During the peak of the poker boom, everyone wanted to win a $10,000+ buy-in tournament. It not only meant a seven-figure cash prize, but also poker fame and likely a sponsorship deal.
As poker’s popularity among the masses started to subside, the prize pools diminished and the fame and sponsorship opportunities dried up.
This led to a shift in the dynamics of these tournaments.
Poker pros as a group became more skilled and quickly churned the fish. Gone were the days of “dead money” players, as virtually every entrant in a poker tournament with a buy-in of $5,000 or more was now a strong player.
Additionally, the events started catering to their wishes – further increasing the skill to luck component of these events with deeper stacks, longer levels, and reentry formats, and all but eliminating the chance of another Chris Moneymaker.
The only exception to this is the World Series of Poker Main Event, which still attracts a slew of casual poker players. This is the one tournament the average poker player still wants to win, and it’s the one tournament that still brings a lot of people who have either:
- Won a seat in a live or online satellite;
- or who are simply in a financial position to take a $10k shot.
Failed attempts to undo the shift
Some tours attempted to counteract this trend by reducing some of their Main Event buy-ins to $3,500 (and in the case of the World Series of Poker Circuit Series, to $1,500), hoping the lower price point would bring the recreational players back to the tables.
While these reduced buy-ins and the addition of reentry to these events have managed to keep the overall attendance in line with previous years, the prize pools are way down and it hasn’t borne any fruit when it comes to bringing casual players back to poker.
But the World Series of Poker seems to have figured out a way to bring these players back.
The WSOP method
The World Series of Poker solution to the “how do we bring back the recreational player” problem was progressive and involved two key changes:
- Reduce the buy-ins even further.
- Make these tournaments “signature” events.
Whether it’s a new emphasis on promoting established tournaments like the Seniors Championship or the Ladies Championship, or the newer creations like the Millionaire Maker or the Colossus, with only a couple of notable exceptions (Big One for One Drop and the Poker Players Championship) these “signature” tournaments at the WSOP are the lowest buy-ins of the entire 60+ tournament series.
Here are the signature events at the 2015 WSOP and their corresponding buy-ins:
- THE COLOSSUS $565 No-Limit Hold’em
- MILLIONAIRE MAKER $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em
- MONSTER STACK $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em
- $777 LUCKY SEVENS No-Limit Hold’em
- $1,000 Seniors No-Limit Hold’em Championship
- $1,000 Super Seniors No-Limit Hold’em
- $1,000 Ladies No-Limit Hold’em Championship
- $1,500 Draftkings 50/50 No-Limit Hold’em
- $1,111 The Little One for One Drop
Other than the $1,000 No Limit Holdem tournaments that run every weekend, all of these event are the lowest buy-ins for bracelet events offered at the WSOP. And notice that each of them has a distinctive name.
What initiated the change
A lot of people will point to the passage of UIGEA in 2006 as the main reason casual players were driven from the poker ranks. But UIGEA was only the beginning.
It was a significant factor, but not the only factor. Another key factor was the economic collapse in 2008.
When the economy tanked, people no longer had mountains of disposable income and tons of equity in their homes. The latter, more than anything, made a lot of people think they were financially secure and could spend their paychecks thanks to the equity nest egg they were sitting on.
Even for the people still prospering, or those who have bounced back, in 2015 the recession is still fresh in people’s minds, causing a bit more conservative approach to finances.
This is why the reduction of the buy-in amount didn’t go far enough in most cases.
Sure, $3,500 is an easier pill to swallow than $10,000, but consider that for a person doing pretty good in life and making $100,000 a year, that $3,500 represents more than 3% of their pre-tax yearly income. Spending two months of mortgage payments or putting off remodeling a bathroom so they can play in a poker tournament is not something many people are willing to do in 2015.
For most people, spending $3,500 requires them to cut back somewhere else or use credit cards.
Most poker pros have to sell pieces of themselves to play in these events, so it’s a lot to ask the average player to take such a huge risk with a significant amount of money.
On the other hand $500, and to a lesser extent, $1,000/$1,500 certainly fall within people’s monthly disposable income. It’s much easier to explain to your significant other that you’re planning a three day, $1,000, trip to Las Vegas with your friends to play in a $500 poker tournament.
That’s only a little more than half a mortgage payment, and means you have to put off buying the new TV for another month.
Between bills and other expenses, few people have $3,500 in monthly disposable income. And for anyone who has reached the point where they are no longer living paycheck to paycheck, there is a pain threshold when you hit certain price points – for me it’s the amount of money I have left over each month after paying all of my bills, anything over this amount means my savings goes down not up.
This is why the WSOP was able to capture this audience with their new lower price points. They have broken through the mental block of “that’s too much money for a poker tournament” with some of their new events.
When the Colossus and the Lucky Sevens were announced I actually considered going to Vegas to play in one of these events. I talked to other friends of mine who are also casual players and there was a lot of interest.
None of us would pay $1,500 to play in a poker tournament. And even when I was playing poker professionally, I had zero interest in playing in the WSOP Main Event or other big buy-in tournaments.
How have they worked?
From the events listed above, only the Colossus and the Millionaire Maker have taken place thus far. Based on the number of entries in each of these tournaments it’s safe to say they have been extremely successful.
- Colossus: 21,444 entries
- Millionaire Maker: 7,275 entries
More to the point, the Colossus created an environment reminiscent of the poker boom, as there was a buzz and an unexpected sea of players not seen since the days after Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP Main Event victory:
The end result looks good for poker
The World Series of Poker may have solved the long running problem of how to reignite the casual player’s passion for poker.
It wasn’t a $10 million guarantee.
It wasn’t a $1,000,000 buy-in tournament.
It wasn’t reentries, or new tournament structures, or social poker, or slower structures, or less juice.
It was simple, create a tournament that was within more people’s budget.
Poker is changing, and it’s good to see the WSOP changing along with it and keeping casual players engaged.