Last year, the World Series of Poker reintroduced the Tournament of Champions, which was shelved after the 2006 WSOP. The revamped format allowed poker fans to chose from among 521 living bracelet winners, with the top 20 advancing to the Tournament of Champions. In addition, five seats were automatically awarded to the three past TOC winners (Annie Duke, Mike Matusow, and Mike Sexton), and two were reserved for Harrah’s sponsor exemptions (Andrew Barton and Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier).
With fan interaction proving to be a great success, the TOC was one of the highlights of the 2010 WSOP, which made it even more shocking when the schedule for the 2011 WSOP was released and the TOC was nowhere to be found. It has, instead, been replaced by the promotional Grudge Matches. This was met with mixed reactions and even inspired WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart to help sooth angst on the WSOP Conference Call, where revealed that while the TOC is not on this year’s schedule, it would likely make a “bigger and better” return in the future.
All of the TOC hoopla has inspired two of our PokerNews writers, Chad Holloway and Rich Ryan, to take a look at the event, including why it is absent, the value of the promotional Grudge Matches that have replaced it, and whether or not the tournament should be a staple of the WSOP.
Rich Ryan thinks the TOC should occur every year - with a different format.
The WSOP Tournament of Champions has so much potential, but every year the rules and the format change. The biggest problem with the TOC is that it’s an event made for television. The inaugural TOC was simply a sit-n-go with handpicked players whom the WSOP called, “the best in the world.” After that, the TOC showcased players from the previous year’s Main Event final table (familiar faces, WSOP rebranding) and the winners of that year’s WSOP Circuit Main Events (rebranding). Last year the WSOP almost got it right, allowing fans to vote on the participants from a list of bracelet holders. This idea was good but still not worthy of the title Tournament of Champions.
Instead of being so sporadic and changing the rules every year, the TOC should be a showcase of the previous year’s bracelet winners. The WSOP Circuit wouldn’t be included because they now hold their own National Championship. If Caesars is in desperate need of familiar faces, then maybe it can include members of the reigning November Nine – but they aren’t champions. This year, the field would include 56 players from last year’s 57 bracelet events (Frank Kassela won twice). The tournament would still be a freeroll, and like the National Championship, it should come from the previous year’s rake. The WSOP takes a lot of juice from its prize pools, and the least it could do is give 1 percent back for the TOC.
In previous years, this format wouldn’t be very TV-friendly, but this year nearly every final table is being streamed live online on ESPN3. True, mainstream fans probably won't follow the feed every night like the diehards will, but it at least provides an opportunity for them to further assimilate themselves with the WSOP as a whole. Fans of the game know that the WSOP isn’t just the Main Event – it’s the poker Mecca. Every year, the faithful make a pilgrimage to the Rio from all around the world. Some players come to grind every event, while others simply want to throw their hat in the ring of a $1,500 no limit hold’em event to see if they can play with the big boys. Both amateurs and professionals fuel the electricity of the WSOP, and if an amateur player wins a bracelet then he or she is as worthy of a TOC spot as anyone.
As it stands, the TOC cannot be a yearly event because the format changes all the time. The Grudge Matches and the World Champion Invitational are interesting, but they shouldn’t replace the TOC entirely. Conversely, the TOC should be held every year – with my suggested changes - and it should be the first event on the calendar. This would turn the TOC from a made-for-TV stunt to something really worthwhile. The WSOP could even mimic the Olympic opening ceremonies and have each player hold their respective country’s flag or travel with their countrymen.
With so many opportunities for the TOC to improve, I am sad to see it on hiatus. However, if the WSOP does not reinvent its product, then I won’t be sad to only see it once every couple of years.
Chad Holloway believes the TOC should occur every two years.
I am a fan of the Tournament of Champions, just not a fan of holding it every year. The TOC is a great concept and is highly entertaining; however, the World Series of Poker has had trouble nailing down an acceptable concept for the event. While last year’s format seemed to appease both the players and the masses, it is something officials shouldn't overuse and abuse. Instead of holding the TOC every year, I believe the event would be more successful and respectable if it took place every two years.
By making the TOC biennial, the WSOP would ensure the prestige of the event while consistently building excitement and anticipation. Instead of an event that is held every year to waning interest, much like the MLB’s All-Star Game and the NFL’s Pro Bowl, holding the TOC once every two years would help make it a spectacle fans would not want to miss, much like the once-every-four-years World Cup. Heck, the TOC was on hiatus for three years and look how popular it turned out to be once it returned. It earned more than 350,000 votes in a fan poll.
As far as the format is concerned, last year’s was far and away the best yet. The TOC has steadily evolved since its single-table format in 2004. In 2005, the TOC was comprised of the Main Event final tablists and WSOP Circuit qualifiers, along with three Pepsi sponsor exemptions (Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson, & Johnny Chan). The following year featured 27 players composed of the previous year’s Main Event final table, the 11 WSOP Circuit event winners, and some sponsor exemptions. While these formats were entertaining, problems always arose concerning the TOC's legitimacy because it contained sponsor exemptions, ultimately resulting in it being shelved in 2007.
Granted, the current TOC format still allows for two exemptions, but I feel this is more than offset by the fact that the fans finally have a voice in selecting the participants, a must-keep feature for future TOCs. Continuing on the benefits of a biennial schedule, the year hiatus would allow the WSOP the opportunity to hold a promotional event during the “off” year. An example of such an event is this year’s Grudge Matches and 2009’s World Champion Invitational that featured most of the former Main Event champs return to determine who was the best of the best. Such promotional events prove highly entertaining and often address many "what if" questions. For me, a biennial schedule alternating between the TOC and various promotional events is ideal and would continue to fuel the flames of my poker interest. Last but not least, allowing two years between TOCs would provide adequate time for new poker superstars to emerge, something that doesn’t always happen on a year-to-year basis.
The TOC is a great idea that the WSOP has finally gotten right. That being the case, the last thing they should do is exhaust the golden goose by pumping out the same tournament year after year. Based upon Stewart’s comments in the WSOP conference call, it seems that WSOP officials are more than aware of the TOC's popularity and that they’re willing to take it slow. Making the TOC a “bigger and better” event annually is simply implausible, people will just get too bored watching the same event year in and year out; however, holding it every two years would, no doubt, make it one of poker’s premiere tournaments, cultivating interest and anticipation among poker fans.