The World Poker Tour announced its latest major event yesterday. The WPT500, so named because of its $500 + 65 buy-in, will be held at Aria Resort & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip from July 1st to 6th, 2014. It’s the lowest buy-in for a WPT tournament since the $500 Costa Rica Classic back in 2002, but that event held under radically different circumstances in a world that hadn’t yet discovered it enjoyed watching poker on television. The WPT500 is less a step back and more of a “super low-roller” complement to the tour’s Alpha8 series.
The tournament, which will feature a guaranteed prize pool of $1,000,000 and a top prize of $200,000, makes sense from a number of angles. Tourneys with small buy-ins and big guarantees at series run by tournament director Matt Savage have proven highly successful in Los Angeles and Florida over the last few years, and the WSOP Circuit has enjoyed similar success in their wake at some of its bigger tour stops. And all of those events were played without the benefit of online satellites, which will be available to anyone overseas, or in Nevada or New Jersey, who wants to play the WPT500.
The timing of the WPT500 poises it to take advantage of the spectators in town for the WSOP Main Event who can’t afford to play in it but would put down the three-figure buy-in at Aria without blinking an eye, not to mention players who have been wiped out by a bad run at the Rio but can still afford a few hundred dollars for a shot at more than $200K. That’s an automatic win for the venue. Poker might be the reason the players are there, but the reason the poker is there is to put warm bodies in hotel rooms, restaurant seats, and gambling pits. The host poker room’s bottom line benefits from a large field, too, not so much because of the actual tournament itself but because it’s going to be offering “frequent $125 super satellites” at nearly double the juice of the big tourney all the way up until its final starting day has concluded. The timing is a big win for the online rooms providing satellites, too, since one need not be a resident of Nevada to play online as long as you’re physically located in the state.
This downward shift represents another milestone in the evolution of tournament buy-ins for the tour. When the WPT launched in 2002, tournament poker was still a relative rarity. Outside of the World Series of Poker there were just a handful of tournament series that resembled anything like today’s festivals, and they were restricted to a few locales around the world. When the WPT opened it up to the world with a technological advance (the hole cam) and television exposure, that rarity meant there was little to no competition in the televised poker market outside of the tournament that started in all back in 1970.
Back then the WSOP Main Event was the only tournament most people in the world knew, if they even knew one at all. Matching its $10,000 buy-in for the bulk of the tournaments allowed the WPT to share in the de facto world championship’s high-roller cachet, especially once the boom hit and winners were regularly taking home prizes worth at least a million dollars. It also allowed the WPT to make a play at even more prestige by setting the buy-in for its season-ending championship at $25,000. That claim to prestige through high buy-ins was a hat-hanging peg for the WPT, and while the multiplying power of online satellites turned out enormous fields it. Once the effects of the UIGEA began to hit, though, those large buy-ins began to put a dent in the number of “Poker Made Millionaires” the WPT was churning out.
Then came the global financial crisis in late 2008, which reverberated through poker just as it did every other industry. The WPT held the line on the larger buy-ins for a time and suffered as UIGEA and the economy conspired against it. Without a change things could have gone a lot farther south than they eventually did, but the Borgata Poker Open changed its 2009 main event buy-in to $3,500. That tournament drew more than 1,000 players and saw winner Olivier Busquet walk away with $925K despite the lower buy-in. The move got some flack from high-rollers but it wasn’t long before the new trend was to lower buy-ins across the board in an effort to keep the highly saturated live tournament poker market afloat.
Not long after, of course, more tournaments for those willing to splash big cash would begin popping up at destination casinos around the world. The WPT itself, after sitting back and watching other tours and tournaments experiment with high roller events, put down a pretty big bet on their popularity with the Alpha8 series of tournaments, each featuring a buy-in of at least $100,000 and held in some exotic location. If WPT500 goes as well as it seems like it ought to, it’s not hard to imagine the WPT spinning off a similar series of tournaments at partner venues where a super high-roller tourney doesn’t make sense but a more democratic one might. Even if it doesn’t go that far, just launching the WPT500 is a sign that we can probably expect to see a lot more of these kind of tournaments across the industry.