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Top-10 reasons why poker is not like golf

24 February 2014

Top-10 reasons poker will never be organized like golf

Earlier this month, Dan Shak made news when he announced via Twitter that he wasn't going to be playing any more super high roller events that allowed more than one reentry.

"It just doesn't seem right that these events overshadow the main events where people have put their heart and soul on the line where skill is at least more than 50 percent of the game," Shak tweeted. "And these massive turbo unlimited re-entry (tournaments) get so much press because of how much money is on the line. Seriously considering boycotting playing them till the re-entry is only one."

The series of tweets has kicked off a robust debate about the role of turbo super high roller events and their effect on the game. So-called high roller events didn't exist until a few years ago, when the Aussie Millions and European Poker Tour started offering $25,000 buy-ins near the end of their tournament series, often running just prior to or immediately after the $10,000 Main Events. These events have now evolved into "super" high roller tournaments with six-figure buy-ins. In fact, one tournament – the World Series of Poker's Big One for One Drop – boasts the highest price in tournament poker history at $1 million. That event, however, doesn't fit Shak's boycott criteria, as it is a freezeout and players are not allowed to rebuy.

The 2014 Aussie Millions held last month, however, included tournaments with $100,000 and $250,000 price tags that did allow multiple reentries, and several players bought in for as much as $500,000 in both events, prompting Shak's comments and the ensuing debate.

I've followed the debate closely because I find the arguments on both sides of the issue compelling. One of the arguments against super high rollers is that they have a negative impact on the game's integrity, because they skew the all-time tournament earnings metrics.

This argument reminded me of how many people in the poker industry have argued that poker should be looking toward golf as a model, with a tour of qualified pros. I used to think this was a great idea, and in theory I still like the concept. But in nearly a decade covering the industry, I've become a bit jaded. Here are 10 reasons that poker can never be golf.

10. Rankings by tournament earnings are meaningless
Do super high roller events skew the all-time tournament earnings list? Of course they do. Antonio Esfandiari leads that list with more than $26.2 million, nearly $5 million ahead of second-place Phil Ivey. But $18 million of that, more than 68.7 percent, came in his 2012 Big One for One Drop win. Remove that result from his ledger, and Esfandiari drops to 40th on the all-time list.

A month ago, Esfandiari's lead over Ivey was nearly $9 million, as Ivey picked up a cool AUD $4 million for his $250,000 Aussie Millions win. Of course, there's no telling how much these players actually get to keep, because there's no data on how many pieces of themselves they've sold. And there's also no data on how much money they've spent on buy-ins overall. Daniel Negreanu, for instance, recently won AUD $550,000 in the Aussie Millions $100,000 Super High Roller, but spent $500,000 on buy-ins. His all-time winnings went up by AUD $550,000, even though his profit was just AUD $50,000.

But did the all-time money list ever mean anything? Jamie Gold sat atop the list for years, simply because he won the 2006 WSOP Main Event, which boasted the largest first-place prize in tournament poker history prior to the 2012 Big One for One Drop. Sure, it's fun to look at and talk about, but it's not a meaningful statistic, like it is in golf, where there are a limited number of events that can be played by a limited field of players.

9. There's no way to determine who's #1
If the money list is meaningless, is there any other way to determine how good players are? With no disrespect to the Global Poker Index, the answer is no. For all we know, the best poker player in the world is playing in the home game in my basement once a month. Unlikely, but certainly possible, because the vast majority of poker players don't go out on tour and play in big tournaments. There are thousands of winning poker players who rarely, if ever, play in a casino. But the best golfer in the world is going to be noticed.

There's no metric to measure a cash game player, and there are too many variables to accurately rank tournament players. Beyond that, many poker players don't want to be recognized as great players; they don't want their opponents to know they're overmatched.

8. Players are selfish
This sounds like a negative, and I don't necessarily mean it to be. Poker by its nature is a selfish game. The whole point is to take money (or tournament chips) away from other players by any means possible, other than cheating.

