A strategic approach to the Circuit

The WSOP Circuit is enjoying its 10th season and over the past decade, the tour has undergone a few revisions from changing the main event buy-ins to allowing re-entry to expanding to non-Caesars properties. As a result of these efforts, the Circuit has garnered significant interest among the players over the past few years by utilizing its concept of the WSOP National Championship. In each of the past three years, players could qualify for this event, essentially a $10,000 freeroll that is nationally televised on ESPN with a bracelet and plenty of cash up for grabs. To qualify, one must either win the tour stop's main event, become the casino champion or earn enough points throughout the entire season among all the players who compete.

During the first year of the National Championship (the 2010-2011 season), I was fortunate to earn a seat in the event when I final tabled the $10,000 Regional Championship in Hammond, Indiana. I realized this event was an incredible opportunity to play against a field of only 100 players for a WSOP bracelet. After a disappointing finish in 18th (only 10 players cashed) in 2011, I set a goal to make it again in the future.

I failed to qualify in either of the next two years as a result of personal commitments and WSOP Circuit live stream hosting duties, but at the beginning of the 2013-14 WSOP Circuit season, I set a goal to qualify for the National Championship. If I won a ring in the process, another one of my goals would be realized, but the primary goal was to qualify for the tournament.

One way to qualify would be using the Mike Leah method, which he has utilized during the past two seasons: Attend one WSOP Circuit stop during the season, win Casino champion and receive an automatic seat into the WSOP National Championship. The other is the Blair Hinkle method of playing the same WSOP Circuit main event near your home and winning it three of the past five years. However, since I'm not that talented, I needed to figure out another way to qualify. Barring winning a WSOP Circuit main event or Casino champion, I would have to qualify via points. This season, only the top 50 in points (last season it was 60) would receive a seat into the event, which will be held from May 22 to 24 at Bally's Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Being the mathematical and strategic person I am, I began analyzing what the best strategy would be to qualify. Here are some statistics that helped me determine my best course of action.

Point system: As seen here, players receive points for their finish in each official ring event, with more points weighted toward a higher finish. Making a final table is crucial to earn significant points. Therefore, a player would be better off attending circuit stops that have lower average attendance, so when the money bubble is burst, the player would be closer to the final table.

For example, at Harrah's Philadelphia this season, Event 10 ($365 no-limit hold 'em) had only 66 players. With only seven players cashing, the first player to cash in seventh place earned a huge 20 points. However, the Hammond, Indiana, Event 12 ($365 no-limit hold 'em) had 260 players, with 27 places cashing. A min-cash in this event would result in only 2.5 points, and that player would need to fight through an additional 20 more players just to receive the same number of points as the first player to cash in Event 10 in Philadelphia.

Locations and registration numbers: I analyzed all of 2012-13 WSOP Circuit events and ranked them lowest to highest based on average registration numbers for all no-limit events.

The following eight stops had the lowest average attendance (listed from lowest to highest):

  • Harrah's Rincon, California

  • IP Casino Resort & Spa, Biloxi, Mississippi

  • Harrah's Philadelphia, PA

  • Horseshoe Council Bluffs, Iowa

  • Horseshoe, Southern Indiana

  • The Lodge Casino, Black Hawk, Colorado

  • Horseshoe Bossier City, Louisiana

  • Harvey's Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Based on this strategy, here are the top eight places to avoid (highest to lowest):

  • Horseshoe Hammond, Indiana

  • Harrah's Cherokee, NC

  • Choctaw Durant, Oklahoma

  • Palm Beach Kennel Club, Florida

  • Harrah's Tunica, Mississippi

  • Harrah's New Orleans, Louisiana

  • River Rock, Vancouver, Canada

  • Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, New Jersey (tied for 8th place)

  • Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada (tied for 8th place)

Point total in order to qualify: Last year, there were 20 stops on the WSOP Circuit and 60 players qualified via points. The point total of the lowest qualifying player was 125, determined by a tiebreaker based on total earnings. This year only 50 players would qualify via points. Looking at last season, the 50th player earned 142.5 points. With 22 stops this season, I believed that about 150 to 155 points would be enough to qualify, 160 to be completely safe.

Analyzing specific events: The Circuit events profess "12 Rings in 12 Days," but I can't regularly be away from my family for that long. I had to strategically choose which days to play. I always felt that one of the best events to play is the last one, which is usually a turbo. Being held on Monday, many local people skip this event held on a workday, ultimately leading to relatively lower registration numbers. The main event, which provides more points, is also held on the final weekend. Additionally, during the week, a six-max tournament was often on the schedule. The point distribution for this event is the same as a regular nine-handed tournament. Thus, if you made the final two tables, you could make solid points without making the official final table. Finally, the first weekend typically had a re-entry event with a large turnout, which is counter to my strategy. Thus, I would arrive after the first weekend and play the final seven to eight events of the series.

Personal restrictions: Unlike many of the WSOP Circuit grinders, I cannot play at every tour stop. I am a father and husband first, a poker player second. I had to be very methodical and strategic about my schedule.

Overall strategy: My goal was to qualify for the 2014 WSOP National Championship, not to win the most money possible.

Based on the information above, I decided to attend eight stops in 2013-2014, which would offer about 55 to 65 events. Since I did not believe that I would win any tiebreakers based on this method (the smaller fields result in smaller prize pools), I wanted to get a few more points to be safe. If I averaged 20 points per stop (a seventh-place finish or two decent runs), I would finish with 160 points and I felt that easily be enough to qualify. Even if I got around 150 points, this number could be enough as well, but I decided to shoot a little higher to be safe.

