Hard Rock’s miss and Colman’s image

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Why Hard Rock missing its guarantee is good for poker

By Scott Long

The chatter started as early as Day 1A. It ramped up on Day 1B and by the time registration closed on Day 1C the poker world was talking about it. The Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open Main Event missed its guarantee by $2.5 million, an amount more than the prize pool of many major events.
Heads will roll, some said. We’ll never see another $10 million guarantee, others said. But now that we’ve had almost a month to reflect on one of the year’s biggest stories, is it possible to make a case this overlay is good for poker?

I believe so.

Why did it miss?

Before we can look to the future, we need to understand the past. When Seminole Gaming announced a $10 million guarantee for last year’s event, I thought it was too aggressive. It had a short timeframe to climb a huge mountain. And I don’t believe I was alone in that worry. I wanted it to succeed, for sure, but I was far from convinced it would.

But the Hard Rock made believers out of all of us. It’s cliche to say “crushed the guarantee,” but that’s exactly what it did. Blair Hinkle walked away with $1,745,245 from a prize pool that was just shy of $12 million, and immediately talk began of what Seminole Gaming would do to top it in 2014.

While players bandied about thoughts of a $15 million, or even $20 million guarantee, $10 million still is an impressive number. With a year of planning, the sequel seemed poised be more impressive.
So what happened?

SCHEDULING? Much criticism has been lobbed at Seminole Gaming for moving the event back a week to take advantage of Labor Day weekend. This put it in competition with the long-established River series at WinStar World in Oklahoma, which saw 215 more entries than in 2013 to its $2,500 main event that boasted a $1 million top prize. A new $1,100 event in Montreal attracted 1,063 entries, an EPT series with a buy-in similar to Hard Rock’s wrapped up a day prior in Barcelona and a new World Series of Poker Circuit event played out about an hour up the road in West Palm Beach, likely sapping some of South Florida’s cumulative bankroll just weeks before the Hard Rock event. A number of other major events — some of them new since 2013 — were held elsewhere in the United States in August. All told, the extra competition might have cost the Hard Rock the 500 or so entries it needed to hit the guarantee.

But as Larry Mullin, chief operating officer of Seminole Gaming, told Nick Sortal of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “I think we’re the competition. We’re trying to be the biggest in the world.” That’s not arrogance. When you put a $10 million guarantee on your event, and it’s a success the first year, trying to find a hole in the tournament calendar should only be a concern for competitors.

RE-ENTRY BACKLASH? Famed tournament director Matt Savage, who ran the event in 2013 but not this year, took to Facebook not long after the event to implore casinos, tournament directors and players to work together to make sure series are successes. It wasn’t a criticism of Hard Rock, nor was it a call for suggestions, but many posters offered opinions nonetheless. By far, the consensus was that the trend of multiple re-entries that bloats prize pools and guarantees is starting to get a black eye, especially from recreational players.

In 2013, Justin Bonomo fired five bullets in South Florida to earn his $1,163,500 runner-up finish. That’s $26,500 in buy-ins, enough to buy a new car. But no recreational player can afford to invest $26,500 in a tournament. Most can’t even afford $5,300 and have to satellite in and, thus, believe they’re at a bigger disadvantage than they already are skill-wise. What we might be seeing is a loss of that section of the market. For a $5,300 tournament, it’s not a large section, but if it doesn’t show up and you miss your guarantee, you have to respect it.

EXCITEMENT WORN OFF? The most plausible reason for the miss is the event no longer has its “new car smell.” Last year, simply the announcement of the guarantee had the world abuzz, and that chatter reached a fever pitch as the days counted down to August. In a cruel twist of fate, the success of the inaugural event contributed to the disappointment of the second. Many players likely attended last year with dreams of a $20 million pool or a massive overlay. Both may have been disappointed.

Those hoping for the eye-popping prize pool last year may have gone elsewhere this year, Likewise, those hoping for dead money stayed home this year after last year’s guarantee was never in jeopardy.
And why might it be good that it did?

No one ever wants to miss a guarantee by $2.5 million. There are no happy faces in Seminole Gaming offices. But looking at how this unfortunate development might have some positive effect on poker goes beyond applying lipstick to a pig.

SEMINOLES DON’T FAIL OFTEN …: The Seminole Tribe is one of the unflinching success stories in all of gaming. When I moved to the Tampa Bay area in 2000, the tribe was dealing poker for quarters in a bingo hall. Today, its gaming operations are so successful it bought and re-energized the Hard Rock brand into a global juggernaut. The tribe hires some of the smartest executives in the industry. They simply don’t fail often.

