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Best of Vin Narayanan
Poker deals need to involve winning1 July 2012
And that was my attitude towards deals when I first started covering poker.
After spending several years steeped in the industry, deals still bother me, but for different reasons.
The more time I spent with poker players, the more I understood their motivations. Their goal, like that of anybody running a business, is to maximize revenue.
In that way, poker players are no different from the very rich businessmen who are pitting their skills against the world's top poker players in the $1 million Big One for One Drop tournament at the World Series of Poker today.
Frederic Banjout, the CEO of Eden Shoes, hedge fund manager David Einhorn, College Loan Corporation CEO Cary Katz, Winmark CEO John Morgan and others playing in poker's richest tournament are all great at maximizing revenue. That's why they're so successful, and why they can afford to plunk down $1 million to play in poker's biggest tournament.
So I get deals. I understand the motivation for making them. It's the difference between a guaranteed contract and an incentive-laden one. In a game with as much risk and variance as poker, there's no guarantee you're going to reach the next pay bump, or the ultimate pay bump. So you guarantee as much income as you can.
But as much as I understand deals, they rub me the wrong way. Because poker isn't just about maximizing revenue. It's a competition. It's about a person pitting his skills against the best the game can offer, and doing everything he can to emerge victorious.
There's a certain drama built into competition. And the greater the sense of competition, the greater the drama.
No one really cares about swimming -- unless it's the Olympics. But people took notice of the Olympic qualifiers because Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte were engaged in a titanic struggle to prove which was the best swimmer in the world. Every time the two dove into the pool, it was dramatic because both wanted to beat each other, and both were willing to expend every last ounce of energy to do so.
The same is true when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic take the court in tennis. When you watch them play, you're watching greatness in action. Yes, both players have innate talent and skill. But more importantly, both players are tapping deep reserves to try to beat each other -- and that lends drama and excitement to the event.
You can pick any sport and you'll find it's true -- the chase for victory defines the sport.
All of which brings us to poker, and Saturday night.
On Saturday night, the World Series of Poker held its $25,000 satellite for a seat in the $1 million Big One for One Drop tournament.
The satellite guaranteed one seat for the winner -- and a shot at $18.3 million.
The second-place finisher would receive $1 million and would be the first alternate for the tournament, if one of the players who had already entered decided to back out. And third received $400,000.
Shaun Deeb and Gus Hansen outlasted 94 other entrants to reach heads-up play. Then they took an unscheduled break and decided Gus Hansen should win the tournament.
They returned to the table and Deeb pushed all in except for one chip. Hansen called, raised after the flop and Deeb folded. Now Deeb had one chip left (less than an ante) and lost it on the next hand.
Hansen had his seat in the One Drop and Deeb had his $1 million. (By the way, how funny would it have been if Deeb kept doubling up despite his best efforts?)
The gambler in me appreciated Deeb's deal. Get the guaranteed $1 million. And get it without having to risk it in a 48-person tournament where only nine people cash. It also allowed Hansen, who really wanted to play in the One Drop, to get a seat in the tournament. But the competitor in me hates this.
Since when did people play for second place? Americans don't play for second. They play to win. Except in poker. When Chris Moneymaker was playing on PokerStars to qualify for the 2003 World Series of Poker, he initially didn't want to win the satellite. He wanted to win enough money to pay off some debt. But when he mistakenly thought he had the money to pay off the debt, he decided to win. If Moneymaker didn't play to win, there's no poker boom -- or at least no Moneymaker effect.
But the deal environment in poker has created a culture where players are trying to last long enough in tournaments to reach a deal instead of playing to win. Foxwoods had a 23-player deal in the fall of 2010. And whenever tournaments reach the final table, more energy seems to be devoted to negotiating a deal than to actually winning it.
Winning tournaments isn't important anymore. Making the best deal is. Yes, I suppose this is an effort to maximize revenue and reduce variance. But what it really does is take what should be an exciting competition and turn it into a banking exercise.
This can't be good for the "mainstreaming" of poker tournaments. If poker is going to expand beyond a niche sport, audiences have to believe people are playing to win, not playing for the best deal.
But at the same time, any poker ecosystem needs to take into account that players do need to minimize risk and maximize revenue.
So here's my solution: If you're going to make a deal in a poker tournament, make sure there's an incentive to win built in. That's why we (or some of us) play the game.
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