Thoughts on Alpha8 and Super High Roller events

Posted by Steve Ruddock on Aug 23, 2013 Posted in Op-Ed, Tournament News | No Comments »

money-300x200Back in 2006, at the height of the poker boom, the Aussie Millions decided to try something new. Among the events offered that year was a $100,000 buy-in tournament, dubbed the $100k Challenge, which was to my knowledge the first Super-High-Roller tournament in poker history. After sparse turnouts in 2006 and 2007, attendance started to stabilize, and from 2008-2010 the event attracted about two-dozen players each year; good numbers for sure, but in the waning days of the Poker Boom it seemed like the ceiling was reached.

The Highs and Lows of 2011 for Super-High-Roller Tournaments

And then suddenly in 2011, after a well-attended $100k tournament at the PokerStars PCA, attendance spiked for the Aussie Millions $100k Challenge, with a hastily-crafted $250k Challenge added to try to capitalize on the success, as well as to stay a step ahead of tournament series like the PCA that started offering their own $100,000 buy-in events. So, it appeared that if 2006 was the birth of the Super-High-Roller, the 2011 Aussie Millions would go down as the christening of the Super-High-Roller tournament as a staple n the tournament trail.

But then came Black Friday, which cast a pall over the high-buy-in tournaments, leaving their 2011 success extremely short-lived, as attendance dropped at the $100k Challenge, the $250k Challenge, and the PCA Super High Roller in 2012.

New Life

With the recent announcement of the WPT Alpha8 series we are perhaps seeing the next step in the evolution of Super-High-Roller (SHR’s) tournaments, as the WPT attempts to turn individual events into a tournament series –an idea first conceived by Full Tilt Poker with their announced but never launched Onyx Cup. The question is, will Alpha8 rekindle the love affair between the general public and poker, or will it be the latest “revolutionary” tournament series tossed onto the scrapheap, joining the likes of the Professional Poker Tour, the Epic Poker League, and the aforementioned Full Tilt Poker Onyx Cup.

Before I express my thoughts on the different aspects of SHR’s, I think it’s important to take a look at some of the attendance numbers these events have pulled over the years to see what kind of trend they are on, and how they have fared historically.

 

Aussie Millions $100k

Aussie Millions $250k

PCA $100k

WPT $100k

EPT $100k

2006

10 entrants

2007

18 entrants

2008

25 entrants

2009

23 entrants

2010

24 entrants

2011

38 entrants

20 entrants

39 entrants

23 entrants

2012

22 entrants

16 entrants

29 entrants

34 entrants

45 entries*

2013

22 entrants

18 entrants

55 entries*

21 entrants

42 entries*

*2013 PCA = 43 entrants with 12 reentries (55 total)

*$98k Super-High-Roller: 38 entrants, with 7 reentries (45 total)

*2013 EPT $98k Super High Roller: 34 entries, with 8 reentries (42 total)

Did One Drop Save SRH’s?

Since their popularity took-off in 2011 I have been on the fence when it comes to Super High Roller tournaments. I figured they were dead after Black Friday (and the early 2012 attendance numbers seemed to bear that out) only to see them come back with a vengeance after the success of the Big One for One Drop tournament, which reached its 48-player cap despite a $1,000,000 buy-in. One Drop was followed by an extremely successful Super-High-Roller tournament held in Macau just after the WSOP (which I’ll talk about in a moment) and suddenly it seemed like SHR’s were back in business.

Since then, $100k tournaments have been given a second life, and with the $111,111 One Drop High Roller pulling in 166 players at the 2013 WSOP it appears they will have a place in poker for the foreseeable future.

It appears that Macau will be the home for future SHR’s (or at the very least an important stop), considering the two events that have been held there are among the biggest in poker history:

* 2012 Macau High Stakes Challenge Super-High-Roller ($258,000 buy-in): 73 entries, with 21 rebuys

* 2013 GDAM Asia Millions ($130,000 buy-in): 71 entries, with 54 rebuys

SHR’s; Good or Bad for Poker

There are a few reasons why people believe SHR’s are good for poker: they have huge prize-pools; they are played by the biggest names in the game; and they make for good TV. But there are issues with them as well, which I’ll detail below.

Super High Rollers bring in Whales

Like 501c donations, Super High Rollers attract “Whales” that are ready to spend, and can take the place of 1,000 other new players. The problem is that I’m not really sure this is a good thing, at least in the long-term, for poker. The reason I say this is the money doesn’t come up through the ranks like it does through normal fish –with little bits and pieces pecked off by low-limit and mid-limit grinders, before eventually making its way to the high-stakes community. Instead it begins and stays in the high-stakes community.

The Poker Economy is Fragile

Another potential problem with SHR’s has to do with variance, and the amount of money on the line. Whenever I think about the poker economy I always envision the not-unwatchable (that’s about as nice a face as I can put on it) Stephen Baldwin/Pauly Shore movie Bio Dome, which is just an open door away from crashing down.

For all intents and purposes the high-stakes community passes money back and forth while waiting for that one fish/whale to show up, and SHR’s are really no different in this respect. However, there is one major difference; these tournaments are structured so that luck plays a pretty big part, and if the fish happen to bite back a couple times the high-stakes economy could be dealt a crushing blow. It wouldn’t topple it, but I could easily see the nosebleed stakes dropping down a few levels.

Imagine if Guy Laliberte, Richard Yong, and David Einhorn finished 1st, 2nd, and 3rd (instead of 3rd, 5th, and 8th) in the Big One for One Drop? That would have been over $30 million taken out of the poker economy, and if you think it can’t happen take a look at the 2012 Macau High Stakes Challenge payouts:

1. Stanley Choi $6,465,560

2. Zhu Fai $4,349,610

3. Nick Wong $3,291,506

4. Zheng Tang $2,233,531

5. John Juanda $1,645,753

6. Lap Chen $1,234,347

7. Sam Trickett $999,184

8. Phil Ivey $822,941

9. Alan Sass $705,360

10. Philipp Gruissem $587,778

11. Di Dang $587,778

12. John Paul Kelly $587,778

Literally $15 million was taken out of the high-stakes poker community in a single tournament. I honestly don’t even want to contemplate what would have happened if One Drop had a similar result followed by the actual results at the Macau High Stakes Challenge: Could the poker economy really recover from the loss of $50 million to businessmen who might (might) give 10% of it back in high-stakes games?

*A special thanks to www.thehendonmob.com databases which provided a lot of the data on attendance and payouts for these tournaments.

 



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