Here it is poker world, the moment we've all been waiting for since Greg Merson captured the 2012 World Series of Poker main event title last October. The action will not stop at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas until July 16. The 44th annual WSOP is here and in the coming weeks we'll see who will capture the most valuable pieces of jewelry in the industry, who will rise from the shadows into greatness and who will become the face of the game for the next year.
An innovative schedule featuring 62 bracelet events kicks off Wednesday and while the masses compete, here are the 10 stories to keep an eye on this summer:
1. The main event
Ever since Black Friday (April 15, 2011), the poker pundits have predicted disastrous numbers for the WSOP main event. Predicting anything in poker is a challenge and for the past two years, the WSOP has proved over and over again that its brand strength is beyond the Internet's reach. The 2010 main event featured 7,319 entrants; then post-Black Friday, 2011 registered 6,865 players. Last year, the main event number held steady at 6,598, making it the fifth-largest main event ever. What will 2013 bring? I'm predicting 6,225, which will still make it the eighth largest in the history of the WSOP. On the WSOP conference call a few weeks ago, it was mentioned that hotel room reservations are up. For those looking at the health of the industry, this is a great sign.
2. The bracelet race
In 2005, Johnny Chan and Doyle Brunson both captured their 10th WSOP bracelets, surpassing Phil Hellmuth and officially igniting the bracelet race. Since then, neither legendary player has been able to add to his jewelry collection. While they remained stagnant, primarily because of the preference for the cash games over tournaments during WSOP time, the Poker Brat rocketed past them. With his main event victory last October in Cannes, Hellmuth has a collection of 13 gold bracelets, but before he can get too comfortable, another Phil … Ivey that is … won his ninth at WSOP Asia Pacific, becoming the youngest player to accomplish that feat. After Ivey, Erik Seidel remains a strong tournament threat with eight bracelets.
Will the bracelet race heat up again? Brunson has announced that he is done with tournaments given their strenuous nature. Then, with the legendary Macau cash games and $1 million HKD (approximately $130,000) tournament in June, the players not named Hellmuth (including Ivey and 2012 WSOP main event champion and Player of the Year Greg Merson) may not arrive in Las Vegas until mid-June, which would severely hamper their chances of winning multiple bracelets.
3. The Millionaire Maker
In 2008, Grant Hinkle captured a $1,500 no-limit hold 'em event, earning $831,462. This amount was the largest first prize ever given to a $1,500 WSOP no-limit hold 'em champion, but this year, this record will be broken during the first weekend. Event 6, dubbed the "Millionaire Maker," will award the winner $1 million. With two flights and a re-entry format, this event could set the record for the largest event outside of the WSOP main event, or even top it. If the registration numbers are outrageous, the first place prize may not even have to be adjusted. Expect a huge opening weekend for the WSOP on the back of this event.
4. One Drop High Roller
Last year, the inaugural Big One for One Drop event established a name for itself with an astronomical $1 million buy-in. Capped at 48 players, the event unbelievably sold out and even turned away some players. Antonio Esfandiari bested Sam Trickett in this historic event, earning $18.3 million and shattering all of poker's historical earning lists in the process.
This year, the buy-in has been reduced to $111,111, with eyes on 2014 when the $1 million buy-in will return. There's no question that this event will steal the show in Vegas and I'm extremely eager to see how many players will come out to participate in this charity/bracelet event. As a WSOP point of reference, the 2009 $40,000 no-limit hold 'em event created to celebrate the 40th WSOP anniversary had 201 players. That was at a different time where the industry was filled with sponsors and advertisers. Can this year's six-figure buy-in reach 100 players? Given the turnouts for other super high roller events around the world, I think so.
5. The Little One for One Drop
Although many poker players would like to help the worthy cause established by Guy Laliberte, the high roller event is just too expensive. This year the WSOP added another charity event to the schedule, called the "Little One for One Drop," with a more reasonable buy-in amount of $1,111. Hoping to boost the prize pool, for the first time since 2008, the WSOP will bring back the re-buy format for this event. There will be two opening flights and players can re-buy until the fourth level of each flight. Being that this event is only days away from the main event, expect thousands of players to play this event and a whole lot of re-buys, which will make it one of the largest low buy-in events in the history of the WSOP. I believe that this event will set the record for the largest field outside of the main event.
