The Lottery Mentality — Part II: Some Professionals’ Reactions

My last column said that some professionals are extremely frustrated by the lottery mentality of poker tournaments and its effects. Of course, some professionals love the gigantic prize pools and the juicy ring games, but this column will focus only on reactions to frustration. Some of these reactions are irrational and self-defeating.

Complaints About Weak Players

If the weaker players did not enter tournaments, they would not be worth playing. Since all of the prize money comes from buy-ins, the professionals as a group make all of their profits from the weaker players, the so-called “dead money.”

When the World Series of Poker was a small, invitational event, the professionals collectively made little or nothing from it. As it grew, so did their collective profits. Now that so many weak players enter the world championship event and other major events, the top pros make immeasurably more than they have ever made. In 2002, 2003, and 2004, outsiders won the world championship, but the pros collectively made much more money from the WSOP than they had ever made.

Some pros have ignored this fact and complained bitterly about the weak players. Some complaints were the ones you hear in any low-stakes game. “They don’t respect my raises.” “I can’t protect my hand.” “I can’t bluff these idiots.” “So many people played trash that it was just a crapshoot.” “They are so clueless that you can’t put them on a hand.” Berating the people who provide all of your profits is very foolish. Sane business people don’t insult their customers.

Hopes That WSOP Fields be Capped

Some professionals have said they hope that the buy-in is raised, or that other steps are taken to limit the size of the field. A few have even said they won’t play if the fields continue to grow. This hope is certain to be frustrated, because it conflicts with the casinos’ economics.

Because they have never done much besides play poker, many professionals don’t understand economics, business, or their own importance. The central business fact is that professionals, especially the top tournament pros, are almost irrelevant to the poker economy.

More than 99 percent of total cardroom revenues comes from low- and middle-limit games, and most poker tournaments lose money. The juice is less than the cost of putting on most tournaments (including the lost ring-game revenue). Most tournaments are run to bring players into the room so that they will play in ring games, especially low- and middle-limit games. High-limit ring games are glamorous, but almost irrelevant to the poker business.

In fact, 99 percent of the cardrooms spread only low- and middle-limit games, and even the places that spread high-limit games get only a small percentage of their revenues from them. In my opinion, if all the professionals disappeared, cardroom profits would not decline, and they might even go up (because the weak and average players would do better, last longer, and pay more in table charges).

Because fields have become larger, the WSOP and a few other tournaments now make a profit, but the primary reason for hosting them is still to develop other business. Benny Binion started the WSOP to promote business, and Harrah’s will continue it for the same reason, not to please the professionals.

The demand that the world championship event be kept smaller ignores an obvious fact: The larger the field, the more money Harrah’s (and all the other casinos and websites) will make from it. The more players there are, the more juice Harrah’s gets, the more hotel rooms and meals get sold at all of Harrah’s Las Vegas properties, and the more action occurs in their pits, sportsbooks, and cardrooms.

The other Las Vegas casinos, hotels, and situs poker websites (plus the Las Vegas Convention Bureau) will do whatever they can to make the WSOP larger. The Las Vegas economy is based on tourism, and the more people who come here, the more money everybody makes. To expect corporate executives to ignore their bottom lines to make the professionals’ lives easier is extremely naïve.

Large Fields Greatly Improve Ring Games

After reading a draft of this column, Jim Brier sent me a note: “From the standpoint of a working professional, the purpose of tournaments is to generate good side games. The side games here in Vegas are among the worst in the country if there is not a major tournament in town. But when the Series arrives, they are among the best. A pro should view his tournament buy-in almost like a donation to cover the cost of sponsoring the tournament so that plenty of fish will arrive. The small amount a pro loses in tournament buy-ins is more than made up for by the enormous profits he makes from the side games.”

What About Television?

Television has different economics from the casino industry. Stars can have an immense impact on ratings, and the top players are developing some clout with TV producers. However, TV executives know that they must not offend their viewers, and those viewers are the same kinds of people who play bad poker.

They identify with the little guys and root for them to win. In fact, rooting for the underdog is an American tradition; we are proud that we have never had a king or hereditary nobility, and the common man has always been an American hero. Chris Moneymaker had such enormous appeal because so many people could identify with him. When stars attack weak players, it has a very mixed effect on their market value.

Outbursts, even childish ones, do have dramatic value, and television producers love drama. If they had their way, poker games would look like the broadcasts of the WWF (World Wrestling Federation). TV producers don’t necessarily want to see a bunch of well-controlled poker faces; they would much rather have “grudge matches” and trash talking. Such shows would have great appeal to the people who watch wrestling and Jerry Springer, and the players acting the most outrageously would become stars. If the top players wanted to act that way, they could probably find someone to put them on special shows. It wouldn’t be good poker, but that’s show biz.

If stars attack only other stars, they will become even more famous and develop the same sort of cult status as a few wrestlers. However, if they attack weak players, they will offend millions of people, and those people are the target audience for virtually all ads and product endorsements.

TV executives can’t offend them. As O.J. Simpson and many other stars have learned, notoriety wipes out their market value as product endorsers. Since advertisers pay for television, and the potential income from endorsements is enormous, it is extremely foolish to offend the average people who identify with weak players.

Attack When You Have an Edge

Every reasonably competent poker player knows and applies that principle while playing, and it’s central to any rational business strategy. Since the pros have hardly any clout with Harrah’s, but real and growing clout with TV executives, they should stop trying to change the WSOP and focus on TV events.

Televised poker is hot, and it will get hotter. The audience for World Poker Tour and WSOP events will be larger than ever before. There are already invitational events, and there will be more of them. The producers of those events don’t care much about huge fields; they want recognizable stars. Those stars will make a pile of risk-free money from special events, and they will also make very serious money from product endorsements.

So, go after the TV stars market, but leave the WSOP alone. It is doing incredibly well and is making money directly or indirectly for all of us, and nobody should rock the boat.