Against that backdrop, it’s hard to imagine Seminole executives neither retreating nor not pulling out all of the stops to make this event a success in 2015. And, a success, mind you, likely without budging on that $10 million guarantee. Seminole Gaming has been clear from last year’s announcement that this is a long-term product. Viewed as a football game, the Hard Rock Poker Open took an early lead in the first quarter, perhaps rested on its laurels and fell behind in the second quarter. But without question, it will make the necessary adjustments at halftime to score big in the third and fourth quarters.

“We’re not in this for one tournament; we’re in it for duration,” Mullin told the Sun-Sentinel. “We think we have room to improve across the board.”

A $10 million guarantee next year and having the success (or greater) it had in 2013 will show the resilience of the poker economy and the confidence of those who host tournaments.

… AND EVEN IF THEY DO: I repeat, no one likes to miss a guarantee by $2.5 million. But if any company can weather it with little concern, Seminole Gaming can. Its six Florida casinos alone are on track to earn $2 billion in revenue this year. That $2.5 million easily could’ve been a lucky run by a whale at the baccarat table. Just as at the poker table when you’ve run your stack up to a mountain, you’re able to withstand bigger swings because your stack is bigger. The Seminoles are playing the game of poker with a monster stack. If you’re not prepared to make what others might deem a loose call from time to time when you have a big stack, you’re not using your weapons to their potential.

Beyond that, the rest of the Hard Rock Poker Open series was largely a success, starting with an opening event that attracted 2,888 players. Even after deducting the $50K added to the pool to settle a payout dispute in the High Roller event and $96,400 to cover two other missed guarantees, the overall series earned just shy of $420,000 in entry fees. Factor in satellite entry fees, cash-game rake, table games and slot machine wins and revenue from food, beverage, hotel rooms, shops and attractions, and the overall loss, if there even was one, starts to look much smaller.

Despite the fears of some players, Seminole Gaming didn’t renege on the guarantee. As tournament directors told Ante Up in our April 2012 issue, sometimes missing guarantees, and paying out, is a good thing. It acts as a bit of advertising, showing the poker world your guarantees are aggressive and reinforcing players’ faith in the game when the shortfall is honored.

IT’S PROMPTING CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE FUTURE OF POKER: This is perhaps the most important positive result to come from the overlay. Players are talking. Directors are talking. Casino owners are talking. Some of those conversations might not end well for players. No doubt, some casinos will rethink guaranteeing tournaments or even the amounts. Others might be so drastic as to not offer series anymore, or fewer. But by and large, the conversations going on in poker rooms and executive suites will be positive for the game.

As evidenced by Savage’s Facebook post, we’re seeing rooms experiment with freezeouts or limited re-entry tournaments. The Ante Up World Championship at Thunder Valley Casino Resort in August allowed only one re-entry per player and earned rave reviews even from players who normally re-enter four or five times. Several other events across the country are trying new variations as well. Without that re-entry money, prize pools are likely to be smaller, as will the guarantees. Players are going to have to accept that for the trend to take off. But events that take those risks, and players who accept them, might find that the series is more enjoyable and the play more important.

Rooms are getting more creative in how they structure tournaments to appeal to more players and still offer a conversation-worthy guarantee. Mo Fathi, TD at the Bicycle Casino near Los Angeles, has offered his Quantum Reload for quite some time, letting players of all bankrolls and style enter the same tournament at different times. In Florida, the next AUPT series at Derby Lane touts a $250K guarantee with just a $150 buy-in that allows players to combine their five biggest stacks. Some of these experiments will work. Some will fail. But the creativity that goes into them should be celebrated.

And, so, that’s why I believe this overlay will prove to be good for poker. Players are talking to players about what types and amounts of guarantees are proper. Managers and directors are talking to their bosses about how they can provide innovative tournament ideas players want in a financially feasible manner.

In poker, as in life, we have good days and bad days. Few mistakes are fatal unless you let them become fatal. It’s easy to mock or simply worry about the fallout of a $2.5 million tournament overlay. But every misstep is an opportunity. I believe this is an opportunity for all of us to strengthen the game we love.

— Email Scott at scott@anteupmagazine.com

Why Colman may not be good for poker

By Scott Long
Once registration closed and it was official the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open would miss its $10 million guarantee, there’s not much the folks who run the Hard Rock could do except hope for someone with a feel-good story to win it all.

Instead, they got Daniel Colman.

