Controversy over Harrah's 2006 World Series of Poker Schedule
Nov 19, 2005  
2005 Jason Kirk  

Often times an event that becomes monumental down the line is begun simply and humbly. Take, for instance, the World Series of Poker. What is now a venerable institution in the poker world started off as a friendly gathering of a dozen of the greatest poker players in the world to determine who was that year's best. In 1972, Benny Binion told a historian that he hoped the tournament would one day draw as many as 50 players. Today Benny's statement seems humorous with the benefit of hindsight, but think about it: nobody at that time really expected that even a hundred players would ever play in this gamblers' get-together, much less that millions of people around the world would be hanging on every hand dealt at the main event's final table. If the founder of the WSOP couldn't see the enormous growth of the early 21st century coming, how could anyone else?

Something interesting happened as the WSOP began to surpass Benny Binion's expectations throughout the 1970s. Instead of simply deciding the best poker player in the world through a single tournament, different events were created to test players' skill in different varieties of poker. WSOP events in seven-card stud, lowball, Omaha, mixed games, Razz, hi-lo split games, and other varieties of poker were added as the years progressed. While the no-limit hold'em Main Event was still considered the most prestigious of the events, any player who won any of the other events was awarded a gold bracelet just like the Main Event winner. Nobody ever questions whether someone wearing a WSOP bracelet is a champion because of what particular game they played to win. At the WSOP, a champion is a champion is a champion - the bracelet says it all. The variety of games played for bracelets at the WSOP became part of what made it truly the best poker tournament in the world.

When Harrah's recently announced the schedule for the 2006 WSOP, there seemed to be a big disconnect between the history of the world's greatest poker tournament and its newest incarnation. Of the 44 events taking place over a month and a half next summer, only 10 were in varieties of poker other than Texas Hold'em. Five of these 10 were in Omaha, two for seven-card stud, and one each for seven-stud hi-lo, razz, and deuce-to-seven lowball. This caused a big stir among more than a handful of players. Daniel Negreanu declared on his blog that Harrah's had morphed the WSOP into the World Series of Hold'em. Lou Krieger agreed with Negreanu on his own blog, picking up on the "World Series of Hold'em" meme and noting that by avoiding non-hold'em events, Harrah's is running the risk of killing lesser-played varieties in the United States.

The common defense of the 2006 WSOP schedule is that Harrah's is merely giving the public what it wants. In a television marketplace saturated with hold'em tournaments, this is simply the variety of the game that the public has come to associate with poker. And if the new breed of players wants all hold'em all the time, why shouldn't Harrah's give that to them? The biggest problem here is one that Mr. Krieger pointed out so well: many of today's players, who know poker strictly from television, may not even know that more obscure games like deuce-to-seven and Razz exist because they aren't as TV-friendly as the relatively simple game of hold'em. How can this new breed possibly clamor for the opportunity to play a game about which they are ignorant?

Other questions arise in the wake of Harrah's transformation of the WSOP as well. For instance, there is the question of whether a single game can really determine the best all-around poker player in the world. Shouldn't a mixed-game tournament determine who's the best? And what responsibility does Harrah's have as the owner of the WSOP to continue to promote the growth of all forms of poker? Shouldn't the WSOP should be a shining light in the poker world because of its rich history and traditions, rather than devolving into a month-and-a-half version of a World Poker Tour event?

The answers to these questions are beyond the scope of the article, but it will be interesting to see how Harrah's reacts to the obvious unease many players have with the new form the WSOP has taken. Poker has reached the crossroads of history and big money, and there's no way to predict just yet which path it will take in the future.

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