Poker Tournament Changes Are Chasing Away Amateur Players

Guest Post by Steve Ruddock, April 9, 2014

lady luck and poker tournaments changesChanges to poker tournaments in recent years have increased the advantage skilled players hold over amateur players. Because of these changes poker tournaments are now less appealing to casual players who depend on a visit or two from Lady Luck to get them to the final table.

Poker is certainly a game of skill, nobody would argue that, but there is also a strong element of luck involved that makes bad players overestimate their skill and keeps them coming back to the tables. It's this precarious balance between skillfulness and luck that has allowed poker to thrive for close to 200 years.

However, in a desperate attempt to preserve the record-setting numbers from the Poker Boom years, a slew of recent structural changes to tournaments has tipped the balance too far in the direction of skillfulness.

These attempts to maintain the attendance and prize-pool numbers of the past through poker tournaments changes are part of the reason the number of casual players entering tournaments is on the decline, as more and more of these players realize they are simply outclassed and no longer have a chance to win.


When tournaments were balanced

The best example of the balance between skill and luck occurred during the Poker Boom.

The tournaments of the early and mid 2000s were sold as a skillful test of one's ability, but they were also touted as contests where anyone could win with just a little bit of good fortune. During that time we had the perfect mix of poker legends, up-and-comers, and rank amateurs winning tournaments, perpetuating the skill and the luck of these events.

Let's not forget that Chris Moneymaker wasn't just an amateur player who won his way into the World Series of Poker Main Event on a $39 online satellite. The WSOP Main Event was Moneymaker's FIRST ever live poker tournament! Moneymaker's win was unbelievable on top of improbable.

Chris Moneymaker

If poker becomes too skillful it suffers the same fate as chess, gin, or even backgammon, where there is simply no possibility of a Moneymaker. The lesser skilled players simply know that they cannot win and therefore have no interest in playing. This is the current direction we are moving due to increased competition among poker tours.


Attendance isn't down

As poker tournaments proliferated and competition for players became rampant, organizers of the major events started fighting for players, and the players they went after were the professionals.

When you compare the numbers from poker tournaments in 2005 to those of today it would seem that fewer and fewer players are participating, but this is not the case. In fact it's quite the opposite. The reason for this is the market is saturated, supersaturated actually, with dozens of poker tours, often holding concurrent events and fighting for the same customers.

When this started to occur, the theory was that if you could attract a strong loyal base of players it would be easier to attract more players. Poker tours and tournament directors started devising more skillful structures and rules that would appeal to the pros, especially the bigger names.

Here are some of the changes they implemented in an attempt to appeal to the professional player by making their events more skill-oriented. Unfortunately these changes had the unintended consequence of turning off casual players who see the game as unbeatable.


Slower structures

Perhaps the most obvious way poker tournaments have moved further into the skill column is in the length of time they take to play out and the increased starting stack size.

It's no secret that the longer the levels, and the longer a tournament remains deep-stacked, the more skillful it is, and both of these changes have ushered in a new era where the tournaments are simply far too skillful for amateur players to navigate through.

One of the reasons amateur players were able to have some success during the Poker Boom years was because most of the tournaments were relatively fast, or at least faster than the structures of today. So instead of needing to catch lightning in a bottle ten times they only need a two or three lucky cards to make the final table.

Additionally, these slow structures, with tournaments that take a week to play out, make it virtually impossible for amateur players to even entertain the thought of participating.


sit down to play against amateur players

As Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton said back in 2010: "You lose value when you shut out the players you want in the tournaments, such as the businessman who cannot take a week off work and amateurs who can't be away from their families for a week."

Essentially, if you are not a pro player these tournaments are not in the least bit appealing.



This is a hot topic of debate amongst pros, with some players like Matt Glantz feeling the pros outweigh the cons and even explaining why the propensity for some pros to reenter multiple times is -EV.

Other pros like Vanessa Selbst see it differently, saying that "… almost every WPT is now a re-entry and it's terrible for poker longevity," on her Twitter account. 

Vanessa Selbst tweet

While this is a great and intriguing debate, when it comes to causal players it's an exercise in futility, and here is why.

To a casual player the idea that pros get multiple shots in a tournament while they can only afford one is seen as gross miscarriage of justice, regardless of the real-world EV of reentering.


Confusing structures and rules

Another recent debate in the tournament world is in regards to new interpretations of rules (ranging from when and what you can say, to the intent of a bet, to the distance from your chair you need to be when the first card is dealt) that do nothing but confuse the causal player.

Furthermore, some of these new structures (accumulators, and tournaments with multiple starting days where you take your largest stack to Day 2) are just as confusing. Casual players are far more likely to make an egregious error and look foolish because of the tournament structure than a professional player… and nobody likes to look foolish.


easy poker tournament

Casual players don't really have a voice

While we often hear the gripes of an Allen Kessler ("Where is the 700/1,400 level? Why is the juice 18% in this tournament when such and such casino has one with 15% juice on the same day? Last year the food voucher covered the full price of the buffet; now it's just $10?") or the procedural and structural recommendations of a Daniel Negreanu, we never really get to hear from the recreational player.

Casual players don't follow every forum thread or understand the minutiae of a structure sheet. Because of this, we don't necessarily understand what their motivations for playing are, or what appeals to them.

The voice of the casual player has been lost in the shuffle and we need to rediscover what it is they want from poker tournaments.

rebuy tweet


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