Not a $2-$4 limit player who won a satellite seat in a high-hand promotion and played the poker of his life to win it all. Nor a seasoned pro who understands the business of poker who would use her seat in the pulpit to encourage poker rooms not to back off hosting huge events. Nor even a celebrity from the sports or entertainment world who’d garner the event extensive coverage without a mention of the phrase “missed guarantee.”
Instead, they got Daniel Colman.

Colman got the poker world talking this summer by, well, not talking after he won the Big One for One Drop, the $1 million buy-in charity tournament at the World Series of Poker that touted a top prize of $15,306,688. He refused the traditional winner’s media interview, aside from a brief comment acknowledging the good the One Drop organization does.  

Since then, he has been on an impressive run. Third in an $100K event at Aria Las Vegas for just shy of $800K. Second to mentor Olivier Busquet in an EPT Super High Roller €50K event for just more than €1 million. And now, nearly $1.5 million from winning the Hard Rock event.

No doubt he can play. No doubt he doesn’t like to talk. And that’s why I don’t believe he’s good for poker.
Now, I’m sure a player who doesn’t care for the media worries not a wink what a magazine publisher has to say about him. I have no problem with that. I’m not a jilted reporter. It actually makes my job easier when a winner doesn’t want to talk to me. I don’t have to come up with questions. I don’t have to transcribe quotes. But not having insight from the champ makes my article weaker. Which makes the event weaker. Which makes poker weaker.

And I do have a problem with that.

Let’s be clear that in a game with a rich history filled with gunslingers, gangsters and other crooks, and a present that’s had its share of software manipulators, chip counterfeiters and other cheats, Daniel Colman is none of those. Dozens, if not hundreds, of well-known players do things every day that are far worse for poker’s image than anything Colman does or, again more to the point, doesn’t do.

The guy just doesn’t like to talk, and that is far from tragic. Poker is a game heavy in math that attracts the incredibly intelligent yet often socially awkward. Not every player has the gift of gab that Daniel Negreanu has. Nor should we expect they should. But here’s the thing about Colman: He doesn’t talk, yet clearly he has something to say.  
His @DanielColman_ Twitter handle has only 12 tweets not counting replies as of this writing. Here is one: “I misrepresented myself before when I said I didn’t want to speak to media because of poker being a harmful game.  I do not care about poker”

To the extent that he’s opened up to the public, through intermediaries or the rare post on the 2+2 Forum, he’s made it clear poker embodies society’s evilness. The adulation of an individual’s achievements. The smart preying on the stupid. That those who are the most successful oddly are the least satisfied.

Those are all valid points. None of us truly believes poker is without ills. To that end, those of us who depend on poker for our livelihoods or even for mere enjoyment should be pleased Colman doesn’t say more.

But those beliefs ignore the other side of poker. Just like in a TV ad for a candidate, Colman is picking and choosing the “facts” he wants portrayed, ignoring the ones that show poker’s positive side and highlighting its seedy side. If he wasn’t so successful at the table, he’d be just another crackpot we ignore in our Facebook feed.

But when he’s winning millions in the world’s biggest tournaments, his message reaches people for whom poker is usually an afterthought until someone tells them they should care about how bad it is. And in a critical time in poker’s history, when most of us are urging our government to allow online poker, to decouple burdensome requirements to run a poker room that have nothing to do with running a poker room and to simply let us enjoy the game that most of our presidents have enjoyed, Colman’s voice is a threat to which we must pay attention.

We need those who don’t pay attention to poker on a daily basis to pay attention to the positive points of poker. The One Drop tournament Colman won raised $4,666,662 to help improve access to safe drinking water to people all around the world. In one tournament. That’s a lot of ice bucket videos. Add in all the money raised through initiatives past and present such as Poker Gives, Bad Beat on Cancer and numerous charity tournaments around the country every day, and the fundraising aspect of poker alone is worthy of notice. But it’s being drowned out by the attention Colman is attracting.

Some say the 23-year-old Colman is a petulant kid, not wise to the world yet. I don’t believe that. He appears to be incredibly intelligent and, frankly, knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows he’s talented at poker and that gives him a stage, a stage he quietly used to share his views on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis during a recent televised PokerStars event.

One of the most terrific things about poker is anyone with enough money can sit at a table with pros and possibly win. This is why most of us play. You can’t have that and at the same time pick and choose who wins. Colman has every right to play and win tournaments. And every right to say nothing, or worse, when he wins.
But I don’t have to cheer for him. And I won’t. And if you love poker, I don’t think you should, either.

— Email Scott at scott@anteupmagazine.com