LAS VEGAS – The changes that have been made to the World Series of Poker since Harrah's took over the brand in 2004 have not only been numerous, but they have been quite effective. Participation in the event has increased by more than 300% in the last five years, going from 13,036 player registrations in 2004 to 58,720 last year, which was an all-time high. In turn, total prize pools have soared and so have TV ratings.
Give WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and his staff credit. They have never been afraid to make daring decisions if they truly thought that the end result would be beneficial to the WSOP. For proof, look no further than the daring move to delay the final table to November. This was not a minor tweak. It was a drastic move that Pollack knew full well would draw a large amount of criticism from players and poker fans alike.
We're hoping WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack is open to our suggestions. (photo courtesy of WSOP)
But as much as those people did predictably complain, it's difficult to argue that the move didn't accomplish what the WSOP had hoped for. As Pollack loves to say, the final table delay successfully "shifted the paradigm," leading once again to record-breaking attendance and TV ratings.
When we spoke with Pollack last week at the Rio, he told us that heading into the Main Event "this has been the smoothest WSOP ever in every respect." And after getting an up-close and personal view of the proceedings during the last week or so, it's tough to argue. (Although this was before Day 1D of the Main Event was a sellout and some players even got shut out). Have there been hiccups? Of course. You're simply not going to toss a perfect game when you're organizing an event of this magnitude. But, for the most part, the WSOP machine has been a well-oiled one indeed.
With that said, you can guarantee that immediately after the November Nine comes to a close and the 2009 Main Event champ is crowned, Pollack and his staff will go behind closed doors to discuss what they can do to make the WSOP even better. And sometime next year they will announce a handful of changes. But since they are currently busy running the 2009 WSOP, I have decided to take it into my own hands and give them a blueprint for that first meeting about 2010.
Here are 10 changes I would make to the WSOP. Some minor, some not so minor. But all of them – in my mind – will make a visit to the Rio for next summer's WSOP that much better for the players, the media and, most importantly, the fans.
10. Let the beer flow again at the featured table
Look, I've got nothing against Jack Links Beef Jerky. In fact, the free samples I have received while in Vegas may actually get me to buy some the next time I need a quick snack while in a convenience store. It's a tasty treat and fairly healthy. With that said, the ESPN Featured Table was much more festive during the days that it was called the Milwaukee's Best Light No Limit Lounge. The beer was always flowing – at a Vegas bargain rate of $3 a pop, I might add – and it simply made for a great atmosphere. This year the No Limit Lounge has been transformed into the Jack Links Wild Card Café, but the bar has been removed – and so has the fun. I'm not sure if this was part of Jack Links' deal, but for the sake of thirsty poker fans everywhere, let's hope the taps are back up and running next year.
9. Play all events in the Amazon Room
I'm not sure of the logistics of this suggestion, but unless it's entirely necessary, I think all tables of every WSOP event should be played in the Amazon Room. This room has become a Mecca for poker players. And if I'm a guy whose dream it is to play in the WSOP and then I finally get there, but get sent to the Brazilia Room instead of the Amazon, I am deeply disappointed. It would be akin to someone qualifying for the Masters, but then getting sent to the nine-hole public course down the street for the first round. I realize that this is not even close to possible for the events with huge fields and especially the first few days of the Main Event. But the energy of the WSOP is inside the Amazon. The Brazilia is an afterthought. The WSOP should do everything it can to get its players in the Amazon so they can enjoy the full experience – even if it means eliminating the section of constant cash games going on in there.
8. Turn down the AC
This may sound trite, but there are times that the Amazon Room is absolutely frigid. Now, I realize why this done. As a matter of fact, most casinos are a bit chilly, especially when you're coming in from 110-degree heat. And the players and media can't gripe too much about this because they should know that they have to pack a light jacket or sweater before heading to the Rio. The fans, however, are sometimes blindsided by this and it may lead to them leaving well before they wanted to. Once again, before you call me petty, try sitting in the Amazon in the early hours of the morning when only a hundred or so people are left and see if you'd like to hang around for an extended period of time wearing shorts and a golf shirt.
The Amazon Room at the Rio can get crowded and cold during WSOP action. (Photo by Vin Narayanan/Casino City)
7. Hand out table assignment sheets
This may require some extra work for the fine WSOP PR staff, but it would be well worth it. If I had a quarter for every time a fan stopped me and asked, "Where's (insert star poker player name here) playing today?" just because I was wearing a media badge, I'd easily be able to pay for my Starbucks addiction for the next three days. The Amazon Room is huge and fans have pretty good access to the outer tables. But when they walk in they have no idea who is playing where. Yes, I'm well aware players are constantly being moved and the table assignment sheets would change as the day went on. But this is something that could really help the fans' experience, even if it were for just the first few hours.
