In my nearly four years of working on the WSOP, I can't think of a more interesting year than this one for speculating on the number of entrants into this year's Main Event. For the last few years, it was easy –- "it's going up" was all you needed to say. At least this way, even if you missed the number, you were half right.
As with any business that grows rapidly, things get very complex, very quickly. That complexity may make this year the most difficult to actually get to a number that you feel good about for the Main Event. Let's start with the easy part of the equation -– it's going down. Nearly everyone I have spoken to agrees on this, but the degrees to which the answer to the question "Yeah, but how far down?" are fascinating. Just so the reader knows where I stand on this, I made the biggest (non-athletic) prop bet of my life betting that the number of entrants would go down. I found a poker player with two $500K cashes in the last two years looking to part with some of that money by saying it would go up, and I jumped on it.
Should I be 100% secure in this bet? Despite the passing of the UIGEA, and all the powers out there that are trying to keep this game down, the numbers at tournaments continue to show no signs of letting up –- field sizes are as strong as ever. When you consider the new global landscape of poker, certainly we are pulling from a much bigger pool of available participants to get to this number, but the aforementioned complexity of the new world of poker may make things too difficult for the number to have a chance to go up.
I think the single biggest factor in the number going down this year is the way the online satellite winners are being handled. Last year, thousands of the 8,700+ participants in the Main Event won their seats, and were entered into the Main Event by their 'sponsoring' online poker room. Because of the new law, and all the related paranoia, many online satellite winners this year will simply get the $10,000 entry money put into their online poker account. How many of those $10,000 payments actually make their way into the prize pool of the Main Event this year? I can hear the conversations now:
"Honey, I'm not going to use that $10,000 I just won to pay our credit card bills/little Timmy's medical bills/our mortgage –- I'm rolling it up, and going to Vegas!!"
This won't fly in many a household around the world, and as such, prevailing wisdom in the poker business is that about 40-50% of the seats won online for the main event who get the money put into their accounts instead of seats will actually show up. So, if there are 2,000 online satellite winners who get $10K put into their account -– maybe only 900 or so actually show up to play in the big one.
The play online hasn't slowed down one bit, but the total number of online satellites has. Part of this is due to the fact that certain rooms no longer take U.S. action, and that takes a lot of possible winners out of the equation. Additionally, many rooms are looking elsewhere for their marketing, and making satellites to live events a more rare thing on their tournament calendar. There will be more live satellites in various places around the globe this year, but those numbers simply cannot compete with the massive global numbers that the Internet generates.
On a side note — there is one thing that I think bodes well for the post 2007 WSOP poker world. I think Harrah's was very smart in flattening out the pay scales for this year's WSOP. Even though there likely will be fewer people entered in the Main Event, there actually will probably be a lot more money in play after the WSOP, as more players will make nice scores. After all, does the average television poker viewer really distinguish between a first prize of $5 million or one of $12 million? Instead of one guy putting some of his $12 million into play at the Bellagio, or on 'High Stakes Poker,' hundreds of players will be putting their $50K/$100K scores into play on the Internet and in live poker rooms all around the world.
So, what's your number? The debate has ranged far and wide, and I have really enjoyed participating in these discussions this year. We'll find out the real number around 8pm or so on July 8th. I really think the more interesting question is this: With the poker world being given another year to adjust to all the complexities dealt to it, will the 2008 number be bigger or smaller than the 2007 number? Is it too early to talk about that?