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Big Blind Antes: Do the Pros Outweigh the Cons?

Big Blind Ante
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  • Big blind antes are a hot topic in poker as more tournaments adopt them. Is it for the best?

For as long as hold'em has been a thing — some 50-odd years years, at least — it has featured the same basic structure. Two or more players posted designated “blinds” to begin the betting. In games or tournaments featuring antes, everyone put in a designated ante as well.

But what if there were a more efficient way to go about building the starting pot?

That's a question some have asked themselves, and after all that time, things may finally be changing on a fundamental level. Some tournaments and cash games have introduced the concept of consolidated antes. Instead of everyone anteing into the pot, a player in a designated position — typically either the big blind or the button — antes for the whole table.

The Problem

Anyone who has ever played a low-stakes poker tournament and made it to the antes knows how frustrating it can be to have inattentive players repeatedly slow the pace of play by failing to get their antes into the pot in a timely fashion.

Take a typical nightly with 15-minute or 20-minute levels. A combination of inexperienced dealers and players daydreaming or hammering away at their phones in between hands can make it so a “level” is really just four or five hands.

The logistics of collecting an ante from every single player on every single hand takes time.

Even with things motoring along at a fast pace, there's no getting around the fact that the logistics of collecting an ante from every single player on every single hand takes time.

Furthermore, the size of an ante presents another logistical problem. Namely, the ante is typically some fraction of a small blind, meaning it's composed of one or more of the smallest chips in play. Often, these chips are completely irrelevant to the pot-to-pot betting and actual gameplay. The only purpose of the chips is for antes.

Knowing this, tournament staff often give late-registering players a stack of large-denomination chips. Even players registered from the start usually only get a handful of the early-round ante chips. What follows is a tedious, sometimes slow process of making change seemingly every other hand so players can ante.

Big Blind Antes: Do the Pros Outweigh the Cons? 101
ARIA Tournament Director Paul Campbell (photo: twitter.com/tdpaulcampbell)

The Solution?

Consolidated antes attempt to solve these problems. Speed the game up, the thinking goes, by crunching the time and chips devoted to the antes into one player per hand rather than making each player at the table devote some time and attention to the process.

Everything else is the same, except anteing is easier and faster and everyone can play more hands.

Campbell: "The high rollers have really embraced it as a superior format for their events."

Many in the industry credit ARIA as being the first poker room to implement the consolidated antes, starting with their high roller series. A player who had participated in a cash game using them recommended the format to ARIA Poker Tournament Director Paul Campbell, and he said he was willing to give it a trial run.

Campbell instituted the consolidated antes — though he moved them from the button to the big blind — in April 2017.

“The high roller players are very forward-thinking individuals, so despite being initially skeptical, they went into it with an open mind and were very instrumental in any adjustments,” Campbell said. “Conceptually, I liked it immediately and didn't have any tournament integrity issues with it. The high rollers have really embraced it as a superior format for their events.”

Word of the format spread. More of the industry's top tournament directors have started wondering if consolidated antes are the way of the future.

In response to player feedback and “testing best procedure,” the World Series of Poker has introduced a big blind ante to the Circuit, which is scheduled to appear for the first time at WSOP Circuit Rio Las Vegas in the $2,200 High Roller. Its value will always be equal to the value of the big blind, according to WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel.

Days after speaking with PokerNews, WSOP officials announced big blind antes would be in use at all high roller events during the WSOP this summer.

Matt Savage, founder of the Tournament Directors Association and current executive tour director of the World Poker Tour, introduced an event with big blind antes in the L.A. Poker Classic preliminary events. It also happened to be the opening reentry event that drew nearly 4,000 entries, making it perhaps the largest-scale study yet in the consolidated ante experiment.

Savage, who has been staunchly arguing in favor of the format through his Twitter account in recent months, said afterward that it ran perfectly smoothly. He said nearly all of the feedback he got, mostly from recreational players, was positive.

Matt Savage
Matt Savage

Consolidated antes appear to be proliferating and performing well. Perhaps this is indeed the direction the industry is heading. All that's left is to call a meeting of the TDA, rewrite the rules, and make poker great again.

Easy game, right?

When a Solution Creates More Problems

Easy game in theory, sure. Except, actually put the consolidated antes into practice, and cracks start to appear in the shiny new monolith of poker efficiency.

Savage said nearly all of the feedback he got, mostly from recreational players, was positive.

First, there's debate about which position should post the antes. In the cash games that prompted the ARIA reg to suggest the consolidated antes to Campbell, the button posted an ante. While that appears to be the format favored by a larger number of players — just eight percent voted in favor of a big blind ante in a recent PokerNews poll — tournament directors seem to favor a big blind ante.

The most likely reason for this is that every hand dealt has a big blind, while not every hand dealt has a player on the button. No matter how many players bust out in a hand, someone will post a big blind, while situations exist that result in a dead button. Who posts the ante then?

