The World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions recently concluded with Mike Matusow winning the $1 million check for finishing first (and congrats to Mike!). While his performance in the tournament and the terrific poker should have been the story that everyone talked about, it wasn't. It seems that all anyone could speak of was the factor that the rules were changed.
It seems that Harrah's allowed in three-fourths of poker's version of Mount Rushmore, former World Champions Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth, to compete in the event without having had to go through the qualification process. The Final Table of the 2005 WSOP Championship Event, as well as the top twenty players in each of the five WSOP Circuit championships, were supposed to be the only players competing in the freeroll (which would exclude players like Mark Seif, Allen Cunningham and Cyndy Violette, all of whom had exceptional runs during the World Series itself). This set off a storm of protest from many professionals, whether playing in the TOC or not. Mike Matusow consistently needled Phil Hellmuth about the way he had earned his seat in the tournament. Many other players, in their individual blogs and websites, castigated Harrah's for allowing this to happen.
First off, Harrah's, strangely, was looking at the television nature of the event as well as a possible long term addition to the game of poker. It seems that, just before the start of the TOC, a sponsor stepped up in the form of Pepsi Cola, looking to promote a new soft drink. They were willing to front the entire $2 million purse, which the Harrah's management was more than happy to accept, and Pepsi requested that the threesome mentioned be added to the roster of players. Harrah's accepted the move without consulting those participating.
This is possibly where Harrah's made an error. Let's say you're in a freeroll for a $1 million dollar first prize and are prepared for the hundred or so competitors that you are expecting to face. The day of the event, you learn that not only are there three other players you had no clue would be included, but together they have 29 World Series bracelets! If asked, I'm pretty sure that the players there might have put the kibosh on such a plan. Harrah's mistake is that they should have informed the players that they held the right to have sponsor exemptions that they felt would be necessary, much like what professional golf does with some of its fields to draw media interest and television coverage.
While the addition of the three past World Champions was unexpected, it only lowered the equity in the field by perhaps $750 per player, figuring that they had bought in to the tournament (which they didn't here). It would make for great television and further interest from mainstream corporations to invest in the sport of poker. While it is clichéd, the bottom line is what matters, no matter what business you're in!
Do we really want to go backwards in the world of poker? With the sponsorship that Pepsi brought to the tables, this may only open the floodgates for other such mainstream promotion and sponsorship in the game for today and into the future. Now, after the crying and whining that has been heard from those in the poker world, is there going to be another company step forward that would be willing to do something along the same lines as what Pepsi did? Or will these companies look at the option and say, "No, it isn't worth the headache."
It was only recently that professionals were eating their own to attempt to make a living at this game. There were no video games, book contracts, television programs, NOTHING! With poker's continued explosion around the world, more players come to the games. Tournament pools have reached unprecedented amounts and professionals have to decide which business opportunities they want to take advantage of rather than any penny-ante scrap thrown towards them. I would much rather move forward into the acceptance of poker as a worldwide phenomenon rather than revert to the days when NO ONE cared about the game!
Perhaps this will all have calmed down by the time the Tournament of Champions reaches ESPN on Christmas Eve. Perhaps the professionals will look at the potential influx of sponsorship of tournaments (and the money) and maybe not be so quick to scream about it being unfair that they want a few sponsor exemptions. Or would the cream of the poker world rather return to the dark ages of the game when there was no attention, no business deals to work out, and no fresh money or faces coming into the game? That potentially could be the greatest question of all...
Be sure, and check out Part Two of this discussion, written by John Caldwell