WSOP getting ready to leave the Rio behind

Is 2020 The Right Time To Reimagine The World Series Of Poker?

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The World Series of Poker (WSOP) announced this week that its flagship summer series will be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 WSOP was originally scheduled to begin on May 26 and run until July 15. The earliest it will now happen is sometime this fall, but no firm plans have been made.

The news was hardly surprising, perhaps even overdue. Even if some restrictions loosen in the next month, a large percentage of people will still be avoiding crowds and travel this summer. What’s more, players expecting to attend would ordinarily have booked travel and accommodation by this point in the year.

WSOP has already begun offering special online events to take advantage of increased internet poker traffic and compensate for the cancellation of its Circuit stops. It will also schedule additional online events over the summer, though it hasn’t yet revealed any details.

While the disruption is unfortunate in the short term, it is arguably not the worst timing.

The WSOP has reached a point in its evolution in which major changes were likely on the horizon to begin with. Being unable to operate as normal in 2020 may provide the impetus to rethink the series sooner rather than later.

WSOP’s second incarnation has lasted 15 years

Back when the “poker boom” started in 2003, the WSOP was a much smaller affair held at Binion’s Horseshoe. Few of today’s players remember that version of it, however. Just two years later, it moved to its current home at the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino.

Most people who play poker today got involved with the game around that time (or in the years since). It’s therefore easy to think of the WSOP as a constant in an otherwise rapidly changing poker landscape.

Indeed, 15 years is an eternity in poker. In that time, the public conception of a professional poker player has changed from a grizzled cowboy to a young math whiz, poker businesses have risen and fallen, scandals have transpired, and online poker was banished from the US for a number of years.

Throughout the modern era, the WSOP has remained synonymous with summertime, Las Vegas, and the Amazon Room. It’s hard to imagine now, but as recently as 2002 the Main Event drew only 631 players. That’s far fewer than many side events these days and less than a tenth of what it would be just a few years later. There were only 34 events total on that year’s schedule, and the Main Event carried the only buy-in above $5,000.

A whole lot changed between then and 2005, and we may be on the cusp of a similar evolutionary leap.

Rio sale means change likely in the cards

Some sort of reinvention of the WSOP was already in the cards well before coronavirus became a household term.

The Rio itself has, objectively, grown somewhat outdated and shabby. Its convention center — big as it is — has furthermore been stretched to its capacity limits by the series’ relentless expansion.

Caesars, which owns both the WSOP and the Rio, finally announced last year that it was selling off the casino. Rumors that it would do so had already been circulating for years by that point. So too had suggestions that the WSOP should be looking for a new venue, regardless of whether or not Caesars actually sold the current one.

The company will continue to lease the Rio from its new owners, Imperial Companies, until at least 2021. It therefore seemed as if the WSOP would remain at the Rio this year and next before probably moving to a new home after that.

New venue, new World Series?

This year’s disruptions might force at least a partial move before then.

Though the Rio convention center is dominated by the WSOP each year from late May to mid-July, it’s used for other purposes for the rest of the year. Caesars can’t simply cancel those other bookings. There’s no other block of free time long enough to host something on the scale of the WSOP, so the rescheduled series will either have to be much smaller than usual or spread across more than one venue.

If it plans things right, the WSOP could perhaps turn that negative into a positive. After all when it moved into the Rio in 2004, it smoothed things by playing the final days of the Main Event at Binion’s as a farewell. This year could prove to be a similar sort of transition year.

Fortunately, there’s a brand new venue all ready to roll. Caesars this spring finished construction on a 300,000 square foot conference center on the Strip called the Caesars Forum. Its grand opening was scheduled for March before being postponed like everything else.

Opening a new property of that magnitude poses logistical challenges of its own, of course. That’s one reason the WSOP was originally unlikely to move there until 2022. If this year’s series needs to be split between multiple venues anyway, however, hosting some events at the Forum might be a convenient way to help players get used to the new location.

Online expansion means new partners…

There is one important way in which the WSOP has already been breaking new ground in recent years: online bracelet events. It added the first of these to its schedule in 2015 and has been expanding that aspect of the series most years since.

This year was supposed to be the biggest ever in that regard, with the number of online events expanded to 14. That’s an increase of five over last year, which in turn was more than double the number from 2018.

As well as delaying the summer’s series, COVID-19 forced the postponement (and eventually the cancellation) of many WSOP Circuit stops. The company has compensated for that with a pair of Online Super Circuit series.

The first of these was for American players, and the next will be for the international community. Both consist of 18 single-day events, each with a circuit ring up for grabs. The US series on WSOP/888 already ran in March with great success.

The international series will run in May on GGPoker. That announcement came as a bit of a surprise, as it’s the first time WSOP has done something so significant with an online partner other than 888. The only other time in recent years that it has strayed from that traditional arrangement was in 2017, when it ran satellites for a Brazilian Circuit stop on partypoker.

…but also new challenges

Whatever sort of online substitute the WSOP chooses to run, only a subset of players will be able to participate. It is impossible to run anything truly fitting of the “World Series” name because of jurisdictional issues.

Online bracelet events for the summer series have worked in the past because players from around the world are already present in Las Vegas for the live events. However, WSOP’s own network is only available from within Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware.

WSOP/888 may launch a Pennsylvania online poker site before the summer, but even if it does, it can’t legally join the main network. Depending on the status of anti-COVID measures, even US players from other locales may be unable to travel to a state from which they can legally participate.

Meanwhile, whether WSOP partners with GGPoker or someone else for the dot-com market, those events will exclude players from the US and certain other countries like Australia and Israel. Players in France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal will also be unable to participate. Although those countries have legal online poker, they don’t share their player pool with the rest of the world.

What could a new WSOP look like?

There seems to be little doubt in anyone’s mind that the WSOP will end up at the Caesars Forum sooner or later. It’s new, it’s big, and it’s owned by the same company.

Whenever it does happen, the move may allow WSOP to address some of the most common player complaints. These include things like bathroom lineups, food options, and harassment of players by vendors in the hallways.

On the other hand, it could create new problems of its own; parking is one common concern.

The basic structure of the WSOP is unlikely to change. It’s also unlikely to be scaled back. If this year’s unusual circumstances do force the series spread itself across multiple venues, however, WSOP may find some advantages to that. Having a secondary location could be useful if the series continues to expand. That would be especially true during huge, space-hogging events like the Colossus.

The online component of the series is almost certain to keep growing as well. It’s the only opportunity US online poker players currently have to play tournament poker for stakes and with field sizes equivalent to what’s seen in the international market.

The WSOP is also looking to expand its international presence. The new online partnerships it’s eyeing may mean that we see an online bracelet event at the next WSOP Europe. More international circuit stops and Online Super Circuit series may also be coming.

This year is one like none other, but the disruption will be temporary. Whatever happens, the WSOP will come out the other side. The only question is how much or how little the new series resembles the one we’ve known since 2005.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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