Before the 2009 World Series of Poker, much of the murmuring surrounding the event expressed fears regarding the world's economic crisis and the effect it might have on the WSOP. It had been a record-breaking year in 2008 as a flush world flocked to Las Vegas, and now, the poker industry was looking for more of the same but fearing a recession. That's why the selling out of Event 4 -- aka "the stimulus special" -- was such a cause for celebration.
The damaged economy hadn't hurt the WSOP. Once again, record numbers were achieved in terms of total money spent on buy-ins and total number of buy-ins. Event 4 had an amazing 6,012 entrants, surpassing the previous high for a live, non-main event poker tournament by more than 2,000 players. The poker economy was alive and well.
Throughout the summer, the sellouts would continue with nary a complaint. The world was well-educated to the Rio's space limitations and while there were always a few disappointed players who would have pushed capacity, even they were educated enough to understand why they weren't playing.
When the main event arrived, we should've seen the warning signs. With the numbers for most events up, it was reasonable to surmise that last year's main event total of 6,844 players would at least be approached. Day 1 was split into four installments: Friday's 1A, Saturday's 1B, Sunday's 1C and Monday's 1D, which would need to average 1,711 players to tally 6,844. Day 1A attracted 1,116 players. Day 1B, coinciding with a weekend Independence Day, saw only 873 come out to play. It was obvious to some observers that Sunday and Monday would see crowds that far exceeded those numbers. Day 1C only partially came through, with 1,696 putting up their $10,000.
It was only once Sunday's play began that an e-mail was sent out to the media at 1:52 p.m. PT by Seth Palansky, communications director of the WSOP. The e-mail, entitled "WSOP 2A (Tuesday) Starters List," contained three standard attachments listing the players who'd be playing in Day 2A. In addition, the e-mail contained the following message in large, bold lettering:
"Media: Please help us alert any potential WSOP players that there is a good chance Main Event Day 1D tomorrow may reach capacity. Seating is limited and first come first serve and once all available seats are sold, the tournament officially closes. Players are encouraged to get to the Rio as soon as possible if they intend to play in the Main Event.
"Players can enter Day 1C today up until 4:50 PM and there are still available seats for today."
This was the first public acknowledgement that 1D might sell out.
As Sunday waned, the remaining slots filled fast. The WSOP had advertised the tournament's capacity on its Web site as 3,000 players per day, but had also advertised 10-handed play. When the decision was made prior to 1A to run 9-player tables, it altered the maximum capacity of the space at WSOP's disposal. The integrity of the tournament insisted that the 9-handed formatting be maintained for the entirety of the tournament in order to provide a level playing field. That put the maximum capacity somewhere north of 2,700 players.
In the history of the WSOP, no player had ever officially been turned away from the WSOP main event, with the exception of those parties banned from the properties that hosted the event. Furthermore, it had long been communicated that the practice of taking all comers would be continued, and players took security in that.
"Of course they've given players the impression that they'll never turn anyone away from the main event," said Mickey Appleman. Appleman's 31-year streak of playing in the main event came to an end when he was informed 1D had sold out prior to his attempted registration. "I've played in it and signed up late many times. Players support the WSOP. We play endless hours and you play in so many tournaments and you try to prime yourself so you get the most rest. I didn't want to sign up in advance and have to play because I was semi-fatigued. You want to feel right before choosing your day. I was primed for today and when I came in I was shut out." His sentiment of security in knowing there'd be a spot seemed to be a universal one among the shutouts.
It was at approximately 2 a.m. Monday that capacity was reached, with registration being shut down as a result. At approximately 7:30AM, thirty seats were added to try to further accommodate players, selling by approximately 9 a.m.
It should be pointed out here that it's in the poker player's nature to procrastinate. Many of their number choose the poker lifestyle because it's devoid of rules. That doesn't excuse the decision made by so many to try to register for the most important tournament of the year as late as possible, but it does explain it to some extent. After what happened at the WSOP on Monday, they'll take the tournament's preregistration offerings a little more seriously.
