WSOP Main Event 2020 Could Be a Glimpse into the Future

WSOP Main Event 2020 Could Be a Glimpse into the Future
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The World Series of Poker is launching a most unusual Main Event in deference to the legendary tournament’s long history, but what actually may be unfolding over the next few weeks is a window into the game’s future.

The WSOP Main Event that was announced Nov. 13 by tournament officials will be a bifurcated event in two ways. For one thing, the majority of the event — when it’s anticipated that thousands of players will participate — will be run online in parallel fashion on the WSOP platform in the U.S. (meaning Nevada and New Jersey) and elsewhere in the world on the GGPoker platform, thus enabling maximum entrants.

And second, while that early part of the 2020 Main Event will be held virtually for thousands of players, two final tables of nine players each — one in Nevada and the other in the Europe, plus a heads-up championship finale — will be held with live, in-person action just like in the pre=pandemic days.

International play began with a first flight Nov. 29, designated Day 1A, but play doesn’t resume until Dec. 5 with Day 1B. The international final table is Dec. 15 at Kings Casino in the Czech Republic. On the U.S. side, opening rounds are Dec. 14-15; the final table of nine is Dec. 28, and the heads-up championship event between the U.S. survivor and international finalist will be Dec. 30 in the familiar surroundings of the Rio casino in Las Vegas.

Of course, all this is being done to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The WSOP did hold a summer tournament this year that included 85 events, all of them online. Some were open to U.S. competitors; some were open to ROW players (ROW is poker-speak for Rest of the World). Interestingly, a tournament that was considered at the time a “main event,” was also held and won by a Bulgarian player — but more on that later.

WSOP officials felt it important that the historical string of the Main Event — this year’s edition would be the 51st — be somehow continued in 2020 despite the disruptions to just about every facet of life because of the coronavirus.

In the WSOP announcement, executive director Ty Stewart said: “There must be a World Champion in 2020. Poker’s history is too important. It’s a unique format for the Main Event, but this is a unique year. We want to keep players’ health and safety top of mind and still deliver a great televised showcase for the game we love.”

Mixed Reaction from Poker Players

The reception has been mixed but seems to lean toward acceptance. Count Scott Wilson as a fan. Wilson has been involved with the Main Event both as a player and as an insider when he was associated with Caesars Interactive, an online arm of the Caesars corporation. Since his company connection ended, he has had two top 300 showings in the Main Event, finishing 266th ($43,935) in 2019 and 177th ($49,335) in 2018.

“I think what they’ve done is to not make this a lost year for the World Series of Poker. So, this is a fantastic way to go — and the way they’ve been able to do it considering you’re dealing with disparate jurisdictions,” Wilson said. “We have the U.S. portion, which is limited to Nevada and New Jersey, and then we have what we call in poker R-O-W. They’re getting both in the (player) pool.”

Some familiar faces won’t be involved. Matt Glantz, a veteran pro who has $7.1 million in recorded tournament wins, cashed in seven WSOP events last year and finished 205th ($50,855) in the 2019 Main Event, is sitting out this one.

“Nope, no online poker for me,” Glantz simply said.

Chad Holloway isn’t just a poker journalist. In addition to being a senior writer at Poker News, he has his own WSOP gold bracelet ($84,914) in 2013 in the Casino Employees event that’s popular with poker dealers. Holloway understands the reluctance some players will have.

“There are certainly going to be people who won’t play because it is online,” Holloway said. “There are quite a few differences between live and online as we all know and there are some people who just don’t feel comfortable playing online, a lot of people don’t trust playing online. So, for those reasons, some people will avoid it. Not to mention that there are people not comfortable with traveling right now.”

’We’re Just in a Strange Time’

For some, the 2020 Main Event is an echo of what happened this summer when 85 WSOP events were played — all of them online — about 30 in the U.S. and approximately 50 internationally. Greg Raymer, the 2004 WSOP Main Event champion ($5 million), said he plans to play in the 2020 version by driving from his home in North Carolina to New jersey.

