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As WSOP goes online, value of bracelets debated

Updated June 27, 2020 - 12:04 pm

In 1970, Johnny Moss earned the first World Series of Poker title by winning a vote among the handful of participants.

In 2006, Jamie Gold defeated a field of 8,773 players to win the $10,000 buy-in WSOP Main Event and $12 million.

In 2019, Femi Fashakin beat a field of 28,371 to win the $500 buy-in WSOP Big 50 No-limit Hold’em event and more than $1.1 million.

As far as history is concerned, all of these players won World Series of Poker trophy bracelets for these events — never mind the different formats, buy-ins and field sizes. A bracelet is a bracelet is a bracelet. In the past five years, a few events have even been held online.

But now the coronavirus pandemic has reignited a debate. With the WSOP moving completely online this summer for separate U.S. and international series, has winning a bracelet been devalued?

WSOP executive director Ty Stewart doesn’t think so.

“We expect many of these events will have thousands, if not tens of thousands of players,” he said via email. “We know many of the top players in the world will be participating. Comparing eras is always a slippery slope. But our trophy bracelets are really just a way to document history of the game, and we’re confident these online WSOP events will be historic.”

The WSOP Online consists of two separate tournament series (85 total events) to accommodate America’s online poker laws. A version for U.S. players will be held from Wednesday through July 31, hosted by WSOP.com. Players must be physically in Nevada or New Jersey to play on the site.

The international series will be held on GGPoker from July 19 to Sept. 6. Players physically in the U.S. cannot play on the site.

Six-time WSOP bracelet winner Daniel Negreanu, an ambassador for GGPoker, previously said that he viewed the online series as “a classic case of making the best of it” amid the pandemic.

Most players welcome the online tournaments, but some have questioned whether bracelets should be awarded for the events.

Two-time bracelet winner Brandon Shack-Harris said on Twitter that he was concerned about the online series, especially if officials are able to reschedule the live WSOP for later this year, in effect having a double World Series.

He recalled how much a bracelet meant to former poker pro Chad Brown, who had several close calls but never won one. He received an honorary bracelet shortly before his death from cancer in 2014 at age 52.

“I take pride in being a bracelet winner on behalf of those who truly love the game and have maintained the dream of winning one,” Shack-Harris said. “This is why I hold its value in high regard and the brand accountable to protect it.”

Former Main Event winner Greg Merson and bracelet winners Todd Brunson and Eli Elezra were among those who voiced support for Shack-Harris’ statement.

However, the player who is perhaps most invested in protecting the legacy of the bracelets is welcoming the online series. Phil Hellmuth, the all-time leader with 15 bracelets, said on a recent PokerNews podcast that he was looking forward to the events and “absolutely” wanted to add to his legacy by winning his first online bracelet.

“Now’s an opportunity for some people that are better at online tournaments to win some bracelets,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing.”

The World Series of Poker has evolved greatly over the years. It started as a glorified convention of Texas road gamblers. Most events in the early years had fewer than 100 participants, some fewer than 10. Events now routinely get thousands of players.

Shaun Deeb has won four bracelets in four different games, with buy-ins ranging from $25,000 to $1,500. He said all the wins were “equally impressive” to him, and each meant something unique.

He said anyone who wins a WSOP Online event should feel free to celebrate it like any other bracelet.

“There’s always going to be a watering down of bracelets over time,” he said. “I’m not going to hold it against myself if I win one. I won’t hold it against some amateur if they win three. The events are for everyone.”

Olivier Busquet would probably be on a list of the most accomplished players not to have won a WSOP bracelet. He has more than $9 million in worldwide tournament earnings, according to the Hendon Mob Poker Database. That includes more than $2 million at the WSOP, but he has never finished better than third in an event.

He said that while he viewed certain individual events as more prestigious than others — the $10,000 buy-in Heads-Up No-limit Hold’em, for instance — he did not view the online bracelets as inferior to ones earned in live play, especially considering the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic.

He said he takes issue with those trying to keep the bracelets as exclusive as possible. He favors an inclusive approach to the game that brings in new players.

“They pretend that their motivation for that view is to protect the integrity of the brand or the game, when in fact what they’re actually doing is trying to protect their status as a bracelet holder,” he said. “And I just find that to be distasteful, at the minimum.”

Busquet said many players go wrong by wrapping up their ego in bracelets or other trophies while not acknowledging the massive amount of luck required to win a tournament, even for a highly skilled player.

“People ignore the very obvious truth,” he said. “How much status is bestowed upon a lottery winner?”

Busquet lives in New Jersey and said he plans to play the WSOP.com events throughout July. Though he said he doesn’t believe winning an event would mean anything regarding his skill or worth as a player, he would be happy to claim a title — and it wouldn’t mean any less coming online.

“I mean, I’m human,” Busquet said. “Would I like to win a World Series of Poker bracelet? Of course. Yeah, sure. I’m not going to turn it down. It would be great. Would I view it any differently from a normal (live) bracelet? No, I don’t think so.

“It’s not easy to win these tournaments, no matter what the format is.”

Contact Jim Barnes at jbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277. Follow @JimBarnesLV on Twitter.

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