As the hours leading up to the day's noon start time passed, the line up at the registration desk grew longer. Anger was building among players who had travelled from as far as Australia with every intention to play and felt secure they'd be able to. Rumors were circulating that players like Phil Ivey and Erick Lindgren had received preferential treatment. Frustration was boiling over among those who felt their dreams of championship glory moving beyond reach, many feeling betrayed by what they saw as insufficient warning of what might be going down.
"I think that Harrah's communications was awful," said Kevin O'Donnell, a professional circuit regular who'd gone home to Arizona for Independence Day. "If they'd warned us better about this possibility, we'd have made the needed adjustments. There are a lot of things they're going to say that are true, but ultimately the communications broke down. As a business person, I understand you can only fit in so many people, but they should have done a better job of letting people know they were going to have these space issues."
Meanwhile, Palansky was sending out a follow up e-mail at 12:08 p.m. entitled "WSOP Main Event - Flight 1D is a SELLOUT," whose body contained the following message:
"The Main Event registration is officially closed. All seats available on Day 1D have been sold.
"Final entrant numbers and prize pool information will be available late this evening after all reconciliation has been completed.
"I'm pretty mad," said Bill Jensen, another regular player on the live tournament circuit. "I left Vegas for the weekend then came back because I was sure I'd be able to play. It's been said that they'd never turn players away from the main event and when I got here this morning, there was a line out the door and they'd closed registration. People are complaining about chartering flights from England for $10,000 this morning only to arrive and be turned away. We're all very frustrated. I'm really angry."
"I just think this is a ridiculous thing to do," Jensen continued. "There are so many options. First of all, the Miranda room is empty. Second of all, they could take us over to Caesar's, have us play four levels and mix us into day 2A tomorrow. While 2A is playing tomorrow we could play on the other side of the room then mix us into 2B. They could just wait for (1D) to be over then have us play from 1AM to 11AM with no breaks, go straight. I mean, anyone would do it. It's not about the money. The main event is worth so much more than the money."
While O'Donnell, Jensen and others fumed, a meeting was taking place. WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack has been viewed through his time on the job as player-friendly by the majority of the professional poker community.
"He loves us," said Melissa Hayden, a loud voice in said community and another of the shutouts. "He comes to us, listens to us. He wants to know what the players want and wants to make that happen." Pollack and his WSOP executives had made the decision to close down registration, but when Mike Sexton and World Poker Association chairman "Captain" Tom Franklin approached them seeking to speak on behalf of the players, Pollack agreed to listen.
"Basically, Mike and I spoke for the poker players and Jeff and his people spoke for Harrah's," said Franklin, another shutout who's played in some 30 main events over the course of his career. "We came up with solutions we thought were viable and they agreed that they were viable, but also had some integrity issues. I understand that 100 percent. I'm a businessman. They don't want to look greedy. They don't want to have told 10 guys they couldn't play, then have those guys leave town and then tell 300 others they can play."
There were other issues. With approximately 750 players shut out of the action, 84 tables, 750 chairs, some 150 dealers and other assorted casino staff and a large enough space to contain it all would have to be procured on extremely short notice. There was also the issue of clearing all changes to the tournament structure with the Nevada Gaming Commission. Pollack and crew were looking at a logistical nightmare that would also set a dangerous precedent. In the end, they thanked Franklin and Sexton for their efforts and discussed their options one more time.
Franklin was in the hallway talking to his fellow shutouts as they waited for a verdict. "Let me put it two ways," he explained. "Being one of the ones who didn't get in, I'm not happy about their decision, but I do appreciate where they're coming from. This was a tough decision for their team and they didn't treat it lightly. They listened to what we had to say and rehuddled and tried to figure out whether they could implement what we suggested -- "
But before he could explain what that was, his phone rang. It was Pollack, who asked Franklin to herd the unregistered players down the hallway so that Pollock could address the mob as a whole. With a sliver of hope the players moved away from the main event they'd wanted so badly to participate in.
