The $10,000 Lottery Ticket

This week someone will win the unofficial World Championship of Poker, the World Series of Poker “Main Event,” a $10,000 buy-in no-limit Hold ’em tournament. Never mind that other, bigger buy-in tournaments — the $25,000 World Poker Tour Championship and the $50,000 buy-in multi-game “HORSE” tournament at the World Series — attract the most elite fields. The World Series $10K tourney has tradition on its side, as well as the collective tacit agreement among the competitors that the guy (a woman has never won) who triumphs over all the other entrants may call himself World Champion until the following year. 

In addition to the title, the winner will pocket more than $8 million. Every contestant who makes the final table will earn nearly $1 million. Amateur enthusiasts can get rich in less than a week.

More than six thousand hopefuls congregated at the Rio Hotel and Casino and bought their $10,000 lottery ticket. I wasn’t one of them.

Many years ago, before “the poker boom” fueled by television and the Internet played poker semi-professionally — enough so that I was compelled to file tax returns declaring my gambling winnings. I’ve written books on the subject. And I talk about the game on television broadcasts, although these may soon be going the way of the polar ice caps thanks to pernicious legislation spearheaded by our legislative nannies in the Senate. A trip to Las Vegas for the World Series is supposed to be my hajj, and the Rio Casino the new Mecca. So why the absence?

A decade ago, before the deluge of instructional books and hole-card cameras and poker Web sites, a relatively small group of us knew some of the tricks of tournament poker and had a demonstrable edge over the rest of the relatively small field. Today, I doubt I have any edge on anyone, including youngsters who have played but a year or two on their computer. The average player is exponentially better at poker than he was 10 years ago. There’s almost nothing I know that every other decent player doesn’t know, too — especially if he’s been watching the hundreds (maybe thousands) of hours of TV broadcasts that illustrate how accomplished competitors win. The experts who execute better, who make more accurate decisions, probably have a small advantage over the average player, but certainly not enough that the edge will manifest itself in a short lifetime of World Championship trials. Winning this tournament — and almost every other large poker tournament these days — is a matter of catching a positive fluctuation on what math mavens like to call a “high variance” event. In other words, the highly lauded sociopaths that we regularly watch playing cards on TV are indeed better gamblers than the average punter. But put these “superstars” in a gigantic field of halfway decent competitors and their advantage isn’t worth very much in long-term monetary gain.

Most “professionals” delude themselves into believing they are better than everyone else is. Unfortunately, that’s not logically possible. (Note how many well-known players plunk down $50,000 to compete in the HORSE event against a field of putative champions, where there’s hardly a soft spot in the whole tournament.) Over the long run, as with almost every other gambling venture, the big winner is the House, which skims off a small and steady percentage of the money being passed back and forth between relatively evenly matched opponents.

So if there’s nothing really profitable in playing big poker tournaments, isn’t the sheer fun of the experience worth it? If I hadn’t already played in several World Championships, I might feel as much. But having been there, winning and losing, celebrating and mourning, dreaming and cursing, the prospect of seven straight days of tournament poker — and the intense concentration the event requires — has almost no appeal to me. I used to want to win the thing. But I know for certain I don’t have what it takes, either in skill, stamina, or interest. To spend $10,000 to assuage an ego or uphold an image seems to me a ridiculous extravagance.

Whoever wins the event will be dutifully portrayed by ESPN as some sort of genius, a daring courageous imaginative brilliant brave determined clever logo-wearing warrior. In fact, he will be someone who got unfathomably lucky. Having forsworn my $10,000 raffle chance, it won’t be me.

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