“We’re just in a strange time. They weren’t going to be able to come up with something that everyone was going to look at and say, ‘This is exactly correct and what should be done,’ ” Raymer said. “We’ve already seen people who are unhappy with it, particularly those who (sympathize with) Stoyan, the guy who won the $5K re-entry tournament a couple of months ago. Their feeling is, ‘What about him, I thought you were declaring him your main event champion.’ Now, you’re taking that title away from him. And I can see both sides of that argument.”

Raymer was referring to Stoyan Madanzhiev, a Bulgarian player who outlasted a field of 5,802 entries and won $3.9 million, said to be the largest prize ever in online play, in what was billed as a Main Event in September. But in that case, “online” wasn’t the only difference. The buy-in was $5,000, not $10,000, and it allowed for re-buys as opposed to the traditional Main Event that’s one-and-done.

“It worked well for me,” Madanzhiev wrote on Twitter, “but I wonder how many others fell for this false advertising trap?”

Holloway of Poker News said the event won by Madanzhiev wasn’t by traditional standards a main event.

“If (Madanzhiev) was going to be the Main Event winner this year because we’d have to rely on the Summer series, it would have carried an asterisk, so to speak,” Holloway said. “However, the WSOP said all along that they hoped to have a WSOP in the fall. Had they not done that and had they just sprung this on him, I think that would have been very unfair and there would have been more justification for him being upset.

”But the fact of the matter is that the WSOP did always say that they wanted to have a WSOP later in the year and by extension, that means a WSOP Main Event, so he should have anticipated it, the poker world should have anticipated it — that that wasn’t the real WSOP Main Event as we think of it.”

Familiar Announcers for Main Event

For poker fans, there will be a telecast of the WSOP. And though this Main Event may have a strange format, at least the broadcast will have a familiar ring. Play-by-play announcer Lon McEachern and color commentator Norman Chad will be voices of the event as they have been since Chris Moneymaker famously won in 2003.

“On the final tables and the heads-up, we’ll be doing the old-fashioned post-produced taped version of six hours of coverage — two hours of each final table and then two hours of heads up and that will be on ESPN sometime in the spring, February or March,” Chad said. It appears that there will be a McEachern-Chad broadcast of the ROW online portion but nothing definite for the U.S. online play.

Chad is going to miss the electricity of the Amazon Room, the cavernous conference space at the Rio that is typically filled with thousands of players, but he’s a realist about life in 2020.

“They’re in a bad spot, as are so many other businesses and industries. They really were caught between a rock and a rock this year,” he said.

Chad also reads more into what happened this past summer — the 85-event tournament — than it simply being a stop-gap measure to offer the poker world a version of the normal live WSOP carnival.

“That was actually a bridge to the future because they’ll have a heavy online presence from here on out on the World Series of Poker. Whether it’s part of the summer event or whether it’s separate earlier or later, there will be a boatload of online World Series bracelets events from here on out. It was very successful with a limited audience,” Chad said.

“Online could become the dominant force in several years,” he added. “With world events and pandemics or whatever, it may be the only to play (these events) as it happened this year.”

The New Reality?

For that to really take hold, though, there would have to be fewer jurisdictional barriers. As it is, the 2020 Main Event has the awkwardness of being played in parallel fashion on two platforms because players in America simply cannot play legally against players outside the country.

But perhaps Chad is correct in that should there come day when there are no geographic barriers to participation and there is, at some point, the enormous player liquidity that existed in the early days of the 21st century, online essentially will replace live poker.

Even Wilson, the player involved with online gaming almost from the beginning, doesn’t seem eager for such an exclusively virtual experience. In fact, he said the real merit of this hybrid WSOP Main Event is to serve as a place-holder for the real thing.

“Keep the memories, keep the fun and keep the hope and the dream alive,” Wilson said, “that we’ll be back to where we were in a couple of years.”

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