The sun is shining, birds are singing in the trees, and the world is opening back up again. Casino after casino has reopened, and many states have expanded to nine or ten-handed poker. Finally, after a long, hard wait, we get back our beloved poker tournaments. Or do we?
We live in New England, which we once named one of the five best places in the country to live if you love poker. In February 2020 there were no fewer than seven poker rooms hosting large tournaments (which I define as regularly having over 50 entrants) in New England. Today there is one (Filotimo Casino in Manchester, New Hampshire, if you are interested). All but one of those businesses are still open. Two, Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield, continue to thrive as casinos, but have dropped poker “indefinitely”. The other four are seating as many cash tables as space will allow, but have decided not to resume tournaments “at this time”.
Recently I reached out to other players to see whether this is a local phenomenon (time to move?) or whether tournaments have been back-burnered elsewhere in the country as well. Reports indicate that this is, in fact, a widespread concern. Players reported a dearth of tournaments in places as varied as Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, Seattle, Detroit, and even LA. However, there are some areas where tournament poker still thrives. Florida, Texas, Maryland, and of course Vegas all have plenty of tournaments on offer.
In the course of updating the Open Poker Rooms posts that we write for Advanced Poker Training, we see further evidence of tournament losses. Many places that we have previously visited for tournament action, such as Dania Beach in Florida, The Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, and the Playground in Montreal are not currently offering tournament action. In California, 44 out of 65 poker rooms with five or more tables have reopened for business. However, there are only eight rooms offering tournaments state-wide. Even mainstays like the Bay 101 and the Bicycle Casino are saying “no thanks” to tournament action.
Countrywide, of the 199 poker rooms that held poker tournaments in February 2020, only 55 do today. In other words, close to three-quarters of rooms which previously held tournaments are either closed or cash only today.
We also see a reduction in the overall number of tournaments in rooms that have returned to tournament action. Rooms that once hosted daily tournaments may only be offering tournaments on weekends. Others, such as the Aria which previously offered multiple tournaments per day are down to one.
What is going on here? And what is an avid tournament poker player to do?
Why Have All the Poker Tournaments Gone?
Cash Play Makes More Money Than Tournaments
Everyone knows that poker tournaments are loss leaders; they don’t make much money for the cardroom. Also, many dealers hate them because a good dealer can make much more in tips on a cash table. Currently, there is a huge pent-up demand for poker. Even smaller poker rooms that might have hosted only two or three cash tables in the before times are filling all of their open tables with cash players, with extensive wait lists as well.
Many poker rooms continue to limit the number of players on cash tables. In New Hampshire, despite permission to run full-ring games, most rooms are seating only eight players at a cash table. And for a while, they were only seating seven. For a discussion of how this affects the rake (and thus profitability), see our article on poker rake.Countrywide, of the 199 poker rooms that held poker tournaments in February 2020, only 55 do todayClick To Tweet
As in many other underpaid professions, dealers have been slow to return to work. In New England, almost every card room is advertising for dealers. Many rooms point to staffing difficulties as a reason that they have not resumed tournament play. If rooms have limited staff, those dealers are going to work cash tables, not tournaments.
Rooms Have Closed or Shrunk
There are just fewer rooms open today than there were two years ago. Overall, the country has lost close to 31% of its poker rooms to permanent or “temporary” (only time will tell) closure. In California alone, 21 out of 65 poker rooms remain closed at this time. Even Vegas has lost at least 12 rooms in the past two years, including such mainstays as the Mirage, Excalibur, and Cannery Row.
Many of the poker rooms that remain have removed tables and reduced capacity. Some in response to pandemic safety laws and guidelines. Others to increase overall revenue by replacing poker tables with slots or table games. As the poker world has opened back up, rooms have been slow to bring those lost tables back in. With cash waitlists burgeoning, rooms are hesitant to return to poker tournament play.
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How Do We Get Our Poker Tournaments Back?
