retired? Or simply stopped playing in these events?

The answer is simple: the whole high-stakes poker economy would go through a recession.

There wouldn’t be enough new money coming in to replace it.

Imagine if Fedor Holz was really done with poker and just left the game, taking maybe $10 million with him? Now imagine someone runs even hotter or is playing with 100 percent of their own action?

This was the fear with the Andy Beal games back during the poker boom. If Beal had won, there was a good chance that money would disappear from the poker economy forever, and the poker pros would have to spend years recouping those losses.

These ultra-high-stakes tournaments are traveling down a similar path.

This insulated economy is all well and good… so long as the money NEVER leaves the economy.

And if you think it can’t happen, think again, it almost happened five years ago.

In 2012 the wealthy amateurs went on a massive heater, winning about $15 million in a pair of events.

First, they claimed the top two spots in the Aspinalls £100,000 Super High Roller Final held in London:

  1. Paul Phua –  £1,000,000
  2. Richard Yong – £570,000
  3. Winfred Yu – £330,000
  4. Terje Augdal – £200,000

And then claimed three of the top four payout spots at the Macau High-Stakes Challenge:

  1. Stanley Choi – HK$50,149,000 ($6,466,011)
  2. Zhu Guan Fai – HK$33,737,000 ($4,349,913)
  3. Nicholas Wong – HK$25,530,000 ($3,291,736)
  4. Tang Zheng – HK$17,324,000 ($2,233,687)

Fortunately, these guys kept playing, but if the businessmen catch fire again, and don’t lose the money back in future events or cash games, it could damage the high stakes games economy for years to come.

The money illusion

Another serious problem brought on by Super High Roller events is that for most of the players, the dollar amounts in these events aren’t real.

With dozens of events a year, even the most successful poker players could find themselves on hard times if they paid their own way and had a bad stretch.

A bad year on the SHR circuit could result in a $5-$10 million downswing.

Because of this, almost every entrant has sold a large percentage of themselves and swapped much of the rest to reduce their variance. In theory, they’re playing for millions, but in reality, players have mitigated a lot of the risk, and have less than 50 percent of themselves – in many cases, much less.

This swapping and staking have raised the possibility of collusion, even if it’s not premeditated and largely unintentional.

As one Reddit user asked:

“These are quite small tournaments, so it is quite possible that there will be tables where maybe 3 or 4 players have an interest in each other. If you were on the bubble then it would be very easy to let your friends shoves get through more easily, or even to chip dump a bit to ensure that they cash. Or say you were 3 handed with Olivier Busquest and Dan Colman and they each had 50% of each other. Would that concern you?”

This is a serious concern, particularly for the business people.

As Dan Shak, a former regular in these events recently tweeted.

When there is so much money on the line, and with professional poker players conditioned to always make the best EV decision, the fear of soft-playing between players with significant pieces of one another shouldn’t be likened to a conspiracy theory.

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