Will Skill Kill The 2018 World Series of Poker?

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The 2018 World Series of Poker kicked off in Las Vegas, Nevada on Wednesday with big hopes it can continue to put up record-breaking numbers.

But if the public paid any attention to the massive high roller event down the street that preceded it, and common sense can finally prevail, entry numbers should actually be down this year.

The 2017 WSOP saw a total of 120,995 entries over 74 bracelet events last summer. A number that was up more than 12 percent over 2016. In fact, the average field size saw a big jump, from 1,563 entries in 2016 to 1,635 entries last year.

More entries mean more money on the line, and the total prize pool for all events at the 2017 WSOP reached a whopping $231,010,874. A number that made the 2017 WSOP the biggest in the event’s almost 50-year history.

With 78 bracelet events on the schedule for 2018, all signs indicate the 2018 WSOP is ready to make a run at those record numbers. However, if the recreational players, weekend warriors and slots addicts who have traditionally helped field sizes soar at the WSOP can finally figure out how much the game has changed over the past few years, there’s very little chance it will get there.

The poker boom

Poker’s boom in popularity in the early 2000s was born out of the idea that anyone can win. There’s probably zero chance of you beating Tiger Woods in a round of golf. You’re a huge favorite to lose ten out ten sets of tennis versus Roger Federer. But as Chris Moneymaker helped prove in the 2003 WSOP Main Event, an amateur can take on the pros at poker, and maybe with a little luck, beat them at their own game.

Regardless of skill level, amateur poker players, home game heroes, and anyone who has ever played Blackjack and knows there are 52 cards in a deck, immediately started flocking to the WSOP hoping to find that kind of luck. Entry numbers in WSOP events rose dramatically, and for the most part, have been climbing ever since.

Luck played a major factor in poker’s first few boom years. However, professional players dedicated to working on their games persevered and seemed to come out ahead in the end.

A few years later, things changed. Many of those pros started coaching, sharing the skill sets they’d developed, and teaching the game to others. The online training site and live poker seminar industry exploded. The average amateur improved exponentially. Tournament fields got infinitely tougher.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to everyone getting better at poker. Luck became a major factor again.

The truth is, once skill levels even out among players, luck can quickly become the game’s only determining factor.

Skill makes a comeback

Of course, the top professionals in the game didn’t take this lying down. They fought back against the phenomenon. They did it by working harder, studying more, and developing a stronger poker skill set than anyone ever has before them. Everyone got better, and the best got even better than them.

Plus, over the past few years, technological advancements have helped them get even better.

The best players in the game can now input every situation imaginable into computer solver programs that spit out game theory optimal (GTO) solutions. Some are spending even more time studying this information than they are playing the game. And they’re finding great success doing it.

Now, more than ever before, poker is a game of skill again.

Few events have proved that more than the 2018 Super High Roller Bowl taking place at Aria Resort & Casino in the days before the WSOP kicked off. Particularly the story behind Daniel Negreanu and his run all the way to second place.

Coming into the event with more than $36 million in career tournament earnings, Negreanu was on top of poker’s all-time money list. His consistency over a 20-year career has always stood as a testament that skill is more important than luck.

Negreanu has yet to make a WSOP Main Event final table. However, when the Mike McDermott character from the 1998 poker film Rounders mentioned the same players making the final table of the WSOP Main Event every year, it turns out he was talking about Negreanu. Or at least the type of consistent poker skill he’s displayed over the past two decades.

Negreanu goes GTO

Negreanu admitted he was outplayed in the Poker Masters series at Aria last year by a group of Germans players dominating the high roller scene lately. As a result, he made a commitment to focus on high roller events.

He set his sites on the 2018 Super High Roller Bowl, hired a team of coaches schooled in the solver/GTO style of play and went to work.

An old dog by poker standards, Negreanu was able to learn some new tricks. He used them to pick up $3 million for his Super High Roller Bowl runner-up finish this week. That brought his career total up to $39,546,093 and widened the gap between him and the rest of the world on top of the all-time money list.

Of course, he couldn’t beat a red-hot Justin Bonomo, who picked up $5 million for the win. Also well schooled in the new solver/GTO style of play, Bonomo has moved up to third on that all-time money list with $31,941,295 in earnings. This thanks to the incredible $13,907,138 he’s raked in so far this year.

Skill rises again

Both players’ success is indicative of the state of the game today. The pendulum has clearly swung back towards skill.

Sure, high roller events are small. They only attract the best players on the planet, making it hard to compare them to WSOP events. But don’t be fooled into thinking the players at the top of the WSOP food chain aren’t following Bonomo and Negreanu’s lead.

The players winning bracelets these days are the ones studying solver outcomes harder than anyone else. They’re the ones putting in the work and developing the skills it takes to win consistently.

It’s now to the point where those hoping to get lucky might as well just stay home. If they finally come to their senses and do, entry numbers at the 2018 WSOP will be down significantly.

Martin Derbyshire

About

Martin Derbyshire has more than ten years of experience reporting on the poker, online gambling, and land-based casino industries for a variety of publications including Bluff Magazine, PokerNews, and PokerListings. He has traveled extensively, attending tournaments and interviewing major players in the gambling world.