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WSOP answers criticism, ready for online series

Normally, poker players from around the world would be gathered at the Rio Convention Center in July, preparing to play the World Series of Poker Main Event.

Normally doesn’t apply to 2020.

Instead, players who live in Nevada or New Jersey — or players who can travel there — are preparing for the WSOP Online, which starts Wednesday and runs through July 31 on the WSOP.com platform. A series for players who live outside the U.S. — or Americans who can get out of the country — will be held on GGPoker from July 19 to Sept. 6.

The first event is a $500 buy-in No-limit Hold’em Kick-off at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

In all, 85 World Series of Poker bracelets will be awarded in these events as officials seek to provide a reasonable facsimile of the WSOP experience amid the coronavirus pandemic.

To executive director Ty Stewart, the WSOP has made lemonade out of lemons.

“We’re ready for a unique chapter in our history with an ambition as great as anything we’ve done, period,” he said via email. “It’s the esports version of the WSOP, and it’s going to be huge.”

But the drink isn’t going down smoothly for some players.

Shaun Deeb was the WSOP player of the year two years ago and the runner-up last year. The professional player from New York puts his feelings succinctly: “I’m gonna play, but I’m gonna hate it.”

“The World Series missed the ball here,” he said. “There’s a lack of different games, which is what the World Series is all about. Such low buy-ins, such a lack of imagination. … It’s crazy, when the quality of the World Series live product is so strong.”

Deeb said he doesn’t like that the U.S. leg has only one event per day, when he often would play multiple events at the same time at the Rio, and he doesn’t believe the WSOP.com software matches its competitors.

The WSOP Online schedule does not look like a normal World Series of Poker. For the U.S. portion, one event has a $3,200 buy-in, and all of the others are $1,000 or less. Of the 31 events, all but four are in No-limit Hold’em.

At a normal WSOP, the buy-ins are $1,000 or more for all but a handful of events, and some high roller events cost as much as $100,000 to enter. The games offered also reflect the full spectrum of poker, including stud and draw games, and mixed formats that rotate several types of games.

Stewart said officials did not anticipate having to hold a WSOP-type schedule on WSOP.com, and the software is not equipped to offer all the games. Also, “there is simply not enough demand” for those games online, he said.

As for the lower buy-ins, Stewart said there are logistical hurdles to getting large amounts of money onto the site, but he said the schedule was designed around the most popular events, those costing less than $1,000 that last one day. Satellite tournaments to gain entry into WSOP events start at as little as $1.

Stewart noted that the international series has a number of higher buy-ins, including a $25,000 event and a $5,000 Main Event with a $25 million guaranteed prize pool.

Of course, those events won’t be available to most Americans. Members of the poker elite such as Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu have said they will travel outside the U.S. to play the international series, and Deeb said he intends to as well.

But the player pool for the WSOP Online will not look like the normal gathering at the Rio, where players from around the world mix together.

Stewart said that’s the fault of America’s patchwork online poker laws that limit the game to a few states and don’t allow players to compete internationally.

“2020 is a wake-up call for the gaming industry, and should be a lightning rod for the expansion of online poker in the USA,” Stewart said.

Jamie Kerstetter agrees. A professional player based in Las Vegas who has appeared as a poker commentator on ESPN, she said she hopes the WSOP Online “highlights the absurdity” of players around the U.S. and the world not being allowed to play together.

However, Kerstetter said she is excited to play the WSOP.com events after cashing five times in WSOP.com online Circuit events since the shutdown. She said the WSOP.com software has performed well whenever it has hosted large events, but she is worried that recreational players who might come to the Rio won’t bother to go online.

Kerstetter said the biggest loss of not having the WSOP at the Rio was missing the chance to mix with her friends and all the characters who make up the poker world.

“I’m just happy we’re getting the chance to play anything. It’s been depressing,” she said. “Summers at the WSOP are not just about profit. It’s adult summer camp for poker players.”

Stewart said he has not given up on holding a live WSOP in “late fall.”

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

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