So it's no surprise that players spend most of their time thinking about how to maximize their win rate, and players will have different strengths, which will mean different paths to maximize that win rate.

7. There will never be a "professional players association"
Players do occasionally get momentum to organize. The WSOP used to have a Players Advisory Committee. The Epic Poker League had its Standards and Conduct Committee. And every once in awhile, the players will band together on Twitter to fight what they perceive to be a grand injustice, like the first-card off the deck rule.

But the fact of the matter is, players are rarely united over anything. Their interests vary by what their strengths are, and most aren't willing to argue for a position that may hurt them personally but will help the game generally.

6. No singular tour
While the WSOP is widely acknowledged to be the most important tournament series of the year, the fact is it's one of many tournament series across the globe, many with overlapping schedules. Who's to say which tournament stops are the top-tier? Golf has the PGA Tour and the European Tour for the top-tier players and the Tour and the Challenge Tour for the second-tier players. And of course, there's the Senior Tour, as well. The whole point of poker is that anyone can play – the only barrier to entry is the balance in your bank account. Without a set weekly schedule for top players, there's no way that poker ever resembles anything close to golf.

5. There's no uniformity in the rules
Thanks to the Poker Tournament Directors Association, there's a lot more uniformity in terms of structure and rules from tournament to tournament now than there was 10 years ago. But there are always subtle differences in the poker rulebook from poker room to poker room. And I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. But it makes the game different from place to place. Last I checked, the rulebook for golf is the same no matter what course you're playing.

4. Poker isn't about the best vs. the best
The reason a golf tournament is compelling is because you know that the very best in the game are dueling it out on the course. They all deal with the same conditions, and whoever performs the best, wins. That just doesn't happen in poker. Conditions aren't going to be the same, because one player is going to get much better cards than other players. One player is going to have a great position at the table, and another is going to suffer a horrible bad beat. The person who plays the best poker in a tournament rarely wins, while the golfer who plays the best golf almost always wins. In order to overcome the random advantages and disadvantages that occur in a tournament, the sample size would have to be huge, which is never going to happen in an already packed schedule.

3. There are too many shady characters
I guess golf has some "villains." Americans love to hate Colin Montgomery and Sergio Garcia. Lots of people have a love-hate relationship with Tiger Woods. But no one has ever suggested that these guys try to get an edge on the golf course by cheating.

There are too many examples to mention of poker players who cheated, or at the very least shot an angle or two, to get ahead. And high-profile cases involving counterfeit chips or removing chips at the end of a tournament certainly don't help.

2. Poker can't attract sponsors
Okay, Jack Link's Beef Jerkyruns some commercials during the WSOP, and Dearfoams handed out some slippers to players in the Main Event one year. Phil Hellmuth even inked a deal with Milwaukee's Best back during the height of the poker boom. But let's be real about this. Those types of corporate sponsorships don't quite match up with Mercedes-Benz, Pepsi, American Express, Nike and Rolex.

It speaks volumes when the biggest brand in poker is signing deals with a slipper company and not one player has a prominent sponsorship with a non-poker entity. And those shady characters and negative stories mentioned in number three above may have a lot to do with it.

1. Even if there were sponsors, there's just not enough money
On the PGA Tour, players have to qualify for the Tour and pay a fee to be a member. But when they play a tournament, the prize pool is provided by sponsorship money.

The Aussie Millions $100,000 Super High Roller drew 76 entries for a prize pool of nearly AUD $7.5 million. Think a sponsor is going to want to throw together a $7.5 million prize pool every week for poker? Seems unlikely.

In tournament poker, the prize pool is generated through tournament buy-ins. Without that, there's nothing to play for. If 10 of the entries in the Aussie Millions event were considered to be "dead money," that's nearly $1 million in the prize pool that the pros think is essentially an overlay. And given poker's inability to pull in mainstream sponsors, even that total seems like a pipe dream.
Top-10 reasons why poker is not like golf is republished from
Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.