The World Series of Poker Main Event wasn’t held in Las Vegas this year, the first time since the prestigious annual summer poker festival began in 1970. It took a global pandemic for that to transpire.
Live poker has been the casino game most impacted by the COVID-19 coronavirus, and the WSOP was forced to move its entire schedule online. From 2015 to 2019, the WSOP had nearly 20 total online bracelet events, and in 2020, prior to the pandemic, there were 14 on the schedule. In other words, the WSOP was already becoming more and more of a hybrid live/online poker festival. In tandem with upstart GGPoker, the WSOP staged 85 online bracelet events this summer, for both U.S. and international players.
GGPoker is based out of and licensed in Curacao, an island near Venezuela. It’s inaccessible in the U.S.
The WSOP is most well known for its flagship tournament, the $10,000 single buy-in no-limit hold’em championship, a tournament with deep stacks and a slow structure in its aim to find the next world champion. Bankrolls sometime don’t last, but a WSOP bracelet is forever (unless you end up selling it on eBay, which has happened several times). The online schedule featured a Main Event, trimmed to $5,000 and opened to re-entries. The price point was still large, as the world of live poker typically has the bigger buy-ins.
There were 5,802 entries at the $5,000 price point, easily surpassing the $25 million guarantee. A prize pool of $27,559,500 was up for grabs, the record tournament pot in online poker’s roughly two decade history. The tournament, which began in mid-August, blew by the 2018 PartyPoker Millions online event, which had a $5,300 buy-in event generate a $21,780,000 prize pool, then a record for the the game in cyberspace.
Prize pool by WSOP standards
In terms of past WSOP Main Events, the tournament’s prize pool basically takes us back to 2004, when Greg Raymer won the $10,000 Main Event for $5 million. He outlasted a field of 2,576 players to take the lion’s share of the $24,224,400 prize pool. At the time it was the richest tournament in the history of poker.
The top prize in the 2020 WSOP online Main Event is $3,904,686, despite the larger prize pool. Tournament payout structures have flattened over time, spreading out prize money to more participants.
The record prize pool in WSOP Main Event history was the 2006 edition, which awarded $82,512,162 with a record 8,773 players. That year Jamie Gold won what is still a Main Event record $12 million after sitting with all the chips after the final hand was dealt. That summer can be regarded as the peak of the U.S. poker boom, as the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) poured cold water on the industry that fall and ultimately resulted in online poker’s Black Friday about five years later.
In the roughly nine years since Black Friday, U.S. online poker has seen state-by-state regulation spread at a snail’s pace. Currently only Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania have legal online poker platforms, with Michigan’s launch expected sometime in late 2020 or in 2021. West Virginia also legalized online poker, but its platforms have yet to kick off peer-to-peer games.
While many WSOP online events this summer were available to Americans located in New Jersey and Nevada under a multi-state compact that allows players in both states to compete against each other on the WSOP/888 network, the Main Event was off limits to Americans in order to have international players in the mix. Still, many Americans participated in the 2020 online Main Event by traveling to countries like Canada or Mexico, which don’t restrict access to the top global online poker networks.
Some of the Americans to travel outside of the country to participate included poker legends Phil Hellmuth, the all-time leader with 15 gold bracelets, and Erik Seidel, winner of eight gold bracelets in his storied career. The current chip leader of the Main Event with 38 players remaining is American Bryan “smbdySUCKme” Piccioli, who is seeking to capture the nearly $4 million top prize when the event concludes on Saturday, Sept. 5.
Hellmuth was close to making the money, but he fell short.
— phil_hellmuth (@phil_hellmuth) August 30, 2020
A record that might stand for a while
No one knows what the future holds with the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s certainly too soon to presume that the 2021 WSOP in Las Vegas is in jeopardy. This winter should provide more clarity on that situation, but it’s likely a masked-up WSOP with hand sanitizer aplenty is what’s in store for the summer of 2021.
“It wouldn’t be summer without WSOP,” Executive Director Ty Stewart said in June. “While we are thrilled to be reopening our venues and optimistic about future offline events, we couldn’t be more excited about deepening our relationship with GGPoker and watching some history unfold online this summer.”
History was in fact made.
While the winner of the Main Event this summer will be a key part of poker history, it’s hard to call that winner the “world champion of poker” in the same way the title has been bestowed on winners in years past. Consider that the 2019 WSOP Main Event in Las Vegas had more than 6,000 unique U.S. players, representing 71% of the field. The WSOP is global, but it’s still an American brand. A WSOP Main Event inaccessible to those physically present within the U.S. just isn’t the same.
The $27,559,500 prize pool this summer, which crushed the previous online poker tournament prize pool record by nearly $6 million, might stand for years if the WSOP returns to Las Vegas in 2021. The WSOP may now try to hold a massive international online main event every year, but this plague year’s numbers will be difficult to top.
The future is bright for online poker, however, with the pandemic showing that there’s still plenty of interest in the game. Since the virus barreled down on the U.S. in March, New Jersey’s online poker market has seen a 140% increase, and its growth has matched the other online casino games in 2020.
In the years ahead, thanks to the proliferation of online gaming in the form of sports betting, more states are expected to pass online poker legislation, potentially setting up a more robust U.S. market capable of generating massive tournament prize pools. It is also possible that one day some of the top global poker sites could allow those in the U.S. to play against people overseas, but that is far away on the horizon.