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WSOP Main Event draws third-largest field despite Black Friday

11 July 2011

By Vin Narayanan

LAS VEGAS -- The World Series of Poker Main Event is like the Energizer bunny -- no matter what you do to it, it keeps on going. This year's Main Event drew 6,865 players, the third-largest field in the event's history. The Main Event champion will win $8,711,956.

And while that first-place prize money is significant, what the size of this year's field says about the strength and stability of the WSOP is even more important.

When the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the founders of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker on April 15, the poker ecosystem was rocked. All three companies stopped accepting American play, starving the WSOP of the fuel that had ignited its growth.

But even without its feeder system, the WSOP -- and its marquee tournament, the Main Event -- fared quite well, just as it did over the last few years as the world economy tanked.

Main Event fields
2000 -- 512
2001 -- 613
2002 -- 631
2003 -- 839
2004 -- 2,576
2005 -- 5,619
2006 -- 8,773
2007 -- 6,358
2008 -- 6,844
2009 -- 6,494
2010 -- 7,319
2011 -- 6,865

The Main Event's largest field came just months before the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) passed in 2006 when 8,773 players entered. As a result of the UIGEA, the WSOP eliminated the popular third-party registration process in 2007 and drew 6,358 players. In 2009, in the midst of a horrific recession, the Main Event drew 6,494 entrants. In 2010, the Main Event drew its second-largest field, with 7,319 entrants. And in 2011, with online poker on the ropes in the United States and Full Tilt and Absolute Poker player bankrolls inaccessible (PokerStars refunded American players their money), the WSOP drew just 454 fewer players.

The 2011 Main Event field falls in line with the five-year (2007-2011) Main Event attendance average of 6,776.

It falls short of the 7,158 five-year average for 2006-2010. But considering the mammoth pre-UIGEA field in 2006 and this year's Black Friday indictments, that makes perfect sense.

Liv Boeree barely managed to survive Day 1D of the WSOP Main Event. She will begin Day 2B with around 6,500.

Liv Boeree barely managed to survive Day 1D of the WSOP Main Event. She will begin Day 2B with around 6,500. (photo by Vin Narayanan)

In fact, given the external factors the WSOP has faced over the past few years, the Main Event has been remarkably stable.

So why is that the case? Part of the answer lies in the generational impact online poker has had on the game. Everyone knows about the short-term changes. But in addition to fueling the popularity of the game, online poker has created a sizable generation of new professional poker players. The Main Event has effectively become younger and more professional over the last five years. (I wrote about how this trend has affected the atmosphere of the Main Event a couple of days ago).

For this new generation of poker players, the Main Event is the ultimate place to challenge their skills. As a result, there is a substantial base of players willing to travel to Las Vegas each summer to play.

The second factor involved in the WSOP's stability is the explosive growth of online poker outside the United States. Players from outside the U.S. are representing an increasingly higher percentage of the Main Event field.

The WSOP just began keeping numbers on players outside the U.S. last year. The details on how many players in this year's Main Event are from outside the U.S. will be made available later this week. But when the comparisons are made, it's expected that there will be an increase in players from outside the U.S.

So where does this leave the WSOP? It's clearly a stable franchise that can weather all sorts of bad news, from online poker indictments to a tanking economy. But its future is entirely tied to the young pros who came of age during the online poker boom. And there's the rub.

Shannon Elizabeth fared a little better than Boeree. Elizabeth finished the night with about 19,000 in chips.

Shannon Elizabeth fared a little better than Boeree. Elizabeth finished the night with about 19,000 in chips. (photo by Vin Narayanan)

If online poker becomes licensed and regulated in the U.S., it's full speed ahead for the WSOP. If it doesn't become licensed and regulated, we'll find out next year what the real impact of Black Friday is. Will this young generation of poker pros keep at the game when they can't play online? Will a year away from online poker diminish their skills and interest to the point where they won't want to try their luck in Vegas? Will real life get in the way as these young guns start families and possibly new jobs because online poker has gone away?

These are questions that can't be answered until next year. The World Series of Poker Main Event could very well be a lagging indicator of interest in poker rather than a leading indicator. But it's entirely possible that this new generation of poker players is here to stay. And if that's the case, the World Series of Poker is going to be minting money for years to come.

While I was ruminating about the future of poker, there were 2,809 people actually playing the game on Day 1D of the Main Event.

Antonio Esfandiari could not find any magic today and busted out of the Main Event.

Antonio Esfandiari could not find any magic today and busted out of the Main Event. (photo by Vin Narayanan)

The day's two headliners, Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier and Tom "durrrr" Dwan, were eliminated quickly. Dwan fell when his two pair ran into a flush. And Grospellier exited as fewer than 30 people watched him on the ESPN "arena" stage.

In the Pavilion, Paul Magriel wasn't quacking. But he was offering backgammon lessons in return for poker lessons.

In the Amazon Room, a young player was trying to explain to the rest of her table that even though she was 24, she could definitively say how much tougher and scarier it was for kids growing up today. "I didn't have Facebook when I was a kid," she explained. The table let her have a pass on that statement and quickly fixated on her age. "I was graduating high school when you were born," said a couple of players.

But the most exciting moment of the day came when the lights of the Amazon Room were turned up from nighttime mood lighting to "Holy cow, I can see clearly now."

When the brightness of the lights was turned up, the roar from the players was loud, but the reactions were mixed.

"I can finally see my cards," said one player.

"I haven't been wearing my sunglasses in here because it's been too dark," said another.

"I'll give anyone $100 to turn the lights back down," pleaded one player.

"My head just hurts," moaned another.

About 20 minutes later, the lights were returned to their previous levels, and the Amazon Room whistled and hissed in derision. WSOP officials quickly turned the brightness back up, and they stayed that way the final 40 minutes of the night.

Notable players eliminated on Day 1D include: John Juanda, Antonio Esfandiari, Michael Binger, Nelly, Jennifer Tilly, Chino Rheem, Frank Kassela, Tom Marchese, Jason Senti, Ivan Demidov, Shawn Sheikhan, Tony Cousineau and Alexander Kravchenko.

Notable players still alive from Day 1D include: Freddy Deeb, Jeff Madsen, Lyle Berman, Joe Sebok, Todd Brunson, Kristy Gazes, Men Nguyen, Mike Sexton, Phil Laak, Vanessa Rousso, Joseph Cheong, Jamie Gold, Andy Black, Victor Ramdin, Thor Hansen, Cliff Josephy and Shannon Elizabeth.
WSOP Main Event draws third-largest field despite Black Friday is republished from
Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.