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Paradise Lost: The WPT Creates Poker Heaven




Paradise Lost: The WPT Creates Poker Heaven

The Wynn recently held the WPT World Championship, offering a $40m guarantee. [Image:]

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

On the chin

Back in August, the World Poker Tour (WPT) announced a record-breaking guarantee of $40m for its end-of-year World Championship poker extravaganza. Many wondered if it was possible to hit such a gargantuan number. As a rule, Ryan Beauregard and his talented team don’t do their math wrong so the smart money was on them hitting it.

The straight-shooters at WPT just took it on the chin. They ate it.

Unfortunately for the organizers, four Day 1s produced 3,835 entrants and a shortfall of $2,417,000, the second biggest overlay in poker history. The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry and it was noteworthy that, in the final hours before registration closed, there were no last-minute satellites, no unscheduled turbo-flights added, and no scramble to put players in on partial freerolls. The straight-shooters at WPT just took it on the chin. They ate it.

The result was a nice Sklansky bucks windfall for each player and a whole lot of good faith which will hopefully go a long way towards assuring the growth of this festival for years to come. The WPT is an iconic brand in poker and The Wynn is a special venue, a fact I came to learn on my first trip to Las Vegas back in 2017. 

A two-dimensional Pandemonium, a fifth Circle of Hell

I’m going to be straight with you. Las Vegas never held any appeal for me. For the first 12 years of my poker career, I avoided it. I just presumed that I would hate it. Occasionally, June would roll around and I would experience some FOMO but then I would imagine myself walking down the sidewalks lined with synthetic grass, inhaling deeply the inhospitable hot, dry air, wondering how all the gaudy, marauding, neon-lit monstrosities came to be. 

Sometimes, whilst reading the daily World Series of Poker (WSOP) updates, a devil would appear on my shoulder. “The tournaments seem so juicy. How bad could it really be?” For a moment, the thought of those effigies to Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome built on a Martian landscape didn’t seem so terrible. A few times, I even opened up Skyscanner but I could never bring myself to book a flight. My mind would always conjure the image of a two-dimensional Pandemonium in the fifth Circle of Hell.

when it came to Las Vegas itself, my expectations were very low

Then, in November 2017, my hand was forced as Unibet Poker announced that they were holding an event in the Wynn. As a recently signed ambassador for the brand, I was expected to attend. I looked forward to the festival but, when it came to Las Vegas itself, my expectations were very low. 

Poker Stockholm Syndrome

Poker is a peculiar endeavor. You don’t have to be a masochist but it certainly helps. You take repeated beatings until you develop a relationship with the pain and its inflictor. If you understand the nature of the beast, you develop a sort of Poker Stockholm Syndrome. If you don’t, you are doomed and the game will devour you. 

Then you book a trip to Las Vegas for the first time and you dread how everything will be magnified. Dara O’Kearney had long described to me the march of the lost poker souls; the weary, punch-drunk, and catatonic players nearing the end of their World Series campaigns, walking the halls like poker zombies, knowing not why they move forward yet seemingly compelled by some greater force. 

So you can imagine my surprise when I really enjoyed my first visit to Las Vegas. I embraced the silliness. I forgave the grubbiness. I ate Mexican food overlooking the Bellagio fountain. I drank in dive bars. I visited the Neon Boneyard. I walked up and down Fremont Street and The Strip. As soon as you realize that naff is the point, you enjoy what the city has to offer both ironically and unironically. It also didn’t hurt that the Wynn was spectacular. 

The staff at the hotel understand service. They are detail-oriented. They make you feel looked after. You actually believe that they want you to ‘have a nice day.’ That dedication extends to the poker room where the tournament directors, cage-workers, and dealers run a seamlessly smooth operation. 

Estragon and Vladimir

After playing in the Wynn, I went back to Las Vegas seven months later for the WSOP. I have gone back four more times since. Rooming with Dara is always a pleasure (although running with him in the desert heat is a little less so). I enjoy the buzz of the Series but it always feels like an extended work trip. If I’m going to leave my family for a fortnight, I need to justify it by flicking in everything that I can to maximize my chance of a financial return. I am lucky that Dara feels the same way and we both go into grind mode.

 two Irishmen in a desolate place with a dubious raison d’etre

I am also lucky most of my trips to Las Vegas have been lucrative. I have made the top 3% of the Main Event twice in four attempts. I have made a few deep runs in side events. My only losing trip came in 2019. Dara has been on my rail as I have been on his, most memorably for his final table run in 2021. I sometimes think of us as the Estragon and Vladimir of poker, waiting for our time to be collected; two Irishmen in a desolate place with a dubious raison d’etre, playing, failing, playing again, failing again, trying to play better, trying to fail better.

Last year, when I informed my partner Saron that I would be going back to the Wynn for the WPT World Poker Championships, I assured her that, like my trips to the WSOP, it was all business. She looked at me incredulously, seeing right through my less-than-best poker face. “You’re staying in the Wynn!” she exclaimed and I had no rebuttal. She had accompanied me to the Unibet event for that first trip in 2017 so knew well that I would be staying in the lap of luxury. When I told her that it would be another cannot-miss event this year, she simply shook me down for 10%. 

The Mexican standoff re-visited

Last year, the WPT built it and they came but this year, they needed to come in even bigger numbers. Not only that, but the World Championships had to jostle with the excellently run European Poker Tour (EPT) Prague which was coming off the back of a record-setting event in 2022 and a more direct kind of competition from its biggest rival. 

GGPoker/WSOP certainly did their best to upset the apple cart, enticing people to the Bahamas with the promise of $50m worth of prizepools. When that didn’t work, they upped the ante, offering freebies, parlays, and a ‘two for the price of one’ offer. They even debuted an ‘OnLive’ hybrid, an online Day 1 which they badly needed to cover 30% of their Main Event guarantee. I guess even Paradise sees its share of storms. 

it is the players who made out with the Confederate gold

In a recent article, I likened the clash between the EPT, WPT, and WSOP to a Mexican Standoff and I made some predictions about who would emerge as Clint Eastwood in this particular showdown. Perhaps the deeper truth, however, is that it is the players who made out with the Confederate gold. 

A Heaven of Hell

The bottom line is competition is good and a strong EPT, WPT, and WSOP is important for poker’s long-term success. When there is turf war, it is the players who benefit and we badly need that rivalry to continue. Dara and I both remember being on the other side of that coin, when the market leader took advantage of their monopoly, squeezing us with egregious rake and a dearth of promotions. 

All told, the three main events produced nine prizes in excess of $1m, life-changing money for those players. Dara and I both managed to cash but sadly that seven-figure cheque alluded us. We are nothing if not persistent though. Like Estragon and Vladimir, we will be back, hoping for a better outcome. 

If good sense prevails, there won’t be a clash next year. There are already rumblings that EPT Prague might start a week earlier and it certainly makes more sense for the WSOP to farm the empty pastures of January. Whatever happens, my own first choice will be the World Championships. If Vegas is a scorched desert Inferno, then the WPT has managed to create an oasis in the Wynn, an end-of-year refuge for degenerates, a sublime wellspring of poker action. They have made a poker Heaven out of Hell. 

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