Some games can be played without crowds. Not the World Series of Poker. The crowd is the game.
After a 2020 in which, due to a global pandemic, the only in-person WSOP action came in the form of two COVID-tested final tables and one heads-up match, poker’s signature series returns Thursday at 11 a.m. Vegas time for the start of the 2021 edition.
The WSOP is billing it as the “52nd annual” series, which it certainly would be if the event — which began in 1970 with high-stakes cash games at Binion’s Horseshoe and with Johnny Moss voted the champion in a poll of his peers — had happened in 2020. It didn’t. Not really. But there were 31 online bracelets awarded in the U.S. in 2020. And, apply as many asterisks as you like, there was a world champion crowned. So … close enough, the WSOP decided.
For what it’s worth, most World Series literature is playing it safe and going simply with “2021 WSOP.”
Speaking of playing it safe, the biggest topic of discussion and debate leading up to the Series has been COVID protocols. In light of the Delta variant’s surge from mid-summer on, Caesars Entertainment made the decision to require proof of vaccination from all WSOP participants.
In an era in which not even topics of science and public health can escape the grip of politicization and polarization, the decision has drawn a mixed reaction. But given state-mandated contact tracing protocols in Nevada, which could have forced the World Series to disqualify unvaccinated players mid-tournament just for being in proximity to people who test positive for COVID, the WSOP organizers made a decision that provides their best shot at a smoothly running series — one with a minimum of disqualifications, unfinished tournaments, and legal filings.
The World Series will use the CLEAR mobile app to verify vaccination status when possible, although alternate documentation will also be accepted. Because of the vaccination requirement, the wearing of masks (which, not incidentally, can cover up some physical tells) will be optional.
To those who are vaccinated, the WSOP will say “Shuffle up and deal” on Thursday. To those who aren’t, the WSOP is saying, “Shut up and deal with it.”
How big will the Main Event be?
But enough about what’s floating around in the air. Let’s focus on what’s happening on the felt.
There are 88 bracelet events on the schedule, beginning with two tournaments aimed at very different crowds on the opening day: the traditional $500 Casino Employees No-Limit Hold’em and a $25,000 H.O.R.S.E. event four hours later.
No doubt the most attention will be paid to the $10,000 NLHE Main Event, which is still more than a month away, running from Nov. 4 (with four opening flights to choose from) through Nov. 17. Predictions on the number of entrants are all over the map — pun somewhat intended because some international players figure to have a harder time getting to the Rio in Las Vegas this fall than they do most summers.
The hybrid online-live 2020 Main Event attracted 1,379 entries, an utterly irrelevant number with regard to 2021 calibrations. In 2019, the number was 8,569, the second-largest field ever, behind only the one during Jamie Gold’s historic pre-UIGEA win in 2006. For 12 straight years in between, the entries came in between 6,300 and 7,900.
Those predicting that a new record will be set in 2021 believe in the power of pent-up demand. Those predicting the smallest live field since 2005 believe the combination of anti-vaxxers, those still inclined to steer clear of large gatherings, and travel challenges will take a massive collective toll.
Then there’s the consideration that the WSOP is taking place during NFL season for the first time. Poker players love to watch football, to wager on football, to play DFS football, etc. It shouldn’t impact Main Event numbers terribly (the fourth starting day is a Sunday, and there isn’t another Sunday to deal with unless you make it to Day 7, by which point you’ve won at least six figures), but for other tournaments running on weekends, the gridiron might distract from the poker grind.
Other tournaments of note
The Main Event accounts for 15 of the 51 hours of WSOP coverage CBS Sports is planning to televise — you read that right, ESPN is out this year and CBS Sports is in, although Lon McEachern and Norman Chad will still be calling the action. However, it’s far from the only event on the schedule worthy of attention.
Here are some of the more unique, intriguing, or just plain high-stakes offerings:
- COVID-19 Relief No-Limit Hold’em Charity Event: $1,000 buy-in, benefiting frontline healthcare workers
- The Reunion No-Limit Hold’em: $500 buy-in, $5,000,000 guaranteed prize pool
- Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em: $25,000 buy-in, 64-player max, bracket-style tournament
- Millionaire Maker: $1,500 buy-in, $1,000,000 first-place guarantee
- Flip & Go No-Limit Hold’em: $1,000 buy-in, everybody is automatically all-in on the first hand, winners of the first hand are instantly in the money
- Short Deck No-Limit Hold’em: $10,000 buy-in, variant first played at the WSOP in 2019
- Monster Stack No-Limit Hold’em: $1,500 buy-in, 50,000 in starting chips
- Dealer’s Choice Championship: $10,000 buy-in, 19 games to choose from
- Colossus No-Limit Hold’em: $400 buy-in
- Tag Team No-Limit Hold’em: $1,000 buy-in per two-person team
- Poker Players Championship 6-Handed: $50,000 buy-in, nine-game mix
- Salute to Warriors No-Limit Hold’em: $500 buy-in, proceeds donated to USO and other veteran organizations
- Poker Hall of Fame Bounty No-Limit Hold’em: $1,979 buy-in, Hall-of-Famers freeroll and have a bounty on their heads, equal in dollars to the year inducted into the Hall
- Super High Roller No-Limit Hold’em: $250,000 buy-in
Whether any of those unique or expensive events will lure 88-year-old icon Doyle Brunson, who has had a limited presence at the Rio the last decade or so, remains to be seen. There are similar questions about how much Phil Ivey we’ll see, now that his legal entanglements over Baccarat play are resolved and his poker tournament winnings will no longer be garnished.
And is this the year an established superstar wins the Main Event, something that hasn’t yet happened in the post-poker-boom era?
The odds remain stacked against that outcome. All we can assume about the next world champion is that he or she will become the first person ever to claim this championship after having been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Photo: Frank Romeo/Shutterstock