Effel said that was the WSOP's reasoning for choosing a big blind ante, and it appears to be the industry standard in consolidated ante formats at this point.

Then, there are the thornier logistical issues that come with short stacks, which seem to be the biggest drawback to consolidated antes.

Consider a player with 15,000 in chips playing 5,000/10,000 with a 10,000 consolidated ante. The player has the big blind next hand. Which does he or she pay first, the ante or the big blind?

The bigger issue, stemming from that, is how many chips a player can win when he or she is short and posting less than the full value of the big blind plus the ante.

Different tournaments appear to be tackling this in different ways. The way poker has always operated, of course, would seem to indicate the ante should go in first. That's the way Savage and the LAPC staff operated their event, and that's the way Campbell and the ARIA staff did things at first.

Player requests prompted a switch to posting the big blind first. As pointed out in what became a heated Twitter debate between a number of industry heads, this could lead to a situation wherein a player only breaks even despite winning an all-in hand.

For example, a player has only 5,000 in the same situation as the one posted above. If he or she wins the pot, he or she would only win back that same 5,000 from the ante, not having posted any blinds to become eligible to win anything that anyone else put in the pot.

Daniel Negreanu adamantly argued that this is absurd, and it's one of the reasons the ARIA crowd pushed for a switch to big blind posted before antes.

“Theoretically, I actually prefer ante first as it's more mathematically and logically 'correct,'” Campbell said. “The high rollers wanted this change, so we accommodated. These are the types of players who understand the ramifications and in my opinion believe that in practice, it's better, even if slightly flawed.

“I am going to leave the format as is for now at ARIA but open-mindedly discuss this matter with Matt Savage and [Commerce TD] Justin Hammer,” two of the best tournament poker minds in the industry.”

The WSOP will be following ARIA's big blind first procedure.

Kessler pointed out this could lead to massive stalling at tables next to break.

No matter which order they go in, there's no debate that a consolidated ante drastically changes strategy for players sitting on short stacks. If the big blind is approaching, these players must radically alter shoving ranges to account for the massive amount of chips they'll have to put in on the big blind.

Then, there are short-handed tables. Should a table with four players be posting a full table's worth of antes on every big blind?

Structure guru Allen Kessler called that idea “ridiculous.”

“I made a proposal to stop the big blind ante at the first redraw,” he said. “That would alleviate a lot of the short-handed issues.”

At their Punta Cana event, partypoker implemented a system wherein the consolidated ante amount was halved if at least three seats were empty. Others have suggested systems where the amount progressively lessened based on fewer players being present at the table, which would help short-handed strategy remain more consistent.

Finally, there's more incentive than ever to avoid the big blind position. Kessler pointed out this could lead to massive stalling at tables next to break or for players who are moving and spy an empty seat in early position at the table to which they've been assigned.

Allen Kessler
Allen Kessler

The Way of the Future?

Add it all up, and it's hard to say with certainty that consolidated antes represent a step forward for poker.

There are myriad issues, and plenty of parties maintain there's just no real improvement when all of the pros and cons are weighed against each other.

Kessler: "If you have competent dealers, you're not really saving much time."

Overall, Kessler said he isn't a fan of the system. It's confusing and scary to new players, he argued, particularly with regard to the all-in situations.

“There are too many issues,” he said. “There's nothing wrong with the current system. It's totally fair. If you have competent dealers, you're not really saving much time.”

Poker pro Bryan Devonshire leans the same way. His primary concerns revolve around the stated strategical screwball thrown to short stacks by the monstrous commitment to the pot from the big blind.

“I would be a fan of them early in tournaments, but not when posting all antes is ICM smashing to many stacks,” he said.

Campbell remains a believer.

The high rollers who pioneered the format in the events he supervises prefer it, and it made enough of an impression on Campbell that he introduced it into ARIA's weekend $240 dailies. He said stalling hasn't been a problem “in the slightest” in any of the ARIA events regardless of buy-in.

“The response has been very favorable,” he said. “The vast majority of our regular players want me to make this the format in all ARIA events. It definitely has enough merits to introduce to the recreational players and large fields.”

Campbell: "It definitely has enough merits to introduce to the recreational players and large fields."

The industry, Campbell believes, will arrive at an optimal set of rules in due time from continued trial and error.

He wouldn't definitely say that consolidated antes would become an industry standard, but he appears fully behind the format and he isn't the only one. From ARIA to LAPC to 888 to PokerStars and partypoker events to the Circuit, the format has slowly gained traction even if it hasn't become standardized.

In a few short months, it will get its debut on the biggest stage yet, with the entire poker world playing or watching at the WSOP. Is this a trial run that could see consolidated antes become the norm in all WSOP events, depending on the success or failure this summer?

“Too early to tell,” Effel said. “Let's see how it goes.”

Jack Effel
WSOP Tournament director Jack Effel

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