We've addressed in recent years the need for a Poker Player's Championship. As inflation has reduced the value of the U.S. dollar and the main event at the World Series of Poker has seen its attendance grow tenfold in less than a decade, "The Big One" has seen a crapshoot element work its way into the determination of a winner. For all of the love the main event deservedly gets, there are few who would argue that the world champion who emerges is the best poker in the world for that year. Those few are not among the "poker educated."
Granted, no one tournament can establish definitively who the best poker player in the world is. Poker is a game that needs time to furnish us with the fuel for that kind of discussion, and no matter how deep the stacks and long the rounds go, that won't change. However, we may finally have a tournament at hand that meets three crucial criteria:
1. A severe test of skill
2. An accurate and broad representation of the state of game's popularity at the highest levels of cash game play.
1. A spectacle worthy and capable of drawing and maintaining audience interest.
In doing so, we may finally have the parameters that will provide stability for an event that can celebrate poker's highest aspirations. Friday marks the beginning of the 2010 WSOP's Event 2: The Poker Player's Championship.
With a buy-in of $50,000, the Championship will see the best in the world compete over five days of play using an eight-game rotation consisting of deuce-to-seven triple draw, limit hold 'em, Omaha eight or better, razz, seven-card stud, stud eight or better, no-limit hold 'em and pot-limit Omaha along with deep starting stacks and slow blind/ante increase to determine the final table. Once they're there, no-limit hold 'em will be used to determine a winner. This format may finally represent the last step in a five-year evolution that began with Chip Reese's win in 2006's $50,000 HORSE event.
In response to the growing concern among the professional community that the main event was getting away from the skillful test it had once been, it was Daniel Negreanu who conceived of a tournament that would exclusively test the game's best in 2006.
"I came up with an idea to have a mixed game tournament, then switch to no-limit for the final table and the 50K HORSE was born," Negreanu remembered of the inaugural event. "The only mistake was it was called 'HORSE' instead of 'The Player's Championship,' because people complained about the final table format. They didn't understand what I understood, that the ratings would be terrible because the viewers wouldn't understand what was going on in the mixed games. ESPN came back [a few years later] and said they wouldn't televise it again if they didn't switch back the final table. People said 'So what?' and look what happened."
Negreanu was right. After the complaints regarding final table format were heard, a switch was made to a continued HORSE format in 2007. Television ratings on the event weren't as strong, leading ESPN to opt out of using the $50,000 as part of the 2009 WSOP broadcast. Just 95 players completed in 2009 with media (and endorsement) opportunities unavailable.
"The huge thing for poker and the reason we have all of these fields is the television stuff," recalled Barry Greenstein, who, like Negreanu, is a member of the Player's Advisory Council. "There have been some things [done for TV] that people haven't liked, but we have to be mature about this as players and say 'We're trying to create a television product.' Of course we'd like it to be a pure competition. Would the NFL or NBA be saying 'We don't care about ratings, we only care about what's best for the game'? The sports have to cater to TV because that's how the money comes in. One thing you have to remember when talking about purity, tournament poker is about the coverage and the hype. If we didn't care about that stuff, we'd be playing cash games. Tournaments turned poker into a spectator sport, so we make concessions for the spectators."
A fix was needed.
"From the beginning, Daniel was certainly really big on saying "Let's put no-limit at the final table,'" Greenstein said. "A lot of people don't know this eight-game format is what I proposed the very first year. The committee outvoted me and said HORSE was better. I felt it should use all of the most popular games in poker. Finally, last year they put in a $10,000 eight-game event. Daniel and I talked and he agreed on the eight-game [to replace the HORSE], but he felt the final table needed no-limit because ESPN just wants to televise no-limit. There were others who said it wasn't pure, but now, I think pretty much everyone is on board with no-limit at the final table since that game is already in the mix."
The switch coincides with a migration in the past year of the biggest online cash games, moving from hold 'em to the eight-game format. With so many hold 'em specialists, there's a growing sentiment that it's difficult to find an edge at the game's highest levels. In a profession where finding edges is everything, poker's new generation of pros have been forced to diversify. The Player's Championship seems to be expediting the process.
"The Player's Championship is starting to get the rest of them thinking about playing the other games," said Greenstein. "They're going to have to anyway if they're going to continue to be profitable players, because what we see at the highest levels is we know how good guys like 'durrrr' [Tom Dwan], Phil Galfond, Phil Ivey, Patrik Antonius, the Dang brothers we all know how good they are, but if there's no one who will play them, they have to adjust in a way that gets people to play them. Otherwise they'll just be sitting at empty tables.
"I noticed that I saw some of the young guys playing the mixed games. There's no question they're trying to brush up for the 50K. The WSOP is such an important event that a lot of young players have finally said 'I should learn these games.' They should have been doing it anyways as poker players. I was a no-limit hold 'em specialist too and I made the change because that's where the money was to be made. When other games became popular, I had to learn them. If you're making money, it's pretty normal to stick with what you're doing, but one thing I learned as a professional player is the people you want to play with, you'd better be able to play what they want to play."
It's that reality that inspired the Championship, which will exploit weaknesses more than highlight strengths in a field full of them. Despite the uphill climb being faced by the new generation of stars, many seem primed to take a shot where they wouldn't have in the HORSE format.
"My goal going into the series is to play well enough at the games I don't know as well to break even, and to let the games I know well carry me to an edge over the field," admitted Sorel Mizzi, a hold 'em specialist who has never cashed outside his comfort-zone game. "I think my stud game is a little out of whack, but the other games I think I have an edge or break even in the field. I think I'll probably play a lot tighter in those stud games and get my chips in the other ones."
"I really think my generation is ready, especially after this year's switch over to eight-game," said Phil Galfond, another of poker's new breed of stars. "I think it'll be good for the young guys."
Negreanu disagrees. "I'll be frank. I think the young online players I'm a little surprised they haven't gotten better than they have at it. Seems like limit poker should be easy to master, but from what I've seen a lot of the young guys haven't gotten it yet. From what I can tell, a lot of these young guys are yummy to play against. The first time I played stud eight or better with 'durrrr,' I couldn't believe my eyes."
Of course, there's a process to learning the intricacies of these other games that hold 'em has put on the backburner. The question is what stage of their development the new stars are at and whether they'll be able to challenge the Greensteins, Negreanus, Iveys and Doyle Brunsons of the world. The one advantage the new breed has is that they'll have the old breed's example to learn from. "I've been doing a lot of studying," said Mizzi. "I just read a part of 'Super System' about the stud high-low and stud and that's helped a lot."
If it helps enough, he could emerge the accepted Poker Player's Champion. Perhaps, the first of many.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.