Guarantee poker tournaments attract plenty of attention

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By Scott Long

It was shortly after 4 a.m., and players were starting to line up. As the evening night gave way to the morning sun, the scene was described by Nolan Dalla of the World Series of Poker as more like a college football game tailgate party, with Frisbees flying and lawn chairs everywhere.

And then … bedlam.

By the time the Palm Beach Kennel Club swung open its doors, the friendly crowd had started pushing and shoving, jockeying to get as close to the front of the line as possible. Places in line were selling for $1,000 each before security to put an end to it.

In the end, dozens of players went home with nothing more than a valuable lesson to preregister for a tournament if they want to play in it. … especially if the tournament is a $555 WSOP Circuit event … with a guaranteed prize pool of $1 million.

As more tournament directors start to back up their events with guaranteed money, it’s likely we’ll again see a scene like the one that played out in West Palm Beach, Fla., on the final of three Day 1s in what resulted in the largest prize pool for a non-championship WSOPC event.

“The number of guaranteed tournaments are surely on the rise,” PBKC director of poker operations Noah Carbone said. “There has shown to be a great deal of interest in guarantees. Players want large fields and big prize pools. They do not want to travel any distance for a short field.”

A month earlier, Beau Rivage poker room manager Johnny Grooms exceeded the $1 million guarantee he put on his $5,175 main event for the Million Dollar Heater and reported that attendance increased 100 percent over the opening weekend of the event because of it.

“Competitive market pressures are causing individual properties to be more aggressive in their marketing,” Grooms said. “Eventually, the properties that do not offer guarantees will suffer. In addition, the ones that do offer guarantees and fail will eventually have to stop.”

While we appear to be on the edge of new standard in major tournament guarantees, the practice is just as popular with daily and weekly events in rooms across the country. Dale Carden said his property, Horseshoe Tunica, was the first in the city to guarantee its weekly Saturday event, prompting others in the market to follow suit. Guaranteed events in these situations are vital for cash-game business.

“On slow live-action days, we will put on a guarantee money tournament to attract live play before and after tournament,” said Carden, Shoe’s tournament guru. “Live players watch to see how many signed up to take advantage of low fields and guaranteed money.”

Without a doubt, players love guaranteed events. Before making a three-hour drive or booking plane tickets, they know there will be something to play for, and if an event misses a guarantee the players enjoy an overlay. As Horseshoe Southern Indiana poker room manager Jimmy Allen told Ante Up Ambassador R.C. Thorne elsewhere in this issue, preregistration for the room’s upcoming Midwest Regional Poker Championship was up considerably because prize pools are being guaranteed this year. Lucky Chances in Colma, Calif., guarantees all of its tournaments.

“I think for the best turnout, every tourney should have at least some guaranteed prize pool,” Ante Up reader Matthew Stroud said.

If only it was that easy. Without question, there are perils in setting guarantees, not the least of which is the pressure to make sure the number of entrants cover the guarantee. While many managers say missing an event by a little bit from time to time actually is good marketing in of itself, no manager wants to make that lonely walk to the general manager’s office with the news that the poker room has to kick in a few thousand bucks or more to cover the guarantee.

Having top brass who trust you is invaluable. Carbone said that’s what helped him make the bold move of guaranteeing seven figures for a $555 tournament.

“We attribute our success to an ownership that has the full trust in the management team as well as the foresight to take a chance in a highly competitive market,” he said.

But having that vote of confidence is just the first step in pulling off a successful guarantee event. Doing the calculations on how much the guarantee should be can be wrought with peril. Shoot too high and you risk having that dreadful GM chat; shoot too low and players won’t respond.

“First, we utilize historical data to see what the event drew in the past, whether it had a guarantee before, how much we exceeded or missed the guarantee and most importantly, how were the cash games affected when spreading the event,” said Sam Quinto, tournament coordinator for the Commerce Casino near Los Angeles, which has been putting a $1 million guarantee on its $340 opening event of the Los Angeles Poker Classic for the past three years. “Did we see an increase in the cash games as the tournament players busted out?”

Then there’s the matter of scheduling. A guaranteed event can be the tiebreaker a player needs in deciding between tournaments. But a manager needs to be careful before going to war with competing properties, said Ken Lambert, director of poker operations for Choctaw Resort in Durant, Okla.

“Never guarantee a tournament when going on top of another major tournament in your market … unless you are the big dog,” Lambert said.

And finally, the overall quality of the event needs to be assured. While a big guarantee might bring in the masses, smart players know to look beyond that big number before truly evaluating whether it’s worth their time and effort to travel to the event. Structures are important, said Ben Erwin, director of poker operations for Thunder Valley Resort near Sacramento, Calif.

“Success of the guarantee is a direct reflection of the tournament structure,” he said. “The tournament player of today does not seem to be captivated by the big guarantee without a structure that rewards better play.” And it goes beyond that.

“All things being equal, it boils down to the quality of the product and the service that you offer,” Grooms said. “If you don’t offer a quality product, no guarantee can make up for it.”

— Scott Long is co-publisher of Ante Up. Email scott@anteupmagazine.com.