Editor’s note: This article was originally published with a couple factual errors. Cardplayer Lifestyle regrets these and sincerely apologizes for disseminating incorrect information. The appropriate corrections have now been made and are reflected below. Our thanks goes out to Kevin Mathers and Rob Solomon for alerting us to the inaccuracies.

I was tagged in a tweet last week by popular poker vlogger Jeff Boski about a strange tournament that’s set to run in October at the Venetian. The Lucky Shot Poker Series features a $250 tournament with six starting flights and a $150,000 total prize pool. If that doesn’t sound strange to you, read the last sentence again. I didn’t say “$150,000 guarantee,” I said “$150,000 total prize pool.”

After retweeting it with a comment, my notifications exploded. Poker players were not happy.

A Closer Look at the Rules

The tournament’s rules are not phrased very well and, after doing some research, there are still a few things I have questions about. Let’s start with an explanation of how exactly this tournament series works.

The Venetian is guaranteeing a $150,000 prize pool for this tournament. It also has a maximum $150,000 total prize pool. Anything above $150,000 is, as stated in the rules, the sole property of the Venetian. There are a number of other small tournaments taking place during the week-long series with a similar fee structure. At the end of the series, there will be a drawing that awards $52,000 in cash. Each tournament entry during the week, including the smaller one-day events, will earn a player one entry in the drawing.

It appears that players need to be present on the last day of the series when the drawing is done in order to be eligible to win. They need to show up ahead of time and drop their tournament receipts (or entry tickets of some kind) into a drum. Winners will be drawn from that drum.

Overlays, Prizes, and Guarantees, Oh My!

So the Venetian is starting with a $52,000 overlay, so let’s at least give them due credit for that.

Next, every tournament held up until the drawing has a guarantee. This is also a good thing, though the guarantees aren’t terribly ambitious. A few people have pointed out on Twitter that the Venetian is taking a risk here, but let’s be real about that. They aren’t going to miss these guarantees unless this event series turns into a massive public relations disaster. I have offered to bet and lay odds that the Venetian will make the guarantees, essentially booking action on the house side, and have had no takers.

The “overlay alerts” on social media that were so common this past summer all but guarantee that there will not be an overlay. If the Venetian poker room’s twitter account tweets out an overlay alert with two days left to register, those two days will see people lining up to play in the events and there will never be an overlay. I saw at least 30 overlay alerts on social media this summer, and I think only one of them failed to make the guarantee. With no significant competing events that week, there is virtually no chance of an overlay.

It’s Better to Be Pissed Off than Pissed On

Now, let’s look at the controversial portion of the rules that has poker players in a frenzy on Twitter; the reason that #BoycottTheVenetian and #boycottvenetian have been trending. The guarantees on these tournaments are not just guarantees in a good way. They are also negative guarantees. In the case of the big tournament, no matter how many people enter, the prize pool will be $150,000. If they get $350,000 worth of entries, the prize pool will still be $150,000 and the house will make $200,000. Yes, that is very steep rake. It’s also not very likely to happen. The number they set is likely to attract enough extra players to generate a reasonable amount of rake after the $150,000 guarantee and the $52,000 in cash prizes from the drawing are covered.

Whether the house makes a huge rake on this tournament or not, it’s the language used to promote this tournament that has made players very angry. Many players believe that the event wasn’t clearly labeled. The print at the bottom of the structure page is pretty clear, but the fact is that very few people read that wording when they register for a tournament. Some players have said that they believe it was intentionally deceptive, though that is of course impossible to determine.

The important part here is that many players believe it was intentionally deceptive. That is a public relations disaster for a poker room that already faces boycott-related problems due to Sheldon Adelson’s strong stance against online poker. The man spent millions of dollars lobbying to ban online poker in the United States and he is also one of the largest donors to Republican candidates in recent elections. Regardless of your political leanings, there is no question that Republicans have led the charge in every major legislative attempt to ban online poker.

With all of the above said, it should be noted that in my limited interactions with him, and from what other people have told me, the Venetian’s poker room tournament director Tommy LaRosa is a stand-up guy. His staff is excellent, too. I have rarely played there because of my intense dislike for Adelson, but I have no reason to believe that the specific people in charge of the poker room are trying anything shady.

Crunching the Numbers

We will cover the problems with this event in a bit, but for now, let’s look at a few numbers. The smaller tournaments will certainly contribute a small amount of extra rake to help cover the $52,000 cash giveaway at the end of the series. The $150,000 event, on the other hand, will be the make or break tournament, so let’s focus on that.

Let’s round down the total prize pool to $200,000 for the sake of easy math. The rake from smaller events will probably cover that extra $2,000 anyway.

Let’s also consider, for contrast, a reasonable and standard rake structure of $215+35. In order to make this $150,000 tournament breakeven compared to a normal event, the Venetian would need to draw 930 players, or 155 players per flight. A recent $400 buy-in event of theirs with a $250,000 guarantee drew 852 players over five starting flights, or 170 players per flight.

