Three years ago, the poker world went a little nuts when, at what felt like the last possible minute, the Aussie Millions added an event to their 2011 schedule: a AU$250,000 buy-in Super High Roller.
At the time it was the single biggest buy-in event in history. The Aussie Millions had been home to the first $100,000 buy-in event, so it seemed like a somewhat natural progression. The event was backed partially by Full Tilt Poker, which put in some of its red pros who were in town at the time, and marked the public debut of the "Macau Businessmen."
It was historic.
As it turns out, it may also have been bad for poker.
In the months that followed, Full Tilt Poker announced the launch of the Onyx Cup, a series of events with buy-ins from $100,000 to $300,000 that was going to raise the bar on what poker looked like on TV. Black Friday eventually killed the Onyx Cup, but the allure of the Super High Roller tournament continued.
The past two weeks saw the two six-figure buy-in events at the Aussie Millions draw record fields. Not just one or two more players than the previous high, but multiples of the field. The $100,000 Challenge, won by Yevgeniy Timoshenko, had 76 entries. The previous high was 38. Likewise the $250,000 Challenge, won by Phil Ivey for the second time in three years, had 47 entries, beating the record by 27 players.
Granted both events were helped out by the fact that each had unlimited re-entries until the start of Day 2. In the $250,000 Challenge, nine players showed up minutes before play started on Day 2, gave the cashier a quarter of a million dollars and sat down to play a stack of 12.5 big blinds. Three of them busted within the first five minutes.
No doubt the record field sizes and corresponding massive prize pools are sexy and a marketer's dream, but as the start of the AU$250,000 event was unfolding, Dan Shak, a regular in high roller events (he played the AU$100,000 Challenge and then left town) took to Twitter to vent his concerns about what it all meant:
"I'm sorry to say this about a game I love so much but whether you can or can't afford it a 100k and 250k both unlimited for whole first day running around the floor looking for another 250k it just doesn't seem right that these events overshadow the main events where people have put their heart and soul on the line where skill is at least more than 50 percent of the game. And these massive turbo unlimited [re-entry] get so much press because of how much money is on the line. Seriously considering boycotting playing them till the re-entry is only one."
Understand two things about Shak. First, he is ridiculously intelligent and makes more from his day job managing a hedge fund than he could from winning high rollers. Second, he regularly plays high roller events even though he admits he's not a professional poker player and isn't as good as the players he faces in the events. He plays because he can handle the financial hit if he doesn't cash and because he loves the challenge of putting himself up against the best.
To put it gently, Shak's participation in these big buy-in events is welcomed by the other players and he knows this. So for a player of Shak's caliber and bankroll to come out saying what he's said -- including threatening to boycott the events in the future if the re-entry rules aren't changed -- should be a deafeningly loud alarm for people organizing these events and the pros who play them.
One of Shak's key points is that the big buy-in events, and the hype that surrounds them, can really overshadow the $10,000 buy-in events that have traditionally been the star of the schedule. Players watching at home, playing online or in their local cardroom, might be fascinated by the TV coverage of the high roller events, but that's going to come at the expense of the other televised poker events, outside of the WSOP main event, which will always attract the attention of the poker-viewing public.
If "Joe Average" poker fan is going to watch a few hours of poker on TV each week, ask yourself what he's going to tune into: a final table with nearly $8 million on the line with the likes of Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Erik Seidel and Tom Dwan playing or one with six players, none of whom with the profile of those four, and a first-place prize of $750,000?
If "Joe Average" stops watching the World Poker Tour or European Poker Tour events and shifts his attention to the big buy-in events with monster prize pools, what is he going to aspire to? Probably nothing, because to the guy playing $1/$2 in a home game, a $100,000 buy-in poker tournament is simply out of the question and he's long forgotten about the other events.
The other problem is that the pros playing in the $10,000 buy-in events -- and nothing bigger -- on the World Poker Tour and European Poker Tour stops have almost no shot of building profile outside of the poker community. They're going to need to find a way to build a bankroll and sell enough pieces to play well above their means if they ever hope to become household names and attract sponsorship dollars.
High roller events are here to stay. There's simply no putting the toothpaste back in the tube, but they can still be properly managed and marketed. The responsibility lies not just with tournament organizers but with the players to keep poker's ecological system in balance.
First of all, get rid of unlimited re-entry. Allow players the chance to re-enter one time. This protects the recreational players and businessmen who make up the "dead money" while still building a buzzworthy prize pool. Second, don't expand the number of these events on the calendar beyond what it is now. At least not until the poker economy has shown some serious signs of growth.