One of the easiest ways over the past couple of years to measure the interest in tournament poker was by the prize pools, especially the first place checks that have been handed out. Consistently over the last couple of years, new millionaires were created out of the World Poker Tour events, sometimes even two in a single event. Some are marking a recent turn of events in the tournament world as a signal that the boom days of poker are about to bust.
For the first time in the fourth season of the WPT, the winner of the WPT World Poker Open, currently going on at the Gold Strike Casino in Tunica, MS, will not take down a million dollar bounty. Out of the over three million dollar prize pool contributed by the 327 runners who came to the line for the event, fifty will divvy up the spoils of war. First place for this event "only" paid out around $969,000 to winner Scotty Nguyen, still a nice payday for five days of work.
With all of this said, many have been talking about the 'demise' of tournament poker and the game overall. I would suggest that, as Mark Twain famously said upon reading his own obituary, "The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." All one has to do is look at today's state of the game and you'll realize that this is perhaps an aberration rather than the norm in poker today.
First off, you must look at the current tournament schedule to gain a sense of where we are today. Not only is the current WPT stop going on, but the World Series of Poker also has the final events of its Jack Binion WSOP Circuit stop going on just down the road at the Grand Casino in Tunica, leading up to its own $10,000 Championship Event that started yesterday with over 200 starters in the field. Add into this the just completed European Poker Tour stop in Copenhagen, Denmark (where many of the European players are) and two more high profile WPT events, the perennially popular L. A. Poker Classic (started January 19th) and the inaugural Borgata Winter Poker Open (started January 20th), and you can see that there is a tremendous dilemma for the poker players overall as to what event or where to play.
It has been thoroughly documented that, for a player to hit every $10K tournament that exists today, it would take a massive bankroll (around a half million dollars) as well as a unfathomable level of mental acuity to be able to sustain a player. Since poker players are human, the likelihood of that isn't going to happen. Thus, the tournament professionals that you have come to see on your televisions have to decide which events they want to participate in and, as such, there are some events that they will take a pass on to reenergize their minds and, perhaps, even their bankrolls.
Secondly, you only have to look at the history of the WPT to see that there is still growth to be had. In the second season of the WPT, seven of the fourteen events paid out a million dollar first place prize. Season Three consisted of sixteen events and eleven of those reached the magic million dollar mark. So far in Season Four, only two of the ten events that have been completed haven't paid the winner a million dollar prize, the Grand Prix de Paris (traditionally a smaller event due to the size of its location at the Aviation Club de France, and its proximity to the WSOP) and the current event at the Gold Strike. In all likelihood, there are only a couple more tournaments (of the seventeen offered by the WPT this year) that may not pay out a million to the winner, but even with that said it is still a tremendous growth over the previous seasons.
Another thing that may cut down the large first place prizes on the WPT is the insistence of the Tour to pay as many players as possible. Most tournaments only pay out the top ten percent of those participating. In October of 2005, the Doyle Brunson North American Poker Championship paid out an amazing 100 players out of the 420 that started the event, meaning almost a quarter of the field cashed in the tournament. In January, the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure paid out 130 players out of the 724 participants, a payout rate of almost 18%. While it has been one of the traditions of the WPT to do this, it may be something that contributes to a smaller first place prize.
Finally, look around at the poker world of today and it is plainly evident that it is more vibrant than ever. While everyone seems to look at the numbers playing in the Championship Events of tournaments as a benchmark, the numbers playing the smaller buy in events (the preliminary tournaments) are bursting at the seams. Almost 1400 players took part in a $500 No-Limit event at the WSOP Circuit stop in Tunica (held on a Saturday) and slightly over 400 played in a similar event during the WPT stop (held on a Monday). The opening event of the LA Poker Classic just hosted 1,150 entrants. Caesars Palace in Las Vegas has brought back a poker room for the first time since the late '80s and poker rooms across the country are filled to capacity with players in ring games and weekly tournaments. Online poker is still thriving and drawing new players daily, continuing to add to the pool of participants in future tournaments.
With a complete analysis of the situation, you can easily see that poker has never been better than it is today. It continues to draw people, through the competition that can be had by players of any age or sex, the psychological and mathematical aspects that challenge a person's mind and, yes, even the potential of the huge payday that may be taken by a person through the right combination of skill, mental ability and the intangible of luck. It will be some time before we can even talk about the demise of tournament poker, let alone the game as a whole.
Ed Note: Make your game whole at Paradise Poker