Moving the WSOP online makes sense
Considering the current crisis with COVID-19, many were wondering what Caesars would do in 2020 with the World Series of Poker. One suggestion was to cut the number of players significantly to allow for social distancing at the venue and play with no spectators. Another suggestion was to cancel the event this year and hope for a bigger event in 2021. A third idea was to play the tournament online instead. And the last proposal was to simply postpone it to the fall or winter and hope that the conditions in the U.S. changed significantly enough to allow the event to go ahead as normal. On Monday, the WSOP chose the last option and announced that the WSOP would be played live in the fall.
"We are committed to running the World Series of Poker this year but need additional time to proceed on our traditional scale while prioritizing guest and staff well-being," Ty Stewart, executive director of the World Series of Poker, said in a statement.
While that decision is understandable, it must be questioned whether it was the best choice. The first suggestion to play with a smaller field with no spectators was never going to occur, since the WSOP is now known for the size of the fields and the player fan clubs in the stands. Therefore, cutting it back to 2,000 players or so to allow for more distancing at the tables was likely not going to fly with Caesars or the players and once the tournament got down to two tables, social distancing would be impossible. Add to that the fact that many players have sponsors in the stands with a vested interest in the tournament, it would be difficult to exclude them from viewing the games. As for canceling the tournament, one could argue that putting it off for a year would create a bigger tournament than ever next year and could be promoted greatly, but that's assuming that things are back to normal. If the virus has not been eradicated by that time or a human vaccine has not been made available to the general public the situation could be the exact same next June.
Why not do it online?
Thus, the choice not to move it online may be unfortunate. To their credit, Caesars has indicated that many of the smaller tournaments would move online, but not the Main Event. The truth, however, is that the main event is the only event that most the public, players and media care about and it is the only one that ESPN has any interest in showing. So why would an online Main Event work (whether it is played in June or later in the year to allow for the logistics to work)? The following are five reasons why an online Main Event would be successful and why it is the best choice.
Most poker players are already online
Online poker is now the choice for many poker players. The WSOP only really gained its current interest after Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event after winning an $86 buy-in satellite tournament at PokerStars. After seeing that feat, now known as the Moneymaker effect, there were subsequent winners, including Greg Raymer, who won the tournament the following year after a cheap satellite win. In fact, most entrants to the tournament get there as a result of satellite victories, whether won at online poker sites or land-based poker rooms, and almost every player that plays in the tournament has an online presence. And while there were some questions about the legitimacy of online games at first, it is now accepted that all online poker games are completely random and the results are totally legitimate. Sites like eCogra ensure that. Moreover, the largest poker networks have several large buy-in tournaments with huge prizes and there has rarely been complaints following the scandals at Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bets. So, putting the Main Event online would not scare off most players from entering, since they understand that it is the same tournament and just a different format. And as mentioned, the WSOP plans to put some of its other large tournaments online. Besides that, the lockdown restrictions allowing crowds likely won't be lifted until 2021 so this would give the players even more reason to play. And if done correctly, all poker sites in the U.S. and the rest of the world, along with online casinos and sportsbooks, could start offering daily satellite tournaments with an entry to the Main Event as the top prize. This may actually be an incentive to some online players as they may be intimidated in a live game and more comfortable playing online.
Captain Obvious: Safety
Unless there is a vaccine by the fall, which is very unlikely, players still have to deal with the same concerns at the tournament that they do now, especially if there is a second wave of COVID-19. As such, some players could have the virus and be asymptomatic, which would be dangerous not only because everyone is breathing the same air, but also because they will be touching the cards and chips frequently. And, as we have seen throughout this crisis, it is very easy to transmit the disease if someone with COVID-19 touches something which is subsequently picked up by someone else. No doubt Caesars will have players and dealers using hand sanitizers constantly and probably even wearing WSOP logo masks, but if the tournament were played online there would be no risk whatsoever of catching or passing on a virus using virtual cards and chips.