6. RFID tables for live coverage
In 2013, all the bracelet event final tables will be broadcast on ESPN3 and WSOP.com where ESPN3 is not available. There will be two streams for the action with the primary one on ESPN3 offering complete commentary. Calling the action will be David Tuchman and a variety of pros who will be on a 30-minute delay as RFID cards will allow the viewers to see the hole cards at the table. The delay is necessary to preserve the integrity of the game and I believe this feature will add another new dimension to watching the WSOP bracelet final tables online. The secondary final tables will have a multiple camera setup, but no commentary of the action. Expect most non-hold 'em games to be found on the secondary stream.
7. Player of the Year race
Daniel Negreanu captured his fifth bracelet by winning the WSOP APAC main event in April. With his victory, he leads the WSOP Player of the Year race, which he captured in 2004. In years past, the race began with the action in Las Vegas, but this year, the race is already underway as the five bracelet events that were held in Australia count in the standings. With two final tables and one victory, the colorful and affable Negreanu is on top of the leaderboard and everyone will have to chase him.
8. Ladies No-Limit Hold 'em Championship
Over the past few years, the WSOP has been dealing with the issue of men trying to enter the ladies event. In 2011, Jonathan Epstein, a man, even made the final table. Due to anti-discrimination laws, men cannot be prevented from entering this event meant only for women. To prevent the party crashers, the WSOP has discussed deterrents such as suspensions or event bans at the WSOP. However, this year, the WSOP has designed a unique buy-in structure to dissuade men from playing. The WSOP increased the buy-in for the ladies event to $10,000, but if you are a woman, you are able to receive a $9,000 discount, effectively making it a $1,000 buy-in for them, the same as last year. This amount should be enough to deter the casual male jokester. Although I do not believe that any men will buy in, if the WSOP really wanted to ensure no men would enter, why not make the buy-in an even more ridiculous amount such as $50,000 or even $100,000? Nevertheless, this new registration system should make the event the first truly all-women's event at the WSOP in the past few years.
9. Carnivale of Poker
The WSOP at the Rio is the centerpiece of the summer-filled poker action in Las Vegas. In the past, other tournaments such as Caesars' Mega Stack Series and Venetian Deep Stack drew players away from the Rio to play in their events. Over the past few years, the WSOP added daily deep stack events to keep players at "home," which were very successful, creating huge prize pools for low investment.
This year, WSOP has added another series of events, resurrecting the Carnivale of Poker. The 21-event series will take place primarily on Mondays and Tuesdays with buy-in amounts in line with the WSOP Circuit (except for the $5,000 Open Face Chinese event). At the end of the summer, the WSOP will award cash prizes to the top 10 point-earners of the Carnivale of Poker.
I believe it's a good idea, but my concern with the multiple events is that the WSOP may begin to see cannibalization of events at the Rio. How will this series affect the deep stack registration numbers? Will it possibly even affect the smaller WSOP bracelet numbers? Additionally, how will this affect the Caesars' Mega Stack events since these properties are all in the same family? Players have limited bankrolls, well most of them, so I guess we'll wait to see where they decide to spend their money.
10. Online poker's return to Nevada
Last month, UltimatePoker.com reintroduced online poker to the residents of Nevada. Anyone within the borders of the state is able to play and the players arriving for the WSOP this summer will be a prime target segment for the new online site. Many also expect the WSOP-branded site to open its doors during this summer as well and it will be interesting to see the volume online and hear the return of online bad beat stories back at the tables. Taking things a bit further, will there be satellites? Will they sponsor pros as in the past? Will the industry be able to thrive for more than the next two months? Lots of questions remain.
Then there are those who were the figureheads for the pre-Black Friday online poker industry. The owners of Full Tilt Poker, specifically Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson, have stated their desire to return to the felt. Lederer has been spotted playing cash in Las Vegas. Will this year be the year that they decide to bear the wrath of the players and step back onto the grounds of the Rio? With millions still missing from the pockets of players, I don't believe this will be the year.
Beyond these 10, we'll see what rookies can shine in their first year of competition. What online stars will break through to the mainstream, and how will Chris Moneymaker do in his 10-year anniversary effort? It's going to be an amazing time for the game of poker in Las Vegas.