Of the eight stops with the lowest average registration, I planned on attending each stop except Biloxi (as my kids began school that week) and Lake Tahoe (same week as the November Nine, which I cover for ESPN). I substituted the newly-added Midwest stops (Cincinnati and Cleveland) as I felt they would have relatively lower registration numbers.

Schedule modifications: Due to family commitments, I attended only four events in Cincinnati and to make up for them, I decided to play a couple of events at Foxwoods. Horseshoe Cleveland was replaced with St. Louis' Lumiere Place in the schedule and still decided to attend. Finally, I would attend Philadelphia, but due to coaching commitments, I would be able to play in for only two days. I felt I needed to add another event and while I would've liked to attend the one held at the Bicycle Casino because it had the ninth lowest registration,, I had a prior obligation with RunGoodGear.com and ultimately opted for Harrah's Tunica. Although this was the fifth most attended stop, the final week of the series fit perfectly into my schedule. If I was very close and needed additional points, I planned to fly down to Harrah's New Orleans.

Results: My start to the 2013-14 was not very successful. I played only two events at Foxwoods and four events in Cincinnati and unfortunately blanked on all six events. I started well behind my target of 20 points at each "stop."

At Horseshoe Southern Indiana, I played in only four events. I didn't cash in the preliminaries, but I played well in the main event and finished in 10th which was good for my first 20 points on the board. My next stop was Horseshoe Bossier City, where I finished fourth in the six-max and earned 27.5 more points. At this point I stood at 47.5 points out of my target 60.

Rincon held true to past turnout patterns and I participated in tiny preliminary events that ranged from 89 to 151 players (which perfectly fit my strategy). A cash would've meant a final table, but I failed to make the money in any of the eight events. After this series was over, I questioned whether my strategy was sound. I spent more than 30 minutes bemoaning my fate to the all-time WSOP Circuit ring leader, Alex Masek, who, thankfully, convinced me that my strategy was solid, I was playing well and that I should just stay the course. After four stops of my intended eight, I was well below my target of 80 points with only 47.5 points to my credit.

I played in Tunica earlier in my career and I decided to revisit this location and attempt to start 2014 off right. Although I didn't have a great series, I cashed once in the six-max event, taking advantage of the same point system as nine-handed events. A ninth-place finish earned me 15 points, giving me 62.5 out of my target 100.

St. Louis replaced the original Horseshoe Cleveland and had I blanked in St. Louis, I would have questioned whether it would have been worth continuing my journey. During the series, I had an interesting strategic decision after being eliminated from Day 1A of the main event. This site had an unusual schedule where they had preliminary events on the last three days: Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Thus, I felt it would be better for me to play these three preliminaries, instead of re-entering the main event. It ended up being a good decision as I final tabled the first preliminary event, finishing third and earning 30 more points.

While Horseshoe Council Bluffs has become the annual Blair Hinkle main event victory party, I have fond memories of Council Bluffs as well, making three final tables from 2008 to 2010. I wasn't able to make any final tables this year, but I cashed in two events and earned 22.5 points (15th- and 12th-place finishes). Sitting at 115 points, I still had work to do with my final efforts of the season.

I was very disappointed that I could play for only two days in Philadelphia, as this was one of the lowest registration stops of the season. Fortunately, there were three events in these two days. I registered for the $365 no-limit event on Sunday and by the second break, I was the chip leader with only 66 players in the field. I had another slight dilemma: Should I buy into the second event of the day (which was a turbo) to give myself an insurance policy? I didn't have many events left and still needed at least two solid finishes, and if I were eliminated from the first event, I would lose the chance to play in the second. I ultimately decided to focus on my large stack, as with such a small field, a cash would equal a minimum of 20 points. I ended up finishing in third place for another 30 points and with 145 total, I felt like I would be sweating the National Championship bubble.

I had worked so hard throughout the season and I didn't want to leave my fate to chance. If I missed the cutoff by a mere 2.5 or 5 points, I would be filled with regret, so after I was eliminated Monday, I flew directly to Denver to play in the Black Hawk series, looking for a cushion.

In my third event, I was one of the chip leaders with 27 left. With 21 cashing, I focused all my effort on getting to 14th place, as this would give me an essential five points. Once I reached that spot, I felt a massive sense of relief and a reinvigorated feeling of determination. Now I wanted to win my first ring, but ahead of me was a challenging task with a field that contained five WSOP Circuit ring winners with a combined 14 pieces of jewelry among them. I battled through and faced off against Masek heads-up for more than four levels in the turbo event. Ultimately I overcame a 5-to-1 chip deficit to win. It was an incredibly satisfying moment to not only capture that title, but to defeat such an incredible player made it even more memorable.

After clinching the WSOP national championship seat, I almost didn't play the main event, but I decided the value was too good to pass up. I ended up cashing in 25th place and left Black Hawk with 200 points.

Final numbers:

  • Events: 50

  • Cashes: 9

  • Points: 200

  • Buy-in total: $33,585

  • Prize money: $49,786

Although it definitely had bumps in the road, I am proud that I developed a sound strategy, stayed the course and ultimately achieved my goal and captured my first WSOP ring in the process. It was a memorable journey and now it's time for one more stop: Atlantic City.