The Tech Exists
The technology exists to allow for a live-environment online game. Live dealer games are popular now anyways, but technology like Zoom allows multiple people to see each other live as well. Some of the more successful poker players will argue that one of their advantages is being able to read the faces of other players, which is particularly important with bluffing, but if the tournament is conducted properly and technology experts are utilized, this would still be possible. It's not certain whether Zoom is secure enough for this type of tournament and it's questionable how the hole cards could be shown to others on ESPN or WSOP telecasts after the hand is dealt, but with the greatest technological minds in the world located in the U.S. and with plenty of time to figure out the specifics, there is no doubt a secure multi-user interface could be developed that would be ideal for the WSOP. Moreover, if it proves to be successful then it provides a new type of online poker experience that may entice new players to play more often online. It's truly a win-win scenario.
Borders may still be closed in the fall. Caesars seems to be banking on things going back to normal, including open borders by the fall. But, if the World Health Organization is right and a second wave hits, the borders could be closed indefinitely. Since a large percentage of WSOP players live in Europe, Asia, Australia and Canada, they would all be shut out of the Main Event if it were played live. Online, however, players could log in and play from anywhere in the world. Right now only four states have legal online poker, namely Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, but many states across the U.S. have online gambling and even more have legal online sports betting, so it could be worked out to allow those states to include online poker, if only for this one event. Players may have to travel to a neighboring state to play in the tournament, but if they want to play badly enough it is possible. Besides that, a large percentage of professional players live in Nevada or close by and no doubt Caesars would happily open one or more of its casinos to allow players to play in the games legally from the state of Nevada in their hotel room or elsewhere that is convenient. Again the logistics would have to be worked out, which may be why a summer online tournament would be unlikely. One thing for certain, is that if it is played online, non-U.S. players would be able to enter from wherever they are located.
Nothing to Lose
There really is nothing to lose. Putting together a large live event takes a lot of planning and costs a lot of money. Arranging everything from the hotel rooms, airfare, facility set up, TV cameras, etc. takes a significant amount of time and is expensive. With an online tournament the expenses are significantly smaller. So even if only a few thousand players enter, it would not be a disaster and if nothing else it will raise some money for Caesars and provide jobs for some staff. MGM just announced that they believe COVID-19 will change the industry forever, and indicated they doubt many people will return to casinos for quite some time. And new CEO Bill Hornbuckle indicated that even when things get started again, the casinos will have to operate differently since everyone will be far more self-conscious about hygiene being in large crowds. For that reason, online poker, along with other forms of online gambling could be just what the industry ordered. And, if successful and promoted well and hopefully aired on ESPN or other means, it could persuade many states that have been reluctant to legalize online gambling and poker to do so.
Almost every analyst agrees that the reason online poker has not been overly successful so far in Nevada and New Jersey is because the number of players is too small, and poker relies on volume to be successful. That is how PokerStars and Full Tilt got to where they did prior to Black Friday. When 25,000 people were online at once, tables were full, tournament options were abundant and the money flowed freely. But with only a few hundred online at once, tables were mostly empty and unappealing. But if states like Illinois, New Hampshire, West Virginia etc. that have online gambling decide to expand it to poker and if states like New York and California also agree to pass the online gambling bills that seem to be stalled, then the number of players would skyrocket since the Commerce Claus dictates that anything legal in more than one state is automatically legal between those states. And a WSOP online main event tournament could be just the impetus for that to occur.
If the event is offered online and is a dud, then Caesars can just shrug it off and look forward to 2021. If it turns out to be successful, however, then perhaps it could be a new mainstay for the future with a live main event in the summer and an online main event in the fall or winter. Again, for Caesars, poker fans and the players there is really nothing to lose. Are there any possible downfalls to an online tournament? Of course, there are. There will always be suspicions about collusion that does not occur at a live-event and there is the possibility that players could be shut out of games if the Internet goes down. But those issues exist with online tournaments now and sites like PokerStars and WSOP have ways of dealing with that to make it fair to all.
So, it sounds like Caesars has decided to hold its Main Event tournament in the fall come hell or high water. Let's hope that they at least seriously consider moving the event online, if for some reason the live option falls through.