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Heretical thoughts on the WSOP Main Event

Heresy is my home, my favorite stance. So here’s my take on the WSOP Main Event, the ultimate event in the nearly two months-long blizzard of tournaments that make up the annual World Series of Poker. The Main Event is a $10,000 buy-in tournament; the winner is dubbed the World Champion and is blessed with instant and lasting fame and fortune – though the fortune part, as substantial as it is (this year’s winner’s share will be a shade over $8.3  million) doesn’t always last as long the champ hopes.[1]

My take on this tournament: It’s overwhelmingly determined by luck!

Yes, of course, poker is a game of skill (an extended defense of this can be found here) but not under all circumstances. For one, there’s a time element. A short poker session is determined largely by luck. If you want a shot at beating someone really good like Phil Ivey or Tom Dwan, you want to play a very short session. In fact, your best move would be go all-in on the first hand before you look at your cards – you’ve got a fifty-fifty prop and that’s the best you’re going to get.

Here’s my reasoning. The tournament has, in recent years attracted some 6,000+ players (6,352 this year). All know something about the game. I’d guess that at least half of them are very good players. They know the stats, the basic strategic moves, have decent hand reading abilities, understand positional play and all the other standard stuff that you just have to know if you’re going to have a shot.

Further, I’d guess that at least a thousand are serious, highly skilled players and at least several hundred are playing professionally – that is, their basic income comes from poker.

Now, when you get this many very good players all together competing against each other the final outcome is going to be largely dictated by the turn of a card – or two or three or more cards.

It actually cannot be any other way. Yes, I know, each level is two hours long and the blinds move up slowly and the action continues for a week before the final table is determined. So what. Playing ten hours a day for seven days only amounts to 70 hours of play, an insignificant amount in a game where no one can have any confidence in the stability of the data until several thousands of hours have been logged. Besides, as anyone who’s played or watched one of these in the last several years, the number of hands per hour is stunningly low. No one seems to be able to make a play without spending two or three (or more, lots more) minutes mulling it over. Nolan Dalla, media director for the WSOP, has bemoaned the ridiculously slow play.

The basic point is dead simple and unassailable. When you have several hundred excellent poker players pitted against one another for a mere 70 hours (which are playing more like 30 hours of ordinary play) the driver of destiny is the random number generator.

You might ask why isn’t this more obvious and why haven’t others pointed it out? Because this luck thing is sneaky and doesn’t always reveal itself. You might think that by luck I’m talking about hitting a bunch of 2-outers or filling gut-shots at optimal times. Well I am, of course, but this is the least of it. Where this luck thing is doing its most serious luck thing is far less obvious.

It’s having the best of it going to the river and having your hand stand up. It’s taking an over-pair to the flop and not having your opponent hit a set and having this happen some twenty or more times. It’s making a stone-cold bluff against an opponent who turns out not to have much – over and over for seven days. It’s hitting flops at a rate that is statistically unlikely. It’s being moved to a weak table, being assigned a seat to the left of an aggressive player. It’s a thousand little things that allow you to accumulate chips.

I’ve been watching this year’s Main Event online. They’re down to 18, a tiny fraction of the starting hoard. You know what? All of them are fantastic players, skilled, tricky, shrewd and successful – and they’re also the luckiest of the hundreds just like them who started nearly two weeks ago.


[1] Recent articles have chronicled Jerry Yang’s money problems after winning $8.2 million in 2007.

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