The WSOP: Are We Having Fun Yet?

by Lou on August 3, 2006

Are we having fun yet? The diminution of the fun factor as the World Series of Poker grows ever larger is one of the themes echoing through the halls of the Rio recently.

It’s coming primarily from players and media members who have a long association with the WSOP, and are in a position to compare the current state of this event with the good old days — which, in case you’re wondering, is anytime from the WSOP’s inception through 2003.

Right now the WSOP is less fun and more like real work. A Canadian player I’ve known for some time was lamenting the loss of informality the WSOP used to have, when you knew everybody and everyone knew you. Now my friend feels like a stranger in a shopping mall the week before Christmas, beset by throngs of people who are pushing and shoving, and the informality and joy of the event is lost somewhere in the shuffle. While my friend is not a professional player in the sense of earning his entire living from poker — he has another career — but he does supplement his income with his poker winnings, writes extensively about poker, and helps promote the game wherever and whenever he can.

Whether the loss of the fun factor is a result of the WSOP’s corporatization, or the just something that comes with the territory when an event becomes so large that it cannot be planned, managed, administered, or run informally any longer is an open question. Perhaps it’s a mix of both, but pinpointing the reason does nothing to ameliorate longings for the good old days.

I remember eating breakfast in Binion’s coffee shop with a couple of other media guys in 2002 or 2003. When we were finished we walked up to the cashier, flashed our media badges, signed our checks, and walked out. We could have eaten ten breakfasts a day with that kind of system in place, but everyone knew each other; there was a modicum of trust in place, no one pushed the envelope too far, so it worked. What might have been lost in efficiency when compared to a system that would have required meal tickets to be issued to media members each day was offset by the informality, easy of administration, and the goodwill that was engendered for the WSOP. We loved it, and it was fun.

With the advent of the Gaming Expo, which I love — it’s a terrific addition to the WSOP and necessary for the growth and development of poker as an industry — the licensing of all sorts of direct and ancillary rights surrounding the WSOP, and ESPN’s need to produce compelling television, something has been lost and I’m wondering if we can ever get it back.

The fun factor is hard to define, and harder still to measure. But when it’s missing, everyone knows it, and everyone who experienced it in the past longs passionately for its return.

Bigger does not always mean that the fun factor will be lost or ignored. But it’s a challenge building it into an event that threatens to spiral out of control with each additional player who signs up for an event. The Grateful Dead never lost that informal, funky, friendly, down-to-earth sense of being regardless of how popular they were. Neither did Willy Nelson or Bruce Springsteen. Disneyland tries its best to retain that sense of personalization and fun, though it’s admittedly hard when you’re running a theme park with a gazillion visitors coming through the gates each year.

Minor league baseball does it with fan-friendly (though admittedly hokey) promotions in a way that major league baseball never can. But MLB tries. They have scads of promotions, from fan photo days and bobblehead doll giveaways to all sorts of other events designed to narrow the distance between the guy buying the tickets and the players on the field.

Can the World Series of Poker get back to the way it was? I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t want to see that kind of shrinkage. After all, no one wants to return to the days when 300 entrants into the main event was considered a big turnout. But there is much that can be done to regain much of the intimacy that has been lost over the past few years.

At this point in its history the WSOP appears to be a prisoner of its own success. Everything has grown so very large so quickly, except for the fun factor. That’s been shrinking. I’m hoping that Harrah’s sees the need to bring it back, and understands its importance in the WSOP experience.

If they can grow the WSOP while retaining a player friendly sense of informality, and raise the fun factor in the process, perhaps my Canadian friend, and others I’ve talked to who expressed very similar opinions, will come back next year instead of seeking out other venues for their poker fix.

When that happens, the answer to the “Are we having fun yet?” question will be a resounding “Yes!”

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