The meeting had an ominous feel to it. The WSOP executives -- including Pollack, Palansky, media director Nolan Dalla, tournament director Jack Effel, Rio general manager Gerry Tuthill and Rio director of poker operations Howard Greenbaum -- were assembled in a collection of dark suits and postures that made those surrounding Pollack look more like security than anything else. It was no wonder given the looks on the faces of disgruntled players. They were starting to recognize they'd been separated from the main event to lessen the impact of the bad news they were about to receive, readying themselves for the executioner's axe. Finally, Pollack approached a lone dais, introduced his staff and announced he'd be reading a short statement:
"I want to start off by saying we are sorry and I am sorry," Pollack said. "The last thing we ever want to do is deny people entry into our events, but as was the case with 10 other events at this year's WSOP, we simply reached capacity today. There are a whole host of operational issues that factor into running live poker tournaments -- especially the biggest poker tournaments -- and we are unable to accommodate any more people for the main event this year.
"We are disappointed about this. I wish that more people had played on other days of the main event. I wish we could accommodate you, but we can't. We've had more than 60,000 entrants this summer and operationally that presents us with a number of challenges, forces us to plan a certain way. In order to run the main event going forward, we simply cannot accommodate any more players and I apologize for this. You have my word and promise this is going to be Topic 1 as we plan for 2010.
"I have pledged every year that we do better than we did the year before and so far I think we've lived up to that promise. This is probably the single biggest challenge we have faced in the last four years and I promise we will look at this and find a solution so it isn't repeated next year."
The assembled weren't satisfied. Pollack was immediately hit with a series of questions concerning the rumored special treatment of Ivey and Lindgren. Australian player Trevor McCarthy insisted that the rumors were fact, to which Pollack responded:
"As I understand, any player who is in was already registered. Your information could be incorrect. I can tell you there are a number of pros who were shut out."
The meeting wore on. "Just to be clear, we are not doing this happily today," Pollack said, with a grim expression on his face. "I know from an operational standpoint, we have done everything we possibly can do.
It was at this point that Palansky got involved with the conference. "Guys, we had a tournament set up: 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, OK?" he pleaded amid shouted protests questioning why the tournament wouldn't be brought back after the day's play was over. "It's over. We can't take any more." When further questioned as to why the event couldn't extend its schedule, Palansky retorted, "Why didn't you show up earlier?" This exchange caused a rising crescendo of dissent. It was Pollack who regained control of the conversation.
The commissioner went on to explain with some vagueness that changing the schedule would be a logistical nightmare, providing one example and then explaining that the repercussions of a rash decision could be enormous. He fielded angry questions and reminded the shutouts that the Rio's capacities, while substantial, were limited. He addressed a question from Hayden about alternates, stating "We have not run alternates for this event and we are not going to start now," and then pointed out the previous ten sellouts of the 2009 WSOP. Finally, he asked, "Where do we draw the line?" and pointed out that after this group of players, the next wave would have grounds to insist upon entry. "We've already drawn the line this morning and there will be others who will be equally upset later in the day." He then thanked the players for listening and left the room to angry catcalls.
Mike Sexton had been quietly watching the proceedings and could only shake his head. The WPT announcer, bracelet winner, former tournament director and poker ambassador had hoped for a different resolution.
"I feel the pain for the players who didn't get to play in this tournament," Sexton said. "I still felt more of a correct decision would have been to make some kind of arrangement so these players can play. Some kind of heat, whatever it might be. I think the positives of that for WSOP on ESPN, with the Rio opening their arms to let them back in after they'd been told they'd been shut out would be better for them than just shutting registration down as they've done.
"I understand the WSOP's problems: the staffing problems, the dealing problems, the logistical issues of running a big tournament. It's just unfortunate because all of these players were under the assumption they could just come in and sign up. I think this month has seen the most well-run WSOP ever. It was terrific, well-organized and now they've put a bad taste into the players' mouths. I hate to see the WSOP getting a black eye over something like this.
