Sunday, June 25, 2006

Is the WSOP's $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. Tourney the True "Main Event"?

The title of this post is an open question, one that's been tossed into the ring since the concept of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tourney first gathered steam. After all, the event will combine three aspects of play that seem to be standard qualifications for the honor:

1) The highest buy-in (by a factor of five, no less);
2) The most elite field in the WSOP;
3) A skill set that covers several forms of poker, rather than just no-limt Hold'em.

Sounds like a strong argument to me, and I was reminded of it when I saw this recent thread in the WSOP discussion area over at 2+2. But a strong argument is different than a correct one, and for the forseeable future, the $10,000 No-Limit Main event will hold its lofty title.

While the current mad rush of entries is a new challenge for the WSOP, its historical importance will keep it secure on top of the pedestal for some time to come. It's important to remember two other points. First, there has been pressure to create an elite-field event at the WSOP for many, many years. It seems like ever since the Main Event topped the 100-entry mark there's been at least a couple of big-name pros clamoring for something more expensive, more exclusive. This is the nature of the beast. Second, while a large number of players describe no-limit Hold'em as the "Cadillac of poker games," other forms of the game have their own cachet among poker royalty, such as the Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw event... an acquired taste, to be sure.

But the unseen weight on the either side of the scales is the marketing push, and that favors the current $10K buy-in level. A $10,000-plus-expenses event is the perfect prize for a lot of qualifying tourneys --- particularly the online ones. While some prize packages are awarded for smaller events, the requitise expenses make those not such a good value for the promoter; after all, a $1,500 tourney buy-in is nice, but expenses for the winner's trip might equal that or more, a hidden cost that has to be picked up elsewhere. Sometimes these events are "entry fee only" prozes for the winner, highlighting the hidden importance of the overhead.

And on the other end of the spectrum, a $50,000 prize will seem like an incredible hurdle for many potential qualifiers to climb --- because that $50,000-entry-fee victory represents just the chance to play in the large H.O.R.S.E. event. I don't know about you, but if I waded through a field with a prize worth $50,000, I'd want something real to show for it. I doubt I'm the only one who feels that way, and because of it, the $50K event is likely to remain a deep-pocket showcase.

There's a facet of game theory called "utility function" that applies here. I may have mentioned this in a previous post, but I'll reprise the basics:

First, let's just say that I gave you a dollar bill, free and clear. It's yours. Now I produce a coin, and tell you that if you call a single coin-flip correctly, that $1 will become $10, but if you guess wrong, I get the dollar. Obviously, you'll make the bet.

Now, suppose I gave you a million dollars, also free and clear. Again the coin flip is offered, with $10 million as the prize if you guess correctly, and the million returned --- leaving you with nothing --- if you don't. Would you take the bet, knowing all the things the free million could buy for you?

Chances are good that if you're reading this, you have more gamble in you than most. Perhaps you could take that bet... even though the odds are the same as in the smaller, easy-to-accept bet before. But the difference in perception describes what "utility" is; it's a measure of the joy of gain vs. the pain of loss.

And it also describes why the $10,000 buy-in works for the dreamers and the marketers both. It's on the edge of the attainable, still within the price of dreams for those of reasonable means. It makes for a great marketing tool, too, as any number of online and brick-and-mortar casinos can affirm. It's because of this that the $10K event will be the biggee... for at least several more years, says this writer.

If the $50K H.O.R.S.E. event captures big ratings, than the balance will begin to shift, and a different sort of financial tug-of-war will determine the event to be called "king." As for me, I'll be watching all of it.

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