In a year of shortened seasons and playoff bubbles, the World Series of Poker has also gotten creative to crown a champion.
The WSOP Main Event, the $10,000 buy-in No-limit Hold’em World Championship that is televised annually on ESPN, will be held starting Sunday.
But it won’t be at the Rio — at least not yet. It won’t even be at live poker tables. The vast majority of the tournament is being held online, in a complicated format involving essentially two separate tournaments using two online platforms and two casinos.
A winner eventually will be crowned live Dec. 30 at the Rio, and a banner with that person’s photo will hang alongside previous Main Event winners such as Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, Johnny Chan, Phil Hellmuth and Chris Moneymaker at the Rio Convention Center.
ESPN commentator Norman Chad said he has no problem with this year’s winner joining those poker greats. Sports titles have been won in strike-shortened seasons and other unusual circumstances, especially this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
“People can put an asterisk if they want, but it’s the Main Event champion,” Chad said. “The banner will be up there.”
The WSOP normally brings thousands of poker players to the Rio during the summer to contest a series of high-stakes tournaments, culminating in the Main Event. Germany’s Hossein Ensan won the title last year, topping a field of 8,569 to claim the $10 million first-place prize.
This year, only 10 players will set foot inside the Rio.
Because of U.S. online poker laws, the world cannot play online together. That forced the WSOP to divide the Main Event into two separate tournaments, one for U.S. players on WSOP.com and one for international players on GGPoker. (U.S. players must be physically located in Nevada or New Jersey to play, but they don’t have to be residents.)
The final tables (the last nine players) of each tournament will be played live. The international portion has already reached that stage, and its final table will be played Tuesday at King’s Casino in Rozvadov, Czech Republic. The U.S. final table will be played Dec. 28 at the Rio.
The live portions will be held under strict coronavirus protocols, the WSOP has said.
The U.S. and international winners will then play heads-up Dec. 30 at the Rio to crown the Main Event champion.
The U.S. and international tournaments have separate prize pools based on the number of entries. The international tournament had 674 entries, resulting in a first prize of $1.55 million. The heads-up match will be played for an additional $1 million.
WSOP executive director Ty Stewart and his team scrambled to put together the WSOP Online over the summer when the live series was postponed. A total of 85 gold bracelet events were held, 31 for U.S. players on WSOP.com and the rest for international players on GGPoker. He said the WSOP was already working on this alternate Main Event plan then in an effort to preserve the history of the event.
“We knew we could use technology to get the Main Event field down to a manageable number for testing and safety protocols and still have those most iconic moments preserved for the television cameras,” Stewart said in an email interview. “Imagery of these climactic hands are the backbone of our history. Chris Moneymaker’s inconceivable bluff. Chan vs. (Erik) Seidel as immortalized in ‘Rounders.’ This is how poker exploded.”
Reaction in the poker world has been mixed. Top players including Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and Shaun Deeb have expressed excitement about the event.
However, high-stakes pro Isaac Haxton expressed alarm on Twitter about rising coronavirus rates: “Please stop playing live poker. Please, please don’t travel for poker. I’d plead with operators not to run these irresponsible events, but we’re well past the point of imagining they might care.”
Stewart said the WSOP does care about safety, and he has dealt with the effects of the virus personally.
“We’ll be testing everyone inside the bubble before they sit down to play before the ESPN cameras,” he said. “We’ve taken a lot of time in planning to make sure this is manageable. I understand COVID-19 is real. I’ve faced it in my own home, as I had to take my own child to the hospital facing complications.”
Players who don’t want to travel for the live portion may opt out and accept ninth-place money. Peiyuan Sun of China already did so for the international final table.
Chad arguably has been the voice of poker since he joined the WSOP broadcasts in 2003. He said he did not think it was important to hold the Main Event this year, but he doesn’t think the event is irresponsible.
“The World Series, not to make a pun, but they were dealt a bad hand like everybody else this year, and so they’re just trying to figure out the best solution,” Chad said. “This is a solution which doesn’t satisfy everyone, but it does give us a Main Event champion. I would not have lost any sleep if we decided we’ll pass on a Main Event champion this year because of the unusual circumstances, but they want to do it.
“I’m sympathetic to what the World Series is trying to do. It’s sort of an uncertain conclusion to a very uncertain year.”