With PokerStars and the High Rollers who have helped make their live tours such a success seemingly at loggerheads, Lee Davy takes a look at a possible new home as poker continues to evolve.
Please read, Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari, it’s brilliant.
Towards the beginning of his treatise on the history of our species, Harari writes about the Cognitive Revolution and how language, primarily gossip, helped form larger groups of Homo Sapiens.
I had never heard the Water Cooler theory of life on earth before, but Harari makes you a believer with his wonders of wordsmithery. Harari states that social research reveals that once a group exceeds 150 members, it reaches a critical threshold where communities became too large to function as a single entity and break off into different factions, each with a different hierarchy and a different way of doing things.
And as Harari delivered this history lesson I was reminded of poker’s High Rollers.
There isn’t 150 of them, but they have become big enough to break away from the community and become a new faction.
Who will lead?
Who will open the door and give them a place to lay their hat?
The PokerStars Championship / The Aria High Rollers
There are between 30-40 players who regularly compete in the highest buy-in tournaments in the world. From what I can pick up on the grapevine very few of them compete on their own dime. A small group of players/businessman fund the buy-ins hoping their horse can create a profitable venture. And if you backed, Fedor Holz, for example, then you made a very sizeable profit.
In the past few years, the High Rollers have congregated in two places. The first is the Aria in Las Vegas where they compete in regular $25k buy-in events, with a sprinkling of $50k and $100k action thrown in for good measure. The only problem with the Aria is its a fixed abode, and unless you live there, your attendance at every event is going to be difficult.
There needs to be fluidity and proximity, and the European Poker Tour (EPT) cracked it holding a series of High Roller events in Europe, but PokerStars killed the EPT to create the PokerStars Championship and Festivals brand. From a branding point of view, this makes sense. But the flight miles between each destination has increased now the tour has become global.
Not only has PokerStars made it more costly for the High Rollers to travel the world and compete in their events. There have been reports that PokerStars has taken their eye off the customer service ball, prompting several prominent High Rollers and members of the strata playing just below to openly reach out to the other tours to offer them a home so they can leave their current abode.
Is There Any Room at The Inn?
In 2014, the World Poker Tour (WPT) recognised the value in attracting the High Rollers to their mansion. The WPT Alpha8 was born. The plan was to showcase the greatest players in the world, guaranteeing fans the best final table line up each and every time.
The elite tour ran for three seasons but never seemed to attract the same numbers that played at the EPT. A fourth season has yet to materialise.
So if the WPT can’t make it work, who can?
It’s clear that some of the High Rollers want an online poker room to step up to the plate and offer them a place to play. But I’m not sure anybody wants them.
It’s not that the High Rollers aren’t good value. They contribute a significant sum of money when it comes to fees and rake. But the idea of catering for the High Rollers runs counter to the marketing ploys of the biggest live tours.
Partypoker recently hired John Duthie to act as President of partypoker Live, and he told me that his emphasis is on making live tournaments fun again, with a focus on the grassroots players. The new partypoker Live event in Sochi, Russia, looks to be a prime example of this with skiing and a whole host of other initiatives dragging 1,170 entrants into a $1,100 buy-in event.
888Poker, the second largest online poker room in the cosmos, has also recently joined the live tournament circus with 888Live. The motto is on providing buy-ins for players at all levels, and if you look at the structures, and the smaller scale framework they are creating you can’t see a home for the High Rollers.
The likes of Unibet and the Microgaming Poker Network Poker Tour is also part of this ecosystem, but I don’t think either group wants to take on this new challenge, nor will it align with their marketing plans, which currently focus on the growth of poker from the ground up.
And that leaves the World Series of Poker (WSOP). The Christmas Day of poker has never been able to recreate the same buzz around the globe. The World Series of Poker Circuit (WSOPC) has become global, but their market is also grassroots players. I don’t think the WSOPC can become the home for the High Rollers.
Thinking Outside of the Box
I have looked at the current ecosystem and analysed the likelihood of the current incumbents of giving the High Rollers a home.
What about someone new?
The Global Poker Index (GPI) is the number one ranking system in our business. The Global Poker League (GPL) stands alongside the ranking system as CEO Alexander Dreyfus’s bid to give the greatest players a platform to showcase their talents.
Season 1 of the GPL was a success, and Season 2 promises to be even better, with regional tours springing up in China, Latin America, and India.
So far, Dreyfus and his team have steered clear from gambling in a bid to attract the right sponsors to the GPL to promote it as a game of skill. But that doesn’t mean this won’t change.
The High Roller community fits the GPL mould perfectly. They are the types of players that Dreyfus wants to see playing in his league. And it is the very best players in the world who are backed to play in these events.
Recently, Dreyfus intimated on Twitter that he and his team are starting to play around with the idea for a Grand Slam of Poker known as the GPI Masters Series, and there is no reason why this won’t work.
— Alexandre Dreyfus (@alex_dreyfus) March 24, 2017
If Dreyfus is smart about this, and I think that’s a given, then he can collaborate with the players to design an elite tour based on the value the High Rollers crave. He can listen to them about structure, payout requirements, shot clock and other additions, and locations.
If Dreyfus can provide the players with what they need and in return receive buy-in to create a deeper story narrative that is ultimately compelling viewing for an audience, then this could be a winner. I believe people will pay good money to watch the best players in the world competing live in the same way that eSports fans do.
The Super High Roller Bowl (SHRB) is a great event, but one event doesn’t allow you to create the depth of emotional connection that a series does. Think Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. You become invested in the players over the long haul, and I can see this happening with the characters who currently compete in the highest stakes buy-ins in the world.
There is no need for an online poker room to find a home for these players. It’s a red herring. These players clearly value the live arena, and I think the GPI/GPL can provide them with what they need and continue the next stage in poker’s evolution.
There was a time in our history when Homo Sapiens learned to exceed the critical threshold of 150 people. Today, we have people like Donald Trump leading 318 million dumbstruck souls.
So how did they achieve it?
Harari believes the answer lay in Homo Sapiens ability to create stories. We created compelling fiction, and it was our desire to tell a great story that enabled us to evolve.
And this is why the GPL/GPI is the best shot for these people.
It’s the home of storytelling in poker.