WSOP prize pools are down over 40% since 2019 after the first week of the series

After One Week, Some Questions About The WSOP Have Already Been Answered

Today marks the end of the first week of the World Series of Poker, which began on Sep. 30.

So far, seven events on the main schedule have played down to a winner. Six more are underway. There’s a lot of poker left to play before the series concludes on Nov. 23. Even so, we’ve already got a better picture of how the series is going to shape up.

It’s an usual year for the series in a number of ways:

  • It’s taking place at a special time, much later in the year,
  • Players must provide proof of vaccination to participate,
  • A huge slate of online bracelet events already took place over the summer, and
  • It’s probably the last run for the series at the Rio, which has been its home for nearly two decades.

That led me to pose – and attempt to answer – five questions about the series one month before it kicked off. In a nutshell, those were:

  1. What will attendance be like? Probably down.
  2. Will the Series get cancelled partway through due to COVID? Probably not.
  3. Will there be a dealer shortage? Maybe, but it will be mitigated by lower attendance.
  4. Will there be additional online bracelets? Probably not.
  5. Will the WSOP announce its new home? Call it a coin flip.

So far, I can give you more concrete answers to three of those questions. The other two are still to be determined.

10 online bracelets on a separate schedule

There’s one thing I called wrong, so let’s get that out of the way first. Online bracelets have been a part of the WSOP since 2015. However, between the summer’s two-pronged online bracelet series – one for US players, one for the international market – and the lack of an announcement by WSOP, I assumed that the fall series would be fully in person.

WSOP proved me wrong on Oct. 1. That day, it announced that there would be one or sometimes two online bracelet events each Sunday for the duration of the series, with ten such events in total. Unlike in previous years, these have their own schedule and their own numbering scheme. It’s unclear why WSOP chose to do it this way and to wait so long to announce the events.

As has been the case for several years now, the events are open to players in both Nevada and New Jersey. Delaware is excluded for regulatory reasons, and although Pennsylvania has a poker room, it hasn’t yet joined the interstate poker compact, so its players also have to sit this year out.

The first two online events took place this past weekend, starting with the second-highest buy-in on the menu: a $5,300 Freezeout. It drew a field of 156 players and produced a $780,000 prize pool. The second event was a $500 event which allowed up to three re-entries. It paid out a little over $480,000 in prize money.

Here’s what the full schedule looks like:

#Date/Time (ET)Buy-InFormat
OB-110/3 6:30 pm$5,300NLHE Freezeout
OB-210/3 8:30 pm$500NLHE 3x Re-Entry
OB-310/10 8:30 pm$400NLHE Ultra Deep 2x Re-Entry
OB-410/17 8:30 pm$888PLO 8-Max 3x Re-Entry
OB-510/24 8:30 pm$1,000NLHE Championship 2x Re-Entry
OB-610/31 8:30 pm$666NLHE 2x Re-Entry
OB-711/7 8:30 pm$3,200NLHE High Roller 8-Max 2x Re-Entry
OB-811/14 6:30 pm$7,777NLHE High Roller 1x Re-Entry
OB-911/14 8:30 pm$777NLHE 2x Re-Entry
OB-1011/21 8:30 pm$1,000NLHE Freezeout

There will also be a single, $1000 buy-in freezeout bracelet event for players in Pennsylvania, taking place on Nov. 21.

Attendance down by about a third

There’s a lot of pent-up demand for live poker, no question about that. Nonetheless, the vaccine mandate, continued concerns about COVID and difficulties with air travel all seemed likely to hold attendance back.

Though it’s still early going, numbers for the events that have run so far do seem to show that those latter factors have a more powerful effect.

Ignoring online bracelets, the first 13 in-person events of the 2019 World Series of Poker produced combined prize pools of $33.5 million. At the same point in this year’s series, the total is just $19.1 million, a drop of 41%.

Of course, directly year-to-year comparisons are tricky with the WSOP because the schedule changes so much. However, there have been a few early events which had an identical or very similar equivalent in 2019. Comparing these one-to-one, we mostly see the same trend:

  • $500 Casino Employees: -41%
  • $500 Big 50 (2019)/Reunion (2021): -60%
  • $1500 Omaha Hi/Lo 8 or Better: -21%
  • $1500 Dealer’s Choice: -35%
  • $600 Deepstack NLHE: -28%
  • $1000 Super Turbo Bounty: -1%

With the exception of that last event, attendance seems down by double-digit percentages across the board. These are all low buy-in events, mind you, but the closest comparisons we have for bigger ticket events suggest we might see a similar trend.

For instance, this year’s $10,000 Omaha Hi/Lo 8 or Better Championship got 134 entries. The 2019 version took place a bit later in the series, but got 183. That’s a drop of 27%, in line with what we’re seeing for other events.

It could be that some players are taking a wait-and-see approach. If so, and if there are no mishaps, we could see attendance pick up a bit later in the series. At the moment, however, it’s looking to be a smaller series than usual, by about a third.

10-handed play, side event cancellations

As expected, there does seem to be a bit of a shortage of dealers at the WSOP. However, as I predicted, lower attendance appears to be mitigating the problem a bit.

The most dramatic manifestation of the problem was on Monday, Oct 4, when WSOP had to cancel two non-bracelet side events early in the day: the $250 Daily Deepstack and a $580 Mega Satellite.

No specific reason was given, but it doesn’t appear to have been for a lack of interest. The three starting flights of the Reunion, which drew a combined 12,973 entries, had played out on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It seems likely that this would have stretched the staff thin, requiring a bit of a break on Monday.

Another symptom of the presumed dealer shortage is that some events have begun 10-handed. It looks as if some side events even went 10-handed to the final table. This has been the case for lower buy-in events even in previous years, but not everyone’s happy about it. Still, the dealer shortage seems to be nothing more than an inconvenience at this juncture, not a crisis.

Ryan Riess is not happy about 10-handed play

Ryan Riess/Twitter


- 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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