The inaugural $50,000 HORSE event at the 2006 World Series of Poker was a reaction to the times. Players complained as the main event's attendance climbed into the high four figures. They complained that the world championship could no longer provide a true barometer of who the best poker player in the world truly was. The WSOP responded with what was intended to be a true test; at least so much as any one tournament could be.
What was called the greatest final table of all time -- Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Phil Ivey, T.J. Cloutier, Patrik Antonius, David Singer, Andy Bloch, Dewey Tomko and Jim Bechtel -- put on a clinic that played out like it was written for Hollywood. Reese, considered the best player in the world by his peers, won the tournament as if he were Johnny Moss receiving the vote. It was the perfect beginning to a new tradition a new institution. Poker finally had a true world championship again, even if it was in deed more than name.
Something has happened to the would-be institution on the way to 2012.
Freddy Deeb won in 2007, a worthy player who didn't quite fit the Reese mold. In 2008, Scotty Nguyen emerged victorious, receiving a trophy named for Reese in the wake of the first champion's passing. (This despite drunken table-side tirades that tarnished his previously shiny brand.) Through that, the tournament itself lost a degree of veneer. It wasn't making for good TV, with the assorted limit formats proving slow and difficult for the audience at home to follow. In 2009, with cameras trained instead on a $40,000 no-limit hold 'em event, relative unknown David Bach won with TV cameras absent. Just 95 players entered, down from 142 in 2006. It just didn't have the same feel.
In 2010, the year the HORSE moniker was replaced by The Poker Players' Championship, the event went to eight games, adding no-limit hold 'em, pot-limit Omaha and 2-7 triple draw lowball. Again, attention was drawn away, this time by the Tournament of Champions, but the revamped effort drew 116 competitors and crowned Michael Mizrachi the champion. Last year, with TV's spotlight firmly upon it, Brian Rast toppled a 128-player field. These were good trends heading into 2012, but in speaking to more than a dozen potential entrants, I didn't find one who felt the tournament would come close to those numbers this time around. There are a number of reasons to side with them.
Gone is the TV spotlight that offers so much ancillary value to competitors (Bach was barely asked for an interview after his victory) who would otherwise waffle at that exorbitant entry fee. Gone with it is the no-limit hold 'em final table that offered enticement in the way of edge to so many of the game's young stars and the sponsorships that made $50,000 affordable. Gone is the online platform that would allow so many hold 'em players to prepare in the other games. Gone, too, is so much money from an industry still reeling from Black Friday and the backers who so freely wielded it. Throw in the massive shadow cast by the $1 million buy-in Big One for One Drop (which got the TV space this year) and you have a tournament that feels a little too much like the greatest 8-track player of all time, surrounded by newer, shinier technology. Or does it?
"I think the community feels a unique connection to this event because of the great winners, the great champions," WSOP executive director Ty Stewart said. "They understand the winners will stand the test of time. The Big One may be stealing the headlines this year, but that doesn't mean this one isn't special.
"I think that the Poker Players' Championship is a lot about recognizing the consummate professional," Stewart continued. "A big part of that definition is having the bankroll or being able to secure support to get you in the field. I think that the community has embraced the idea of poker's decathlon, to recognize the best all-around player in a culture increasingly dominated by no-limit hold 'em. For that reason, it's more important than ever to continue on with the event no matter how many players are in the field. I think, when we look back in 20 years, we'll see a lot of variance in the number of entries, based on the market affecting it in a given year, but we'll also see a list of winners that, to quote Chip Reese, 'will stand the test of time.'
" That's what we had engraved on the trophy. He rode the roller coaster of being a professional poker player and this event symbolizes that spirit. There are going to be years where great players can't get in the field."
With that said, it's surprising that so few respondents whose games exceed hold 'em borders said they weren't playing. We asked them about whether they'd be in Sunday's starting field, the factors that might be dampening the field and their feelings about the event. Here's what they had to say:
"Yes I'm playing, because I won last year, so I feel, in a sense, a little bit obligated to do it again," Rast said. "I think it's worth something extra if I were to win two years in a row. I also think it's a decent tournament for me. If I hadn't won last year and was approaching it like everyone else from blank slate perspective, I'm not sure I'd play. I liked that the final table was all no-limit and that it was televised. As for a line? It will for sure be less players -- I guess I'd set it at under 100. With no TV for this one and some of the no-limit guys more hesitant to play it, and with One Drop there are a lot of people with big pieces in that tournament."
"Of course I'm playing," said Daniel Negreanu. "I think it'll get 93 players because a lot of people are broke, with money tied up on FTP. People like eight-game. It comes down to money. I stake some people, but I'm not putting anyone into this one. The poker economy is getting caught up after Black Friday."
"Yes, I'm absolutely playing," said Matt Glantz. "For me, it's my favorite tournament of the year. Obviously, every poker player's dream is to win the main event, but it's 8,000 people. It's just not a very attainable goal. The $50,000 is the event I try my hardest in every year. It's the tournament I'm looking forward to most every year. It's like the main event -- I would never miss it. I've placed twice and I really want to win this one. This is my main event. I know a lot of players feel the same way."
Bertrand Grospellier couldn't say yes fast enough. "I'm playing for sure! I played last year and it was a really good experience, and I've improved a lot in all of these games. I've practiced a lot since last year's WSOP.
"We started trying to mix it up," Grospellier continued, speaking on the pre-Black Friday development of online mixed games. "The mixed game was running on FTP towards the end a little bit. Then, Black Friday happened. You don't see any big mixed games online anymore."
While he's looking to keep up with Ivey in the Player of the Year race, John Monnette insisted he was playing the $50,000 regardless. "Yeah, I'll play in it," he said. "It's a fun tournament, because everyone has their bad games. It would be nice if there were more players. It was good before when the sites were putting money in, so in that regard, it's tough that it'll only involve the best players, but if I make the final table, I won't have to play the games the other young players will want to play. I understand why they changed it to no-limit for the final table. It's what people want to see, but it was kind of weird for them to switch mid-tournament. I pretty much know I'll play regardless of how many people buy in. It's big money, big prestige and the cash games won't be going because all of the cash games players will be in the tournament."
David Chiu, one of the poker community's most respected veterans, summed it up. "I've been in this business for so long. I think it's such an honor not only to win the tournament, but just being able to play in it is an honor. I think it really shows the skill of a poker player, playing so many games against the best of the best. It means a lot for people who take poker a profession. When you do, you need to be able to play the best, even when you don't have an edge. I like the competition. I like the challenge. And who knows, it could be your lucky day!"
There were others who echoed Chiu's sentiments. Jonathan Duhamel, Justin Bonomo, Eli Elezra, Frank Kassela -- they're all ready to pony up their two bits. Scott Clements did too, while saying players were more focused on finding their way into One Drop. Phil Galfond said the lack of a televised final table decreased his chances of playing from 90 percent to about 60 percent. In the end, they're all predicting a drop in attendance and they're all saying they'll likely play. Amongst poker's elite, there's a real affection for the event, regardless of whether the masses recognize it as they do.
As of 5 p.m. Friday afternoon, 48 hours before start time, just 17 players had registered for the PPC. If the respondents above are to be believed, enough players will come to keep the PPC alive and thriving, even if it's with a reduced field. If Stewart is to be believed, a field of 17 wouldn't have a bearing on the future of the event. Regardless of field size, this tournament will show us the best poker the game has to offer. In the spirit of Reese and the tradition of the game, we can only hope it's in a way that inspires its future installments to thrive.