Whether Tuesday's launch of the Epic Poker League is a new day for poker remains to be seen. What we know for the moment is that the numbers exceeded the league's publicly stated expectation, suggesting that in the least, most of the qualified players are excited to be a part of the proceedings.
With this past Tuesday's Day 1 just two weeks removed from the end of the World Series of Poker, there were reasons to believe attendance might not be what the organizers were hoping. That short break between the events might have resulted in players suffering the hangover effects that usually come with its conclusion. Also, a third of the qualified players are from outside the United States and may have just returned to their home nations after the WSOP grind.
Executive chairman Jeffrey Pollack pegged 100 players as the goal for the first event while commissioner Annie Duke aimed higher at 120. Exceeding those estimates may explain why they were both in good cheer when reached for comment after getting 137 players out to the inaugural event. Duke was the only one of the 253 qualified members of the league who was ruled ineligible to play (though one other player, Hevad Khan, has retired from poker), and the eight qualifiers from the Pro/Am made it 260 players who had the option of entry. 52.7 percent of them took advantage, with 66 percent of the eligible American players competing. Going by the Global Poker Index - the system of poker rankings used by the league - seven of the top 10 players in the world played, with only France's Bertrand Grospellier (No. 1 coming into the tournament) and Fabrice Soulier (No. 5) and American John Juanda (No. 10) missing from that list.
"It's never been mine or Annie's expectation that every player would play in every event, so I think the 137 is incredibly strong," Pollack said. "Though it's not our entire membership, that's OK. We're very pleased with the turnout. I think our first event has been a smash hit. The Pro/Am and charity events exceeded our expectations and we're very pleased about the main event turnout and appreciative of the players who played."
After two days of play, the final 18 players have made the money and the GPI rankings are standing out more than ever, as the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 players (Erik Seidel, Jason Mercier and Eugene Katchalov, respectively) coming into the event are all seated at the same table. The champion of the event will earn $1 million.
"I am super pleased," Duke said. "We did all of our calculations with conservative numbers in mind. We actually went higher than my number. One hundred twenty was my number for success and I think I set a higher standard to it than most did. Obviously, it went past, so I consider it a big success."
Adding to the success was the obvious optimism of the players who chose to play. Twitter was flooded with testimonials from the ranks of the league, who commented extensively on the atmosphere, the level of play and the professional feel of the event.
Joe Hachem, who has been one of the league's most ardent supporters, flew home to Australia from the WSOP then flew back 10 days later for the Epic premiere. "Basically, the league is something we desperately need in this profession and I'm 100 percent behind it," Hachem said. "I'm on the ethics and conduct committee and I don't like being on any kind of committee where I don't trust the people or the motives. The turnout of 137 is pretty great. Some of us only left for home 10 days ago. All in all, I think it was a huge success. It felt like a bunch of friends playing with each other. We all have experience and history with one another and the chance to play with people on that level made it so much more exciting."
"We wanted and continue to want the players to feel as though the experience is of a very high quality and also very comfortable for them," Pollack said. "I think when you walk through the tournament room (which Pollack refers to as the Hall of Champions) when you go through that hall, there's a very intense energy but it's also clear people are enjoying themselves. That was very important to us."
There were some notable and very noticeable absentees from the debut.
"The one person I'd love to have seen was Doyle [Brunson]," admitted Duke. "He's coming back to Las Vegas in September and was delayed by personal matters. He tweeted his support though ["Any poker player that doesn't play in the @epicpokerleague needs to have his (or her) head examined. Best deal going, wish I was there*#133;"], so I think he was here in spirit. He's the one person who I'd have been disappointed didn't come."
There were others players who many fringe poker fans would recognize absent from the tables. Mike Matusow allegedly was unable to find backing in time for the tournament, the Black Friday-related pressures kept Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson from attending and other FTP pros like Ivey, Juanda and Erick Lindgren chose not to play.
The biggest omission from the tournament's ranks may have been Daniel Negreanu. Negreanu will be posting a blog entry at FullContactPoker.com explaining in further detail his reasons for not playing, but he shared this excerpt:
The only legitimate chance the league has to survive is if regulation happened in the U.S.
”-- Daniel Negreanu
"I chose not to take part in the World Team Poker event for one sole reason: I didn't think it would be a success. The same holds true with the Epic Poker League I don't believe this product will resonate with the public and based on my intimate knowledge of how these types of things work, I don't think it's possible to bring in enough revenue to survive. The only legitimate chance the league has to survive is if regulation happened in the U.S. and they were able to create an online poker site."
Negreanu's contention goes on to say that the promises of fame for poker's young stars are overblown. His cantankerous relationship with Duke has also been cited by some as a reason for his lack of support, though he doesn't name her in the blog.
Although this tournament will be remembered in part for the players who didn't appear at it, clearing 50 percent is a clear victory for the upstart league. Should it succeed, attendance will be pointed to as a catalyst. Should it fail, the absence of some of poker's biggest stars will be similarly pointed to. Indications though are that the first event can be looked upon as a good start. Now, the question becomes where the league goes from here.
You can read more of Gary Wise's musings at jgarywise.com.