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If you thought the 2020 World Series of Poker Main Event had already been decided online, think again.
Today the WSOP announced it will in fact be crowning a new Main Event champion at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and will do so before 2020 concludes.
According to the WSOP, a “hybrid online and live version of the $10,000 No-Limit Hold’em World Championship” will take place starting Nov. 29 and conclude a month later on Dec. 30. Like this summer’s WSOP Online series, the online portion will be played both on WSOP NJ/NV, and on GGPoker outside the US.
The winner will receive the Main Event bracelet and first-place prize money. Not only that, there’s an extra $1 million that will be added to the prize pool for the eventual winner.
How will all this work? Well, it’s a little complicated.
The $10,000 tournament will begin online with two brackets, one played on WSOP and the other on GGPoker. The event will be a freezeout, that is with only a single entry per player.
The freezeout format is less popular online, but has always been used for the WSOP Main Event since its inception. Conversely, the WSOP Online Series on GGPoker allowed multiple re-entries, even for its Main Event.
For each bracket, the final nine players emerging from the online tournaments will come together to play a live final table. The final tables for each bracket will be kept separate.
On the GGPoker side, the final table will be played at King’s Casino in Rozvadov, Czech Republic, pending local regulatory approval. Meanwhile, for WSOP players, the final table will take place at the Rio in Las Vegas.
The winner of the final table at King’s Casino will then travel to Las Vegas and play a heads-up match against the winner of the Rio final table.
This heads-up match will also be at the Rio unless the international winner is less than 21 years old. This is a possibility because the minimum age to play on GGPoker is 18. If the international winner is would be underage in Las Vegas, then the heads-up match will take place at an alternative location.
Here are the schedules for each bracket:
The WSOP explains that the winner of the heads-up match will receive “the Main Event championship bracelet and the title of 2020 World Champion.”
As noted earlier, the winning player will receive an extra $1 million on top of the first place share of the prize pool. The WSOP and GGPoker will share that additional cost.
Fans of televised poker will of course be glad to hear there will be coverage of the WSOP Main Event on ESPN featuring Lon McEachern and Norman Chad.
The WSOP’s announcement does make it clear that there will be TV taping of the live final tables and of the heads-up finale. However, it does not specify exactly what that coverage will include, whether both final tables will get equal attention, or when it will air.
The announcement finally answers the question of whether or not there would be a live WSOP Main Event during 2020. That said, it may ignite debates among those trying to settle bets on whether or not such an event would take place. Despite the name and freezeout structure, the hybrid format doesn’t bear much resemblance to what players have come to think of as “the Main Event.”
“There must be a world champion in 2020,” said Ty Stewart, the WSOP’s Executive Director. “Poker’s history is too important.”
“It’s a unique format for the Main Event, but this is a unique year,” he continued. “We want to keep players’ health and safety top of mind and still deliver a great televised showcase for the game we love.”
The suggestion that there isn’t yet a world champion this year might surprise Stoyan Madanzhiev. In September, Madanzhiev won the $5,000 No-Limit Hold’em Main Event on GGPoker.
The Bulgarian topped a 5,802-entry field to win the Main Event bracelet and more than $3.9 million. That was the culminating event of the 85-tournament series of bracelet events that played out on WSOP.com and GGPoker from July through September. His victory was treated by many at the time as equivalent to a world championship.
The WSOP had originally planned its traditional tournament series from May to July. However, that live series was cancelled in April due to the global COVID pandemic. WSOP’s promises to find an alternative place and time in the fall never came to fruition.
It’s a worthy idea to try to salvage some sort of historical continuity for the WSOP by crowning a Main Event champion in 2020.
In a sense, the WSOP is following what we’ve seen happening in other major sports. The NBA, MLB, and NHL all managed to play out their seasons and crown champions this year despite the significant challenges posed by the pandemic. In some cases the leagues had to find creative solutions in order to do so.
As Stewart notes, the WSOP needed to be similarly innovative and find a “unique format” to stage a Main Event amid such unprecedented circumstances.
That said, there will surely be debates regarding the format. As was the case during the WSOP Online series, the limitations on player eligibility both on WSOP.com (only available in NV and NJ) and GGPoker (available in dozens of countries but not the U.S.) will be a bone of contention for some.
Some will point out how the Domestic bracket playing on WSOP.com will certainly be populated with far fewer players that will be the case for the International bracket playing on GGPoker. That creates an arguably unfair advantage for U.S. players, as they have an easier path to the heads-up finale relative to their international counterparts.
A more serious risk is that caused by the continued unpredictability of the COVID virus and its spread. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all surging in the U.S. and around the world at present. Athletes have been pulled from sporting events due to testing positive. It’s natural to fear the same could happen at one or both final tables.
An FAQ for the event does address questions about COVID. Players making the two live final tables “will be subject to special COVID rules and procedures.” It is not specified whether or not the players will be tested for the virus, but they “will undergo a required health screening prior to live participation.”
What if a player who makes the live portion of play tests positive before it begins?
“Any player who tests positive for COVID-19 prior to the start of the final table play will be disqualified and receive the minimum final table payout,” says the WSOP.
Talk about a bad beat. There’s also the chance that the international bracket winner won’t be allowed to travel to the US, and less clarity about what would happen then.
Despite these nightmare scenarios, it will be interesting to see both how the poker world responds to the announcement and how the event ultimately plays out. Hopefully all goes well and the poker world is able to enjoy an unexpected holiday gift.