"They listened in that meeting to both sides of the issue and decided it was best for the Harrah's property to stick to what they'd decided to shut people down," continued Sexton. "I don't think they wanted to reverse their decision anymore and you have to respect that."
The shutouts angrily discussed the events among themselves as the traffic spilled back into the Rio hallways. The mob was dissatisfied, but they had some closure. "The whole thing with them sitting there talking about integrity is ridiculous," said Jensen, defeated. "It's well-documented on their Web site: It says 3,000 people. I would gladly sit out to let 240 of these people play. You advertise something and you do something different, that shows a lack of integrity, in my opinion."
Jensen is one of many for whom the dream died this year before it began. Among the others are a number of recognizable names, including Patrik Antonius, Anna Wroblewski, Brandon Adams, Karina Jett, Appleman, O'Donnell, Hayden, Franklin, Layne Flack and Minh Ly. On top of those, however, one name stands out for the longevity in the game and achievements associated with it.
T.J. Cloutier has made the final table of the main event three times. He's won six bracelets and played in the main event every year since 1983. This year, however, at 69 years of age, he's among those watching from the sidelines. Unlike so many of his fellow shutouts, he takes full responsibility for his situation. "It's only fair," said the Texan rounder, another member of the WSOP Players Advisory Council. "I should have signed up earlier. I'm not looking for special treatment."
"I kind of agree with Jeffrey because everybody had four days to get in," Cloutier continued. "I've said all along I would play on the fourth day, but that had no bearing on timing. These other people signed up before me. They've been strict about numbers and that's the way it is. I agree with their decision ... and no, it doesn't tarnish the event for me. It's not their fault. It's my fault."
It was a long day for Pollack, a man who has always insisted the responsibility for all WSOP decisions rests on his shoulders. Not every shutout was frustrated with the commissioner. "Jeffrey tried to accommodate and do the right thing; it's all he ever tries to do," Franklin said. "He went out of his way to try to accommodate us, but the bottom line is it was just a logistical nightmare and there was no way to get around everything. My kudos go to Jeffrey and his staff for trying to do what they thought would be the right thing."
"In the long run, the tournament may in fact benefit because they'll never have this problem again in the future, I can promise you that," Sexton said with a smile. "They'll be ready to start on time. All four Day 1s will be equal in attendance, I can promise you that, too. I think that was a part of the decision-making process, that they thought about that and knew in the future when they went ahead with this event, they wouldn't have these kinds of problems again with late registration."
Popular opinion is divided. On the one hand, there's massive sympathy for the shutouts. On the other, there seems to be a common belief that it was the responsibility of the individual players to make sure they were registered. Some argue that Harrah's didn't do enough to warn the community about what was coming, while others suggest that Harrah's couldn't know it was coming. It's barely been noticed that Harrah's -- a company often accused of greed in the poker world -- chose the more responsible path and in doing so turned their noses up at some 750 players' worth of rake, as well as the PR bonanza that would come with informing the world that the number of entries in 2009 surpassed that of 2008. To be a thriving industry in today's economy is newsworthy.
The epilogue of this story is yet to be written. In the days ahead, as the media gets further details of the goings on, further questions will be asked about what could have been done to avoid the situation. Pollack and his team will then act upon those suggestions to ensure there won't be a repeat in 2010. On Day 1D, 2,808 players competed in the main event, bringing the total number of players to 6,494, who will compete for $61,043,600, with first place paying $8,546,435. Nine will advance to the final table and gain some measure of fame, and one will be crowned champion in November. None of those things will change, but questions will persist. There are those who will be able to claim they didn't get their chance to compete.
"Certainly," Jenson said before he left the Rio, "you can't call the winner the best in the world if everyone who wants to doesn't get to compete in the tournament."
For poker, the economic crisis has passed. Our biggest problem now is too much of a good thing.
Gary Wise is covering the WSOP for ESPN.com.