LAS VEGAS — Two years ago, the World Series of Poker pulled off what many people thought was impossible. The world's most recognizable poker brand sold out a 48-seat $1 million poker tournament.
The brainchild of Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté, the first Big One for One Drop was a rousing success. The tournament raised more than $5.3 million for Laliberté's charity, the One Drop Foundation, as 28 professional poker players and 20 incredibly wealthy recreational players each contributed $111,111 of their $1 million buy-in to the cause.
After a one-year hiatus, during which the WSOP hosted an $111,111 buy-in "One Drop High Roller," the Big One for One Drop is back, and the WSOP announced plans earlier this year to expand the tournament to up to 56 players. But that cap turned out to be meaningless, as the tournament only had 42 entries, six fewer than in 2012.
"More than 40 players is always kind of the magic number," said WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart. "We wanted to give the opportunity for more (people) to be able to play, but there's no chance that we're upset about raising ($4.6 million for One Drop), having a $15 million first-place prize."
One of the major reasons for the drop-off may actually be the charity component. Most, if not all of the professional players "sell pieces" of themselves, especially for a tournament with a buy-in as hefty as the Big One. Selling their action gives investors a chance to assume some of the risk while offering the potential for an incredible reward. Exact details are unclear, but investors who backed 2012 winner Antonio Esfandiari likely got a return on their investment of 1800 percent as Esfandiari won the tournament for $18.3 million, the biggest prize in poker tournament history.
It's quite common for players to make such deals with backers, and good players can often command a higher price than what they are selling, also known as "markup." For instance, a player with a history of winning might sell action in the $10,000 WSOP Main Event at "1.2," meaning it would cost an investor $1,200 to claim 10 percent of whatever the player might win in the event.
However, with a seven-figure buy-in, some professional players that hoped to play were shut out, as they struggled to raise enough money to do so. With more than 11 percent of the tournament entry fees coming out of the prize pool as a charitable contribution, most backers weren't interested in buying action from players asking for any markup. Even Phil Hellmuth, who finished fourth in the Big One two years ago, couldn't quite pull it off. He tried to register at the very end of the late registration period on Sunday night, but when he showed up at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, $130,000 that he thought was waiting for him at the cage could not be found or verified.
In 2012, wealthy businessmen who didn't have to worry about selling their action came out in force, representing more than 41 percent of the field. On the face of it, these recreational players did well. Four of the nine in-the-money finishes came from non-pros, meaning the wealthy recreational players held their own, representing 44.4 percent of the in-the-money finishes. But tournament poker payouts are incredibly top-heavy. With Esfandiari, runner-up Sam Trickett and Hellmuth leading the way, the five pros who cashed raked in 79.3 percent of the prize pool.
Similarly, last year, pros took home 75.5 percent of the money in the $111,111 One Drop High Roller, with just six businessmen making the money in the top-24.
Don't think the pro-heavy payouts haven't been noticed. This year, just 13 wealthy amateurs entered the event. Of the 20 recreational players that entered the tournament in 2012, only eight returned (Laliberté, Rick Salomon, Cary Katz, John Morgan, David Einhorn, Talal Shakerchi, Paul Newey and Brandon Steven). Dan Shak, who played the $1 million event two years ago, tweeted that he wouldn't play this year because it was "too painful" to lose that much.
"Obviously we'd love to see more businessmen, but I think a few (businessmen who played) in 2012, you'd have to put in a once-in-a-lifetime category," said Stewart. "I haven't asked (Brandon) Steven or (Cary) Katz or (Paul) Newey or Talal Shakerchi their intentions, but would almost guarantee you that if we said we were doing it again next year, they'd be some of the first guys in there. They love the chance to battle the best, stare them down and swim with the sharks."
If the tournament struggles to draw wealthy recreational players, will the professionals still be interested in putting down seven figures to play in a high-variance poker tournament? Will backers still be interested in investing their money? Only time will tell, and not even Stewart is ready to commit to holding the event in 2016.
"We are going to try to operate this event to the best of our ability, make sure it's great, and then have a debrief and talk and see if we're going to bring it back and under what kind of parameters," said Stewart.
There is, however, a high likelihood that the $111,111 One Drop High Roller, which drew 166 players last year, will make a return. In addition to having a much smaller buy-in, the One Drop High Roller includes just a 3 percent donation to One Drop taken from prize pool.
"We realize that if you're trying to sell action or raise funds with backers, compensating for an 11 percent takeout is not easy," said Stewart. "But again, there are people that want to enter in large part because of the charity component, that wouldn't play if there wasn't a significant charity component. There's something to it being almost unfathomable just to be able to post the buy-in. This Big One for One Drop is certainly not for everybody, but that's what makes it special."
Regardless of whether or not the $1 million tournament ends up on the 2016 schedule, the WSOP plans to continue its relationship with One Drop. Don't be surprised to see six-figure buy-in events with a charitable donation taken out of the prize pool in WSOP events overseas in the future, and the "Little One for One Drop" will also likely continue to be a staple of the WSOP schedule.
"We're not sitting here freaking out about six seats when the scorecard is much different," said Stewart. "We have a much longer-term outlook at things. What we're trying to do is connect this cause and this organization to the poker community for the long term. Whether or not the Big One continues, we're committed to that."
Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd has covered the gambling industry since 2006. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi. Follow him on Twitter @CasinoCity_AT.