6. Hang flags at the bracelet ceremonies
One of the best additions to this year's WSOP has been the bracelet ceremonies that took place nearly every day. The bracelet winner or winners from the day before are asked to come back the next day at around 2 p.m. for an official ceremony. Pollack and WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel are on hand to award the bracelet up on a stage that is made up of a picture collage of former winners. After Pollack gives the player his or her bracelet he always says, "Wear it well and wear it proudly." This also serves as a great photo opp and a chance for reporters who weren't there at 2 a.m. when the final table ended to interview the player. After the player receives the bracelet, his or her national anthem is played and usually the entire room stands up out of respect. All and all, it has been a win-win for everyone.
But one thing I noticed that was missing from all of this is that there is no flag to stand attention to. I'm guessing it wouldn't be too difficult to have all of the flags from the different nations on hand and hang the appropriate flag each day from the Amazon rafters during the song. This is a minor tweak, but something that would complete this new WSOP tradition.
5. Make the big No Limit buy-in event an annual one
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the WSOP, a new event was added to the schedule this year. It was a $40,000 buy-in No Limit event, the kind of tournament the poker pros have been longing for and it set the record for the largest prize pool in a non-Main Event field,
with 201 players to create a prize pool of $7.7 million. Considering the positive response it got from both the fans and the players, why not make it an annual event? Maybe it doesn't have to carry a buy-in as hefty as 40k, but some sort of big buy-in No Limit event seems like it would add a lot to the annual WSOP schedule.
4. Televise more bracelet events
Ever since the WSOP and ESPN announced that only two bracelet events were going to be televised this year there were some complaints. And since the annual $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship was excluded this year and then only drew 95 players, those objections got even louder. As many players pointed out to us last week, the lack of TV meant sponsors weren't picking up the buy-in tab for a lot of players and that caused many of them to take a pass. But if you were in the room during the first few days of the H.O.R.S.E. event, it was clear that this is a made-for-TV event. Everywhere you looked there was a big name – which is exactly what ESPN likes to see. Two things make me think that more televised bracelet events are a sure thing next year. First, one of the non-bracelet events being televised this year is the new Champions Event and that doesn't appear to be an annual event. Secondly, the other non-event bracelet being televised this year is the Ante Up For Africa charity tournament and I think we're all going to learn this year that as great as this event is, it doesn't deserve a full episode on ESPN. The level of poker isn't great and neither is the structure. Sure it has star power, but this isn't going to be must-see-TV, especially for a hard-core poker audience.
3. Change the H.O.R.S.E. final table to No Limit
We're stealing this idea from Andy Bloch, who mentioned this to us last week. One of the reasons the H.O.R.S.E. Championship isn't being televised is because ESPN has decided that only Hold'em events make for good TV. Bloch suggested to us that the WSOP go back to what it did during the inaugural H.O.R.S.E. event and make the final table strictly No Limit so it would be better for ESPN. And in order to eliminate complaints from people who will scream, "It's not a H.O.R.S.E. event if the final table is No Limit!" you change the name of the event to the Chip Reese Memorial tournament, that way it's your event and you can do with it what you want. This idea seems like a no-brainer since the players, fans and ESPN would all benefit.
ESPN should make arrangements to televise more than two bracelet events during its WSOP coverage. (photo by Phil Ellsworth/ESPN)
2. Give the WSOP a Hall of Fame presence
The Poker Hall of Fame has been around since 1979, but it was acquired by Harrah's – along with the WSOP brand – in 2004. Each year, typically one or two players are inducted and starting last year the enshrinement ceremony was held in concert with the final table in November. But there is still not an actual Hall of Fame where fans can go and see the list of accomplishments of the 37 members. Well, it seems to me the perfect place to set up an actual "hall" would be at the Rio during the WSOP each year. They could simply use a section of one of the ballrooms near the Amazon and set up photos of all the members with a list of the reasons why they are Hall of Famers. Other memorabilia and artifacts could be spread throughout the room and days and times could be set aside for the 16 living members to be there to mingle with fans, pose for pictures and sign autographs. And since the WSOP opened up Hall of Fame nominations to the fans this year for the first time, they could have nominations papers on hand for fans that don't have the motivation to go online and fill one out. This would really be the perfect time and place to celebrate the Hall of Fame and the history of poker.
1. Shorten the final table delay
Unlike most of the "poker media," I don't mind the final table delay and I never did. It has proven to serve its purpose and the effect of the delay will only be more significant as each year passes and the WSOP learns how to use it even more to its advantage. But my one suggestion would be to shorten the length of the delay. Like I said, I have no objection to a delay, but 117 days is much too long. Why not play it at the end of September? It would be before the Major League Baseball playoffs begin and still long enough to sufficiently promote the event and the nine final tableists. ESPN would have to adjust its broadcast schedule so it could finish airing all of the WSOP episodes leading up to the final table, but I'd be surprised if this couldn't be done. In the end, like all of the above suggestions, it would better serve the WSOP.