Over the past few years, entry fees for poker tournaments with medium-size buy-ins have increased from around 10% of the buy-in amount to as much as 25% and 30%, and sometimes even more for smaller tournaments. These fees can add up to as much as a first-place payoff for the casino, and that’s too many golden eggs in one basket.
A typical $300 buy-in tournament before the 2003 poker boom cost a player $330 to enter, with $300 going to the prize pool and $30 to the house. Often, each player would get a free meal, a hat, or other casino-branded item with their entry. If 200 players entered, the casino made $6,000, and first place paid about $20,000. In a recent major multi-day tournament, first place paid just under $250,000, and the casino’s takeout was nearly the same.
This trend takes too much money out of players’ pockets compared to other casino offerings. Poker tournaments now have a higher takeout than horse racing, instead of being only slightly higher than sports betting and table games. This has a negative impact on the gaming industry as a whole, as players enter fewer brick-and-mortar tournaments and turn to other entertainment choices, or, if they have the option, play online poker instead. In order to retain players and acquire new ones, casinos need to strike a better balance between entry fees and buy-ins, and give players more value for their money.
While some casinos still provide tournament entrants with vouchers, food coupons or promotional items, most give nothing back to the player. That’s a lost opportunity to build player relationships and casino loyalty. Poker players have many choices when it comes to spending their hard-earned money, and most enjoy games besides poker as well.
Casinos should rethink their marketing strategies and return to using poker tournaments as a low-rake proposition or even a loss leader to encourage both new and returning players to spend their gaming dollars at their property.
Online poker tournaments have low entry fees, require no tokes and are available at the click of a mouse, while brick-and-mortar tournament players have expenses above and beyond the high entry fees. In addition to the extra time invested, live players also pay for transportation, food and lodging, and are expected to toke an additional 3% after winning a tournament. That adds up quickly, and when the entry fees alone for three or four tournaments equal an entire tournament buy-in, we’re killing the goose too.
Another challenge our industry faces is tournaments that offer too many rebuys and re-entries. These multi-day events, with as many as 20 qualifying sessions, dilute the fields and reduce the importance of skill. When deep-pocketed players have the opportunity to enter the same tournament over and over again if they fail, playing good poker becomes secondary to getting lucky.
I’ve seen players walk away from a short stack at the last re-entry opportunity so they could start fresh with a full stack when play resumes. That’s not what tournament poker is all about. These events may have marquee value, but they aren’t good for individual players or poker as a whole.
In 2006, I started the Midnight Madness tournament at the Normandie Casino, attracting a core group of players. They drove from all over town to play, but as it was a no-limit tournament, players occasionally lost their chips on the first hand and wanted a second chance after their late, long drive. I decided to allow players to re-enter, but only at the break. If they did re-enter, they came in as a new player – full stack, full buy-in and full entry fee.
This gave players a second chance, but not a third, fourth or fifth. By allowing only one re-entry, and allowing it only at the break, I was able to maintain the integrity of the game and keep the players happy. With this model, deep-pocket players can’t buy their way to the money with multiple crapshoots, and players who can’t afford to or don’t want to re-enter still get a fair shot.
For amateurs, live tournaments are a way to gain experience, enjoy the thrill of poker, and have a chance to win. Professional players are always looking for an edge, and gravitate toward events where they can use their considerable skills to exploit weaker players. Unlimited re-entry tournaments give amateurs less value and a smaller chance of winning, which discourages them from playing future tournaments.
When those players leave the pool, the difficulty level increases for professionals, and multiple re-entries reduce their edge even further. When that edge disappears, pros will hold out for better opportunities, including online poker.
We can use tournament poker to attract and retain a quality player base, but we need to re-examine the fee structure, and make re-buy and re-entry events an occasional diversion instead of a poker staple. If we do, we’ll help ensure the long-term health of our favorite game.
Edited by Steve Schwab [email protected].
Robert Turner is a legendary poker player and billiard marketing expert, best known for inventing the game of Omaha poker and introducing it to Nevada in 1982 and to California in 1986. In the year 2000, he created World Team Poker, the first professional league for poker. He has over 30 years experience in the gaming industry and is co-founder of Crown Digital Games. Twitter @thechipburnerRobert can be reached at [email protected].