PokerStrategy.com Column - Why Pro-Only Poker Tours Will Never Work

This is a column written for PokerStrategy.com earlier this month. 

Epic League files for bankruptcy
This week, the company behind the Epic Poker League filed for bankruptcy after just three events. Twitter and poker forums have been engulfed with messages of "I told you so" ever since.

I myself have been very vocal on why I thought such a tour would not work, but today I do not want to take a shot at them while they are down, especially because there are people with jobs at risk. But I do want to talk about one element of the league that we see attempted time and time again, but rarely see it work.

Ever since poker went mainstream, there has been a fascination with classifying it as a sport. If we discard the fact that some of our greatest "athletes" are obese, or the fact you can win world titles while drunk (thank you, Scotty), then the sport parallel actually serves a good purpose.

Mainly, in the "cleaning up" of the image of poker. Until the boom, poker was very much a backroom game, and the perception of the players was that of second-class citizens. Taking the cowboys, gangsters, and degenerate gamblers out of the spotlight was very important for the poker industry, and treating it like a sport was the perfect way to do that.

Most poker is broadcast on sports channels, we see lots of former athletes (and celebrities) endorsing it, and the biggest players are treated like celebrities and patched up like NASCAR drivers. Poker is much more accepted by the mainstream these days, and I think the sport thing really helped that.

So thank you sport, for letting us piggy back on your good name. Unfortunately, we stayed on too long.

The PGA model

poker gold
Can poker follow the PGA model?
For years, those at the top of the game have tried to create a PGA model tour for poker. This is an invite only format, where the best of the best are invited to prove who really is the best of the best of the best...

The Epic Poker League is the best example of this, but there have been other attempts to try similar things. The Onyx Cup (which obviously never happened) and WPT spin-off, the Professional Poker Tour. Elsewhere several poker rankings systems - Bluff, Cardplayer, Global Poker Index - have been set up in an attempt to showcase who the best is.

Of course, the cynics amongst us believe that these attempts to create a PGA-style tour are largely about excluding unknown players from winning the events, and guaranteeing a "made for TV" final table. It is true that most poker viewers want to see Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Hellmuth at the same table, and this is without doubt the best reason to argue for a PGA-style tour - a marketable final table.

But we could already reach that without the hassle of creating a league; that's what shows like Poker After Dark, the NBC Heads-up Championships, High Stakes Poker, and super high roller events are for. More so, are league tables really what we want the audience want to see in poker? I would argue that the casual spectator wants to see big money and the drama of the moment, they are not coming to poker to see if their favourite player win league points.

Then of course there is the luck factor: how can anyone take a league format seriously when luck plays such a major role? Yes, the more events you play, the more it evens out, but it would take hundreds (maybe thousands) of events to truly get a realistic handle of who the best players are. A league based on a handful of events is as much a "run good" league as it is anything else.

In particular, I struggle to take such a format seriously when the participants are by no means the icons their inclusion would suggest. When many of the participants have bad debt, need a loan to play the event, or are just plain broke, it seems ridiculous they are included when money is the way we keep score in this game. The Epic Poker League's first champion, Chino Rheem, was the perfect example of this, as stories of his bad debt overshadowed his victory last year.

Removing the luck factor

It is not just the PGA-style tours that are trying to repackage poker in sporting terms. There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to over emphasise the skill factor of the game, and deny the luck all together. I have seen many attempts to create new versions of poker which promise there will be no bad beats, where the variance is somehow taken out of the equation (Usually by either stopping drawing cards when all the money goes in the middle, or by awarding prizes based on equity, not showdown) or reduced, like in duplicate poker.

Never heard of any of these formats? That's because they never work, and rarely survive long enough to be seen to fail.

Poker is inclusive

Cinderella stories are what poker thrives on
The biggest problem I have with PGA-style tours in poker is that they seem to deny the very thing which makes poker the marketable, profitable, and enjoyable game that it is.

Poker is special because it bridges the gap between the PGA tour level players and the amateur watching at home. The greatest thing that ever happened to poker was when amateur Chris Moneymaker beat the pros in the main event, and inspired millions of players to try and do the same.

The fact that a brand new player could beat a world champion is what makes poker marketable. The fact that good variance makes a bad player believe they can beat games they are a complete dog in, is what makes poker profitable. The fact that anyone can buy into a WSOP/WPT/EPT event tomorrow and get sat next to Phil Hellmuth or Daniel Negreanu, is precisely what makes poker different (and in a way, better) to any other "sport".

Yet ever since Moneymaker taught us these things in 2003, event organisers and players at the top have seemingly tried to bite the hand that feeds them, by attempting to exclude the 99.9% of players who pay their bills.

The only people who really benefit from PGA model poker events are the players who are invited to play in them. Can we please stop kissing the asses of this minority of players by giving them ridiculous sponsorship deals and added money masonic tours, and start remembering the majority that keeps the poker economy afloat?

Yes, we want to see the best players in the world on TV, but what we really want to do is play with them. That's what makes poker successful, that's why the WSOP/EPT/WPT work, that's why an online partner is vital to the success of any major event or TV show, and that is how you capture the imagination of new players. The fact that it is possible to fast-track your way to the very top, if only for a moment, is what makes poker so enticing.

The moment you close the doors in poker, you shut out everything that make it special.

by Barry Carter


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