World Series of Poker not likely to see sports bettors

Jul 10, 2012 3:03 AM

Even the sharpest bettors in the world don’t spend 100% of their time focusing on sports. This week in particular is arguably the lightest sports betting week of the entire year.

However, in the four decades since its inception, the WSOP has grown from a tiny tournament attracting only a small handful of bettors into the modern behemoth at the Rio. It’s a true spectacle even for seasoned pros. The 2012 edition features a whopping 61 different bracelet events over a more than six week span.

This week’s article discusses how the sharpest sports bettors in the world approach the WSOP, and what makes the Main Event so special compared to any of the other bracelet tourneys.

I’ve written before about some of the similarities and differences between poker and sports betting, so I don’t intend to re-hash that here. But there is a fairly wide gap between the mentality of the typical professional sports bettor and the typical tournament poker player that merits some discussion.

By definition, professional sports bettors understand the concept of value. Sports bettors understand a significant portion of the profits they make come from what poker players would call “grinding” – slowly, methodically looking for small mathematical edges with their wagers.

For example, sports bettors look to be on the right side of a high percentage of line moves, gladly laying six points in a game they expect to close (and their numbers show) in the range of -8.

Sports bettors can and do look for longshot scores, but only as a small percentage of their overall portfolio. You’ll see an occasional 10-team parlay from a Vegas Wiseguy, but only in a situation when the parlay card offers a real overlay compared to straight bets.

Tournament poker players, on the other hand, are constantly seeking that longshot score; looking to turn a relatively small investment into a six or seven figure payday in just a few days. Not to say there aren’t legitimate overlays in the poker world as well – particularly in the Main Event. For WSOP events, every player knows they’ll have to be extremely lucky as well as extremely good in order to cash big.

The WSOP offers numerous non-bracelet events every day in addition to the major tournaments. The smallest buy-in for a bracelet tournament is $1,000, but many professionals eschew those smaller buy-in events, focusing instead on the smaller buy-in, non-bracelet events on a daily basis throughout late spring and early summer. Here’s why:

In a $1,000 bracelet event last Wednesday 4,620 people signed up. The ninth place winner needed to wade through all of those people, all the potential bad beats and incorrect decisions to reach the final table. The payday for four days worth of hard work was just over $53,800.

With only $3,000 in starting chips, facing blinds and antes that rise every hour, players faced a Herculean task. They were forced to make moves early and often throughout the event, as opposed to “grinding it out” or waiting for the rare “I flopped the nuts and I’ve got two callers” type of situation.

On the same day (like they do every day), the WSOP offered a “deep stack” tournament with a $235 buy-in (along with other deep stack tourneys with even smaller buy-ins). The levels are shorter, only 30 minutes long, but players start with $15,000 in chips, offering more time and frankly, more play for their money. Some 1,700 players signed up for the $235 deep stack, and the first place winner earned approximately $60K.

As a group, professional sports bettors are much more likely to play in the smaller buy-in, deep stack events than the smaller buy-in bracelet events. For the pros, it’s not about ego and bracelets; it’s about positive expectation opportunities. With a relatively weak field in the deep stack tourney’s, and the opportunity to cash in for a similar score 16 hours later, it’s a no-brainer which tournament opportunity sports bettors prefer.

And it’s not just sports bettors who have this mentality. I recently witnessed a $110 buy-in event with a WSOP Main Event Champion from this century, a guy who became an instant multi-millionaire (who asked not to be named in this article). He played in this small buy-in tournament not because he was broke, but because he preferred the deep stack structure it offered.

The former champ said he had only played in half a dozen bracelet events this year, concentrating on events with that rare combo of relatively weaker fields and relatively high buy-in’s. He scoffed at the idea of playing a $1k bracelet event: “You get no play for your money.”

There’s also a different mentality between sports bettors and poker players when it comes to running bad early. There isn’t a serious sports bettor in the world who hasn’t started out on an NFL Sunday by going 0-3 in the early games on occasion.

The mentality of those bettors isn’t panic – they’re grinders. They’ll have the opportunity to win their money back in the late start games, or the Sunday Night game or the Monday Night game, or even next week, next month or next season.

Poker pros tend to have a very different mentality for smaller buy-in events. If they lose their first three hands in an event, dropping half their stack in the process, you’ll often see a win or go home approach very early in the event.

Rather than slowly grinding their way back to an average stack size, these players tend to get the rest of their chips into a pot rather quickly. With so many tournaments taking place every day, their thought process is to build up a stack or move on to the next opportunity for a big score.

The Main Event is a very different story. Besides the instant fame and celebrity the November Nine final table participants receive, the Main Event pays out more players than some bracelet events have in their entire field. And there is no “micro” payout in the Main Event.

Last year, each of the 693 players who cashed received a bankroll boost of at least $19,359 – the type of payout that is a very good day even for many professional sports bettors. Eight of the nine players who were good enough and lucky enough to reach the Final Table cashed out with a million dollars or more.

In addition, the Main Event field is as weak as any in the entire WSOP. Rich guys like to play this event – athletes, actors, celebrities and just your run of the mill multi-millionaires. There are thousands of amateurs who manage to win their way into the event, via the bevy of “satellites” (smaller buy-in tournaments) here in Vegas, in the offshore poker world and in local clubs and casinos around the globe.

While amateurs can and do reach final tables and even win the Main Event on occasion (Chris Moneymaker and Jeremy Gold stand out in that regard over the past decade), in general, there is an enormous amount of “dead money” in the Main Event.

That gives professional tournament players and sharp sports bettors who understand the mathematical aspects of poker a huge edge in the Main Event. But even the best pros don’t always pony up the full $10,000 buy-in for this chance at riches and glory.

They’ll often sell off pieces of themselves to investors. The best players can “sell off” enough to get a virtual free-roll. Indeed, there are players who are good enough to get investors to spring for their entire buy-in for only 70-80% of the total payout, should they find a way to cash.

Sports bettors who play in the Main Event don’t generally get offered that level of return if they sell off their entire buy-in – only the top pros receive the best opportunities. But sports bettors tend to hedge quite a bit in these events, buying pieces of other players while selling pieces of their own tourney. That keeps the grinder mentality alive and well, offering a much higher probability of at least some small return on their investment.