Tournament Poker Has Lost Its Way Part 1: The Problem

Robbery at EPT BerlinThere is a healthy debate taking place in the poker community regarding how to “fix” tournament poker. Players want the tours to keep the skill level high and make it worth their while to travel to these events (also known, keep the rake low, allow for reentries, and make the levels long) while casinos and tours are trying to figure out how to make tournaments profitable to host and appealing to the masses.

Obviously these things don’t necessarily mix.

Casinos lost sight of the original intention

The original reason for tournaments was to attract people to the casino. Matt Savage knows this as well as anyone, and he called tournaments a “loss-leader” for casinos; a way to bring players through your doors and hopefully they’ll end up making some impulse purchases: AKA, play in cash games or head to the pits after they bust.

tournaments were the free $10 coupon to Kohl’s of the casino world, or the 25-cent buffalo wings at a bar. Very few people were driving all the way to the casino JUST to play in the tournament, just like very few people only spend $10 in Kohl’s and only eat buffalo wings at the bar.

Since they were already there, a lot of these players who went because of the tournament would also play cash games, gamble in the pits, or grab a bit to eat.

Poker pros new vision of tournament poker

Pros once saw tournaments as a feeder for the cash games. Before the Poker Boom, generally speaking, tournaments were certainly +EV for pros, but there weren’t enough of them, and the prize-pools weren’t large enough for them to be thought of as much more than a time waste.

Then it all changed.

During the Poker Boom live tournaments were quite beatable due to all of the dead money, and with swelling prize-pools people saw tournament poker as the quickest way to win millions in poker.

Additionally, tournament poker was fueling the televised poker kick, and the path to a sponsorship began with getting your mug on TV at a major tournament and ended with a big tournament win.

Poker pros notion of tournaments went from, “if there aren’t any good cash games I guess I’ll play,” to “this is my ticket to poker stardom.”

Casinos and tours saw $ signs

Compounding this problem, tournaments suddenly became profitable for the casinos hosting them, and once they got a taste of that profit they wanted to keep it going. But this thinking is no different than a hotel owner on Martha’s Vineyard trying to turn profits off-season. The Poker Boom was tourist season, but the Poker Boom is over and it’s time to turn our focus elsewhere.

In my opinion, the first casino that realizes this and goes back to using tournaments the way they were originally intended will have a leg up on the competition. Instead of trying to make the tournament as successful as possible they need to make the casino as successful as possible during the tournament.

It may not show up in their tournament figures, but a successful poker room is worth more than a successful tournament series, and a successful casino is worth more than its poker revenue.

Competition between tours

With money to be made a slew of new tournaments and tours were created, which has led to more options for players. Tournament poker is currently a buyer’s market, and unless the tours get together and work for their greater good it’s only going to get worse.

It’s possible that by competing with one another the tours could make tournament poker unprofitable and something casinos don’t want to waste their time on; especially if the players that are showing up are only playing in the tournament.

Structural changes have increased the skill component

The reason people are only playing in tournaments nowadays is because of the structural changes tours have implemented in order to satisfy their core player base. This has created two negatives.

The first is that the cream is rising to the top far more often (and is very noticeable to causal players), but the second, less discussed impact, is that players last longer in the event and therefore do not head to the cash game tables.

The two key structural factors keeping players out of the pits and out of cash games is the ability to reenter tournaments, and as mentioned above the slower structures.

The slower structure leads to fewer early bustouts and the chance to reenter gives players that do the opportunity to buy back in. So instead of, “well I drove an hour to get here and busted in an hour, so I’m not leaving yet,” players are saying, “I drove an hour to get here and lasted five hours in the tournament so I’ll head back home and maybe make it in time for dinner.”

Is it any wonder fewer tournament players are finding their way to the cash game tables or the pits?

Poker tours have effectively shot themselves in the foot in their quest to make money on tournaments as they have lost sight of the main reason they were created, to drive casino traffic. If casinos don’t find tournaments increasing their bottom line the tours will no longer be welcomed.

In Part 2 I discuss what changes can be implemented.

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