The Tournament Poker Shift To No-Limit Hold 'Em
If you look back at the history of the game of poker, there has been several subtle movements in the most popular forms of the game. Originally the game, played on the riverboats of the Mississippi and in the gaming houses of New Orleans, surprisingly had no draws at all! Twenty cards were used, the four suits of Aces through Jacks, and five cards were dealt out to the players. They wagered on who had the best hand through what they sat there and held or helped to popularize the bluff by making their opponents think they had more.
In the Civil War, Five Card Stud and Draw came into being as the choice of the soldiers who, looking for a diversion from the bloody battles, came together and competed against each other with a full deck of cards (which allowed more players to get in the game than the original four player limit). This carried over into the late 19th century Wild West. Even during the success of the game in that period, Texas Hold 'Em was coming into being, as was Seven Card Stud and Omaha as well.
Let's fast forward the clock to the mid-1980's. Of the fourteen events that made up the 1985 World Series of Poker, there was a pretty even balance of games across the board. There were five Seven Card events (with one split game and, interestingly, the Women's Tournament), three Omaha games, two Ace-to-Five tournaments, and one each of Kansas City Lowball, Limit Hold 'Em and a No-Limit championship, with the Main Event being (as tradition has been throughout its history) another No-Limit event. This seemed to be the true test of poker, with players playing in pretty much every event and challenging their skills across the board.
With the announcement last week of the schedule of events for the 2006 World Series of Poker, there has been a maelstrom of protest from pretty much everyone. Of the forty four events that make up the 2006 schedule, over half are No-Limit Texas Hold 'Em events, with games such as Omaha, Seven Card, Razz and others reduced to second class citizen status, battling for the other twenty or so slots. This hasn't set well with many players and has brought a tremendous amount of criticism upon Harrah's, who set the schedule for the 37th renewal of the World Series.
As usual, you have to look at all parts of the spectrum before you rush to get your torches and burn down the castle. Currently, the world of poker is dominated by the No-Limit game. People see the contests on the World Poker Tour or the World Series on ESPN and, naturally, want to take their shot at the tournaments as well. For the newcomers to the game (especially the younger generations), they may not even realize that there are "other" forms of poker that have many more nuances and strategies to challenge their skills.
The move to no-limit has also been accelerated by other tournament schedules that only have no-limit events. A look at the recent September WSOP Circuit stop at Harrah's in Las Vegas was nothing but no-limit tournaments and the recent Festa al Lago tournament at the Bellagio in October was all no-limit as well. To lay the entirety of the blame on the door of the Harrah's WSOP management team is not deserved.
Players and message boards have also been griping about the lack of tournaments other than no-limit at the World Series, especially the lack of a mixed game such as S.H.O.E or H.O.R.S.E. Daniel Negreanu, in his blog, was especially harsh in his criticism of the WSOP management because, for the second year in a row, there was no mixed game, which he feels is a true poker challenge. While I tend to agree with Daniel about mixed games being a very good poker challenge, it's not like there was a tremendous background of mixed games in World Series history. By my research, the first mixed game event in World Series history (a S.H.O.E tournament) was held back in 2001! As recently as 2004, there was a mixed game tournament in the World Series; this doesn't lend to a rich tradition of mixed games being a part of World Series lore!
The major tournaments move toward no-limit is very simple. It is following the apparent desires of the majority of people who play the game. While most may only be recent converts to the thrills of the sport of poker, with their money (and the television exposure generated by that money) the players are stating that this is the game of the moment. Thus, the casinos and tournaments are granting what apparently is being asked for. When you add in the factor that, in general, no-limit tournaments are a much quicker event than the drawn out battles of Omaha Eights or Better (Hi/Lo) or Seven Card (both Stud and Hi/Lo) tournaments, then the casinos are going to go with those games that keep the faces changing in the seats that are there.
If the casinos, though, see that the recognized faces of the game are avoiding certain tournaments (except for their Main Events, of course), then this could signal that some changes should be made. For the most part, you don't see the big names of the game playing in low buy in events. Because of the tremendous travel expenses and efforts in tournament play, many professionals avoid the preliminary events that make up a full tournament schedule, especially if all the events are no-limit. Perhaps more of the pros would show up if more diverse tournaments were offered (look at 2005 World Series double bracelet winner Mark Seif, who played and won the Seven Card Championship at the U. S. Poker Championships in Atlantic City). This might be something that would shake the casinos attention.
Players do have some ammunition, though. Tournaments, even the World Series, are always looking for ways to maximize participation in the events. Continued clamoring for events other than No-Limit Hold 'Em is a good step. Even something as venerable as the World Series schedule for 2006 isn't set in stone; with enough effort, and enough big names talking, perhaps there could be some adjustments by Harrah's to the schedule to allow for more alternate games. Lacking that, then perhaps another casino could set up a tournament schedule that would offer the balance that many want. This "Alternate Games Poker Championship" could truly be a success, offering the Omaha, Seven Card, and mixed games, along with a no-limit match, that would be a test of poker abilities. It would just take a casino to step to the plate to offer such a tournament, and it would take an overwhelming response from the players to show the support for such an event.
Perhaps it is all just a sign of the continued evolution of poker. While no-limit is the current rage, perhaps in a couple of years (with the increase of popularity of Omaha, especially in Europe and growing in the U. S.) people will be screaming about the lack of no-limit tournaments. Like a rubber band when pulled, when it is released it will snap back Poker is much the same way; as one game becomes big, the others lose a little luster. Eventually, though, it will come back to the same shape. Perhaps then we'll have the diversity of games making their return to tournament poker overall, not just the World Series!
Ed Note: Thirty Thousand people playing No Limit Hold Em, and Thirty people playing Stud/8 await you at Poker Stars