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Colossus at 2015 WSOP is a huge hit

AP Photo/John Locher

The World Series of Poker was conceived at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in 1970, gradually growing in popularity from its original seven participants to several hundred players. During the early installments, the majority of the field was comprised of professionals, with the occasional amateur or two entering the fray.

In 2003, a Tennessee accountant named Chris Moneymaker captured the world's attention by winning the most coveted WSOP bracelet. The main event field expanded more than 10 times in only a three-year span after Moneymaker shocked the world. Poker was booming. The UIGEA (2006) and Black Friday (2011) derailed the unprecedented poker explosion, but the WSOP maintained solid numbers over the past decade, partially due to the unique ideas developed by its leaders. The organization's goal was to stimulate growth by attracting new, casual players to the WSOP, while still satisfying the dedicated poker community.

In 2011, the “Weekend Warrior” concept was born, in which lower buy-in ($1,500 and $1,000) no-limit hold ’em events were held back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday. Tailored to the amateur’s lifestyle, flying in and out of Vegas over a weekend, the schedule was so widely successful that it’s still utilized today.

In 2013, the "Millionaire Maker” was introduced, in which one player was guaranteed a first prize of $1 million for only a $1,500 investment. One of the most highly anticipated events in the history of the WSOP, 6,343 entries made the inaugural event the largest non-main event in history.

In 2014, the “Monster Stack” was created, with a $1,500 buy-in and a much larger than normal starting stack. This new event was mobbed, creating a chaotic excitement last summer.

This year, WSOP attempted to rewrite the record books by introducing “The Colossus,” a bracelet event that combined the lowest buy-in amount in years ($565) with a guaranteed $5 million prize pool. Meeting this impressive goal would require 10,000 entries (players could enter up to four times).

The previous field size record was 8,773, achieved at the 2006 WSOP main event. Additionally, to improve on the frenzied registration process of 2014’s “Monster Stack,” the WSOP developed a wave system for late registrants, creating enough room for an astonishing 24,000 players. The WSOP implored players to pre-register to avoid long lines and a possible sellout.

Incredibly, more than 10,000 pre-registered entries were received two weeks before the event even started. During the first day of the event, all starting waves -- which had a capacity of over 17,000 entries -- were sold out. It was clearly no longer a question of "if," but by how much The Colossus would surpass the guarantee.

Professional and amateurs players alike were excited about the event. Reigning WSOP main event champion Martin Jacobson explained, “[I] wanted to be a part of history. I mean it's not every day you get to play a live tournament with over 22,000 players.”

Greg Raymer, the 2004 WSOP main event champion, felt there was tremendous value in the event. “I entered The Colossus to try to make a very good return on my investment of money and time," he said. "In 2004, I won what was then the biggest live tournament in the history of poker, and would have loved to have done it again.”

Blair Hinkle, the 2008 WSOP bracelet winner and three-time WSOP Circuit Horseshoe Council Bluffs main event champion, echoed their thoughts.

“I played The Colossus to be a part of a historic event," Hinkle said. "Of course, it was very great value as a poker pro, but the spectacle of seeing that many players inside the Rio made it a lot of fun. I can't wait to take another run at it next year.”

Thousands of amateurs traveled from all over the world to be part of poker history.

“I always dreamed of playing in the WSOP, so when I heard about the $565 buy-in and the incredible $5 million guarantee, I decided to make my lifelong dream come true,” said Ken Tilden of Brockton, Massachusetts, who busted in set-over-set fashion. “It was still a thrill of a lifetime and I will remember it forever."

Surprisingly, not all professional poker players participated in this historic event. Players such as 2012 WSOP main event champion Greg Merson said he wanted to “save my energy for bigger buy-in events,” while poker superstar Jason Mercier felt Colossus was “too small of a buy-in and [would] take too long.” Jonathan Duhamel, the 2010 WSOP main event champion, did not play because “there will be too many people and huge crowds.”

After all the numbers were calculated, the WSOP obliterated the record books.

  • Total number of entries: 22,374

  • Total number of unique entries: 14,284

  • Number of countries with participants: 98

With about 3,450 players (15 percent of the field) returning on Day 2, all the players had aspirations of being in the top 2,241 and making the money.

As the bubble approached, the players dropped so quickly that the staff had to stop the tournament twice to make sure they did not break the money bubble unexpectedly. Two levels into Day 2, the moment had arrived, with play paused with five players away from the money. On the very first hand-for-hand deal, nine players went all-in with their tournament lives at stake. Incredibly, all nine players were eliminated. Over 2,400 players erupted in celebration, overjoyed at the overall experience.

“Making the money in the world's largest live poker tournament was a résumé line item for sure, but being a part of this tournament was a wonderful experience,” said Kurt MacDonald of Littleton, Colorado, who finished in 1,693rd place. “Despite the stakes, people were friendly, happy to talk, and made playing a profoundly enjoyable experience.”

Others agreed that although the tournament felt like a main event in size, the interaction between players was much more social and jovial.

“The field was amazing with such a wide variety of players. For the most part, people were having fun and laughing and being sociable. It was a very pleasant experience,” said Mike Leah, 2014 WSOP APAC High Roller Champion, who finished in 39th place.

“Unlike the main event, there was not as much stress among the players, and many people were just happy to be there," he continued. "They were even smiling when they busted out.”

The event was not without its challenges and controversy. In the largest tournament ever, players were being eliminated so quickly post-bubble (300 in the first 30 minutes; 550 in the first hour; 800 in the first 90 minutes) that the payout line reached a three-hour wait at its peak. This unexpected nuisance caused aggravation among the players, many of whom had flights home that evening. Additionally, most players expected a first prize of at least $1 million, but were shocked to hear their expectations were not met, as the calculated first prize of $638,880 was only 5.7 percent of the prize pool.

Despite these challenges, the majority of the poker world felt The Colossus was an overwhelming success.

“Based on recent success of the 'super events,' we have insanely high expectations, but The Colossus exceeded our every hope,” said Ty Stewart, executive director of the WSOP. “The buzz was louder around the Series more than any time in recent years. It was exciting to see thousands of first-timers come to the Series, and we're going to be highly motivated to win them back. The WSOP isn't just a championship series for pros. The modern era WSOP is for everybody.”

Stewart did acknowledge the issues, stating, "We got an 'A' for getting the players in, but maybe an 'F' for paying them out in a timely fashion. This demands a lot of improvement.”

As for the tournament, after five grueling days, young poker pro Lance Garcia bested Brad McFarland from Pennsylvania, capturing the inaugural WSOP Colossus event title and the coveted bracelet. The 25-year-old from Houston felt Colossus was a tremendous success, and was very thankful to be part of history.

"I was really impressed with the turnout," he said. "I liked that there were a lot of normal people coming out to take a shot at a poker tournament. That's what it's all about, that's what keeps this game alive. ... Overall, I’m very blessed."