The recent World Series of Poker revealed that some players see poker tournaments almost as lotteries. The world championship event had 2,576 entrants, and some of them had as much chance as a hacker in golf’s Masters tournament. We all know that Chris Moneymaker bought in at an online satellite for $40, won $2.5 million, and became internationally famous. Some people seem to believe, “If I get as lucky as he was, I can do it, too.”
About 1,000 people qualified online for the world championship event, and many of them came to Las Vegas hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. While that hope is certainly understandable, I was appalled that some online qualifiers did little or nothing to prepare to play against the world’s best players. If you or I had a chance to win millions of dollars and become famous, we would work on our games, but they flatly refused to pay their dues.
Of course, some professionals qualified online, and some of the amateur qualifiers prepared thoroughly, but more than a few amateurs seemed to think that all they had to do was get lucky. They remembered Chris’ very lucky hands from TV and ignored the fact that those broadcasts were heavily edited. They showed the drawouts and bluffs, but they were a tiny fraction of the total hands played. People who have seen more of his play have said that Chris was not just lucky, that he played very, very well. Luck alone cannot win the WSOP.
Because I’m associated with RoyalVegasPoker.com, I was in contact with a few qualifiers long before the WSOP, and I met several more (from a number of websites) just before the championship. Some of them had very unrealistic attitudes about winning millions and becoming famous.
Alan: What books have you read since qualifying?
OLQ (online qualifier): None (or very few).
Alan: Why not?
OLQ: I won my qualifying tournament without reading any books. I don’t think I need them. I’ve always been good at games, and I have a feel for poker.
Alan: You’re going to be up against every great player in the world, and all of them excel at games and have much better feel than you do, and nearly all of them have carefully studied the standard books again and again.
OLQ: Maybe, but books cost money, and experience is the best teacher.
Alan: But your opponents have much more experience than you, and most have said that various books really helped them. Don’t you think it’s a good idea to study?
OLQ: Maybe you’re right, but I didn’t want to spend the money or the time.
Alan: Have you talked to serious players about your game?
Alan: Why not?
OLQ: I don’t know any serious players.
Alan: Have you participated in any discussions at twoplustwo.com, RGP, UnitedPokerForum.com, or any other place?
OLQ: No. (In fact, several people had not even bothered to learn that these forums exist.)
Alan: Do you realize that virtually all professionals regularly discuss strategy with each other, and that some of them pay for coaching?
OLQ: They do?
Alan: Sure, they do the same thing as Tiger Woods and most professional athletes. They get help with their game. Don’t you think it would be a good idea to get some coaching?
OLQ: Maybe, but I don’t want to spend the money.
Alan: Let’s change the subject. How many live tournaments have you played?
OLQ: None. (A few people said none, but most of them said one or two, and nobody had entered any large buy-in events to play against great players.)
Alan: Why not?
OLQ: I didn’t want to spend the money.
Alan: But you’re going to play https://harlemshambles.com against the world’s greatest players. You can’t get experience against them in any other place. Don’t you think you need to learn how to play against them?
OLQ: I guess so, but my prize was just the entry fee and travel expenses. I don’t want to spend any of my own money.
None of my conversations went exactly like that, but several qualifiers essentially said, “I’m here to enjoy myself, and if I get lucky, I can win something.” Since luck (plus, of course, some skill) got them into the world championship event, they naturally hoped their luck would continue. And if it didn’t, “Oh, well, at least I had a good time in Las Vegas.”
I certainly don’t object to tourists wanting to enjoy themselves. If they didn’t value fun more than money, Las Vegas and other gambling towns would dry up and disappear. But the WSOP is very different from a lottery.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
However, regarding it as a lottery has had enormous effects on it. The more people there are who treat the WSOP as a lottery, the more it will resemble one. Because the fields have become so enormous, and so many unprepared people are “taking a shot,” the event has changed dramatically. Skill has become less significant, and luck has become more important. Unknowns have won three consecutive championships, and five online qualifiers made the final table.
This trend will almost certainly continue. Next year’s field could be over 5,000, and hundreds or thousands of the qualifiers will not play by the book or even know how the book says they should play.
Some Professionals are Extremely Frustrated
They intensely dislike these changes. Every pro knows how to adjust to one or two very weak players, but some pros can’t cope with a table full of them, much less a tournament with hundreds of them. Their frustration resulted in some very silly statements. My favorite was: “You’ll need to get lucky to win this event.”
Wow, what a concept! Doesn’t everyone know that luck is a central part of poker, and that nobody has ever won a major tournament without it? For example, Chris Ferguson is a great player, but he knows he was very lucky to river a three-outer for the title.
Poker is a blend of skill and luck, and expecting it to be anything else is unrealistic. It will never be the lottery that some amateurs want it to be, nor will it be a test of pure skill that some professionals seem to desire. Chris Moneymaker’s win and the even greater success of online qualifiers this year will dramatically increase the poker explosion and the importance of luck. There will be more new faces, new attitudes, and new playing styles. There will be larger tournament fields, more multiway pots, more chasing, more silly bluffs, more terrible calls, and more horrible beats; that is, there will be much more gambling. The “lottery players” can’t win, but they will certainly KO some great players. My next column will discuss the way professionals should react to this new, profitable, but very stressful revolution.