Compensate Dealers Better
More than ever, low wage employees are questioning “Is this job worth it?”. While there are definitely jobs more unpleasant than dealing poker, it is not a career that engenders high levels of satisfaction. Coping with irrational players blaming dealers for peeling off a two-outer in the river is not fun. Being a good dealer requires a wide range of skills, from dexterity, to math skills, memory of game rules, and most importantly, the ability to deftly handle a wide variety of interpersonal styles. Dealers often get paid rock-bottom hourly rates (+ tips). As we discussed above, tournaments functionally limit the critical tip portion of their compensation.
We don’t know all of the economics of running a poker room, but increasing dealers’ base hourly compensation should be explored. Additionally, a “dealer add-on” – a small additional “optional” entry cost that buys you more starting chips whose proceeds go directly to dealers – should be a feature of most tournaments. Players rarely object. Spending $100 for a starting stack of 30,000 chips, and adding just $10 for an additional 10,000 chips feels like a deal. This basically assures that there is a 9% dealer “tip” built-in to the tournament. Of course, most players who finish in the money will tip on top of the add on.
Enforce Better Treatment of Dealers
Youth soccer in our area instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy for coaches, players, or fans complaining to referees. If you misbehave, you’re tossed from the field. Games became more pleasant when people accepted this as the standard, and referee jobs more tolerable. Poker rooms should institute similar measures. If there is a rule issue, politely address it. Any yelling, name-calling, threats, or aggressive action, gets you tossed from the building. If the behavior is bad enough, you’re suspended from the poker room, and in the most severe cases, you’re gone forever. Some rooms are already good about this. Many overlook unacceptable treatment of dealers and other players. Creating a better work environment could help attract more dealers.
Embrace Poker Tournaments as Loss Leaders
Prior to the pandemic, card rooms were more likely to understand that tournaments were loss leaders. They brought in large crowds, particularly in low volume times – weeknights and early on weekend days. Those players often knocked out of the tournaments and then played cash, table games, or slots. They also bought food and drinks, or maybe did a little sports betting. Now rooms are less likely to acknowledge this important tournament role. Reminding ourselves that tournaments play an important role in creating a vibrant card room would greatly assist in bringing back this option.
Accept Larger Buy-Ins
We love cheap tournaments with great entertainment value. New Hampshire used to be littered with tournaments between $50 and $100 entries that had decent structures for such low buy-ins. However, as much as we’d love to see those back, perhaps they are just not viable.
A $50 tournament with a 25% rake yields the house a mere $12 per player. Go to $150 with a slightly lower 20% rake and the house gets $30 per player. On the player side, a higher percentage of the buy-in goes to the prize pool, which is a positive. And, of course, adding to our dealer compensation ideas above, higher payouts mean bigger tips. Sure, some fields may shrink, but we doubt by two-thirds, so the prize pool and tipping should increase overall.
As much as it pains us to say, increasing buy-ins may be the only answer to reviving tournaments in some locations.
Professional Tournaments Return
Very little is more gratifying right now than seeing the WPT tour schedule start to fill up. That is, other than knowing that the World Series of Poker will return in 2021! Major poker tournaments are returning in the latter half of 2021 along with the excitement that surrounds them. That energy is likely to create increased interest in and demand for tournament play in general. Some rooms may start to feel the pressure to meet that demand.
Voice Your Desires
Finally, there is no downside to speaking up and letting companies know what you want. If enough people want something, there are avenues for revenue. If you like tournament poker, and rooms in your area have been slow to bring it back, let them know you want it. Email, call, or post to their Twitter account. Let rooms know how much you loved playing there in the past and ask when tournaments will return. With a little bit of luck, perhaps we won’t have to wait too long.
If you are looking for an open poker room right now, you can check out our recently revised Map of Poker Rooms in the United States. To find rooms hosting tournaments, you can check out our series of open poker rooms posts at Advanced Poker Training, or refer to Poker Atlas.
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