With the giveaway, and the smaller buy-in, I would expect a few more players than that to show up. If we assume 185 players register per day, the field would end up being just over 1,100 players. That would create a prize pool of $275,000, in which case the house would make $75,000. This would be equivalent to a rake of $182+68. That’s awfully high!

Of course, the house is taking a calculated risk here, but this is no different than any other guaranteed event that any casino poker room offers. While some casinos have indeed backed out of guarantees, most honor them to avoid the reputation hit that would come from finding a way to avoid paying an overlay. So, again, the house risk here is no greater than with any other guaranteed tournament.

What is different is the house’s potential upside. Not only are they likely to take in a higher rake than normal, but this event will get more players to show up on the final Sunday so that they can enter their tickets into the prize drawing. Cash games will be rocking, with a typical cash table making around $90 an hour for the house. Naturally, some of those players will also be gamblers, so the action at slot machines and blackjack tables will also increase, as it always does during a big poker tournament series.

Overall, this looks like a great gamble for the house, at least in the short term. But is it worth it? How much is it worth to have your reputation damaged, get your property boycotted by a significant number of poker players, and have your room be a pariah on social media?

Maybe the New Format Isn’t So Bad After All?

In this one instance, it might not be that bad. The field will be large and soft, and there is a reasonable possibility that the house’s rake won’t end up being completely out of line with typical rake structures. In the long run, however, this kind of tournament fee structure is terrible for a number of reasons.

  1. It encourages the house to offer small guarantees they know they can crush and make exorbitant rake numbers.
  2. It makes it impossible for a player entering an early flight to have any idea whether the tournament is a good value. This will in turn exacerbate the problem of small early flights and oversized later flights.
  3. This kind of structure discourages players from promoting your event. Every new entry becomes a net negative for every other player participating. Discouraging others from playing, or not telling anyone about it, is the GTO solution to making the most money in this format. This is not good for the game.

The biggest knock on this kind of fee structure is that it makes players uneasy and distrustful. Poker players can sit at a table and compete to beat each other out of money without constant fighting because they believe the game is fair. Any hint of unfair treatment or anything that makes them suspicious, and that all falls apart. Without that element of trust, players just won’t patronize a poker room.

Long-Term Repercussions

If this fee structure becomes common, many short-sighted poker room managers and tournament directors may start using it to try and make a quick buck. This will in turn cause players to believe the game isn’t straight anywhere. I have no doubt that if this $150,000 tournament’s rake structure proliferates, there are certainly players who would either play fewer tournaments or not play them in casinos at all for fear of being “cheated” out of an enormous rake. The poker community’s response to this event on twitter has been a prime example of this.

Even what appears to be an official line from the Venetian poker room feels like a deceptive response:

The Lucky Shot Poker Series & Drawing is a unique series where we are offering $225,000 in total prizes. This includes $52,000 in Drawing prizes that players can win just for playing in those events. Official Rules will be posted online soon.

This statement from a Venetian representative, which has been posted as a reply to a number of Twitter questions about the $150,000 event, includes the smaller event guarantees as well. While the statement is factually correct, it doesn’t tell the story very clearly. I have yet to hear anyone getting a clear response from the Venetian to questions about the event. My tweet on the matter was fairly early on and got a significant response, with a number of people tagging the Venetian poker room twitter account, but there has been no response at all.

Other Wrinkles of Discomfort and Discontent

The $150,000 total prize pool event features another odd rule as well. Only a maximum of 81 places will be paid. If it gets anywhere near the aforementioned projected numbers of over 1,100 players, this will create the steepest payout structure of any major event in recent memory. This is also bad for the game. When recreational players cash in a big event – even a min-cash – they are much more likely to return to the poker rooms and keep playing again and again. Fewer players cashing might mean more money for pros in the short run, but it is ultimately bad for the game. I have no idea why this rule might have been added or what the rationale for it would be.

Whatever their reasoning for this event and its unique rules, if you have somehow managed to anger poker personalities as diverse and high-profile as Doug Polk, Vanessa Rousso, Jonathan Little, and Joey Ingram, you have probably made a mistake. The negative social media reach via those four players alone is enough to hurt your business.

What Should We Do?

So, how can we poker players stop this format from spreading? Unfortunately, the only weapon in our arsenal is to be responsible consumers. The first actively organized boycott of the Venetian (back in 2013) failed because most players just don’t care enough about anything but playing poker. Sadly, poker players are almost by definition irresponsible consumers. If this $150,000 total prize pool format ends up being more profitable for a poker room than a regular tournament, it will spread and hurt the game in the long run.

Yet, I predict a big turnout anyway because most players just want to play whatever is the most fun that day. The Venetian seems to have made their target audience clear, as a spokesperson was quoted on PokerNews “The $225,000 Lucky Shot Poker Series and Drawing is a new poker series catering to a player who likes promotions and drawings.”

As a poker community, we seem to be just as shortsighted as whoever created this tournament.

I hope I’m wrong.

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