Why Is The WPT In Decline?

With World Poker Tour field sizes falling through the floor, Michael Kaplan takes a look at why high stakes live events in Vegas are having problems drawing players

If you happened to be at the Bellagio for the recent $25,000 WPT Championship, you would not have had trouble finding a seat. Truth is that the tournament, which should be a premier event on the international poker circuit, was poorly attended. At final count, only 195 runners anted up the admittedly large buy-in. If you compare that to the 639 players who registered for the championship in 2007 and 338 competitors in 2008, it’s clear these numbers are moving in the wrong direction!

The night before David Williams made the final table, which he went on to win, I called him in regard to another matter, but we also got to talking about the sparse turnout. ‘Of course I’d like more players,’ he said. ‘There’d be more money I’d have a chance of earning. But I think the timing for this one was bad. You have the EPT San Remo and then Monte Carlo coming right after. Plus there’s the economy…’

For sure this year at the Bellagio boasts a seriously distilled field. The 195 players represent a strongly competitive group. That said it’s pretty clear that dead money is not the draw of this particular tournament. But for people who love poker, there definitely is an upside to the new reality of the WPT’s big-ticket events: final tables are not going to consist of half a dozen nobodies who play worse than you and your mates on any given Friday night.

In fact, this event generated the kind of dream final table that tournament poker lovers have gone without for way too long: Billy Baxter, Eric Baldwin, David Williams, David Benyamine, Shawn Buchanan and John O’Shea (who won two ECOOP titles in 2009). For good or ill, the pros’ loss will be our gain when this star-studded final table airs.

Travel Bug

As far as the bigger picture goes, things look pretty grim for the World Poker Tour. Clearly, the timing for this was not the best, given the competing tournaments going on. They combine to provide compelling reasons for European pros not to bother flying all the way to Vegas when they can play closer to home.

Plus there is the excuse du jour: an air-traffic snarling volcanic eruption in Iceland. But there is a bigger problem here, and that’s the lack of satellite entry for the WPT events, starkly contrasted by the success of both PokerStars’ North American Poker Tour and the EPT, where online qualifiers are two a penny. When a tourney buy-in is as much as $25k with no online satellite entry, it’s inevitable that the live events will suffer, as there aren’t many players willing to fork out that kind of cash in an event with so little dead money.

Jack McClelland, tournament director at the Bellagio, feels the pain. He has griped about the suits at his casino not allowing him to be in bed with online sites. He’s described the situation as ‘running a long distance race on one leg’. Indeed, PokerStars’ involvement in putting on tournaments has created an uneven playing field. Though the Venetian casino presumably managed to get proper approval for players to satellite into the first NAPT event online, the Bellagio – owned by MGM Mirage group – has not been able to do the same. McClelland recently commented that a request has been put forward to the Nevada Gaming Commission; apparently he is awaiting a definitive answer. As I was told by a functionary in the Bellagio poker room, ‘We’re working on it.’

Party Time?

Providing further irony in all of this is the fact that the WPT is now owned by PartyPoker, an online site that pulled out of the American market and paid a hefty fine to the US government in order to make amends for doing anything that might have been construed as illegal. For the time being then, the Bellagio and the WPT are paying the price for observing a seemingly goofy law, while pros in the US face the prospect of increasingly thinner fields. At some point, they might just not bother playing.

While poker-boosting lawmakers and attorneys seem optimistic that certain jurisdictions will make online poker legal in the coming years, that looming possibility does little to salve current woes.

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