There was some controversy at the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event yesterday.
As in past years, Day One was stretched out over four days, with the organizers prepared for thousands of players (total attendance last year: 6,844), but not knowing in advance how many people would register for each day’s noon start. On Friday, there were 1,100 players. On Saturday, the Fourth of July, only 800 showed up. On Sunday, they nearly had 2,000 entrants. On Monday, they “sold out” and closed registration at 2,700 by 8:30am — and that’s when the muck hit the fan.
Hundreds of players were shut out. As the number of discontented players grew, meetings were called behind closed doors to see if there was some way to accommodate more people. There was some precedent in this WSOP, with some 7 other events also selling out. But this was the big one, The Main Event, the most famous poker tournament in the world, which people travel from every continent to play. The complaints were in several different languages, but boiled down to a few basic questions:

  • Why don’t you allow alternates, who get a seat when someone loses and busts out?
  • Why don’t you play ten-handed at the tables, instead of nine-handed, allowing at least 275 more entrants?
  • Why don’t you set us up at one of the other Harrah’s properties and let us play there?
  • Why don’t you have a fifth Day One for us and move the subsequent days back?
  • Why don’t you have a whole new session tonight that we can play in?
  • Why can’t I play when we’ve heard a rumor that this famous poker player or that one got special treatment and was allowed in?
A waiting list was started, in the hope that registration would be re-opened. While the thousands who were already registered were filling the Amazon room and beginning to play, more and more people joined the mob of upset non-players. They tried to organize, shouting ideas to each other, choosing one player to be their spokesperson if they got a chance to talk to management, and refusing to take “no” for an answer. It was said that 600 people had been shut out. With an entry fee of $10,000 each, that’s six million more dollars that could have been in the prize pool. Not only that, but those players would have boosted this year’s Main Event attendance past last year’s.
At one point, Mike Sexton, host of the World Poker Tour telecasts, wandered by. Mike has played in the WSOP for years and has a sterling reputation in the poker community. He had already played on Friday (and would return for Day Two on Tuesday), but was quickly surrounded and recruited to be an advocate for the shut-out players. He listened to their complaints and agreed to see what he could do.
Around 2:15pm, just as those who were in the tournament were going on their first break of the day, Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and several others from top management of the WSOP and Harrah’s gathered the crowd in a small ballroom nearby. There, they broke the news that they would not allow any more entrants into the Main Event, that every option had been considered and rejected, that operational problems prevented them from adding another session and pushing the schedule back, that no other event had allowed alternates, etc.
Obviously, the crowd wasn’t happy. Americans, Australians, Mexicans, Europeans, all shouted questions at Pollack, arguing with him over every point they could think of, trying to convince him to change his mind (or, in some cases, just blowing off some steam after traveling so far).
Pollack kept apologizing profusely, saying the last thing he wanted was to prevent people from playing in the Main Event, and promising that this would be dealt with as Matter Number One when he and his team planned for next year’s WSOP, but the decision had been made and was final. The crowd refused to accept that, and things quickly devolved. It was clear to me this was like children who refuse to accept that Daddy won’t take them to Six Flags, no matter how much they whine about it and offer to pay with their own money: No Means No.
After 15 minutes or so, Pollack realized there was nothing more he could say to the crowd, so he and the other execs left the room. That’s when I went over to Mike Sexton, who’s been a guest on my show. We talked for a couple of minutes and I invited him to come up to our broadcast suite to record a segment for our poker radio show, The Lumiere Place Final Table, and discuss the controversy, the decision, his role, etc.
He agreed, and you’ll hear that in-depth conversation when the show airs tonight at 7pm CT on KFNS/St. Louis, or via the podcast I’ll post when it’s over at 8pm. You’ll also hear Dennis Phillips and Joe “The Poker Coach” McGowan discussing their play in the Main Event (they both played Sunday and advanced to Day Two), and my interview with Congressman Barney Frank about the legislation he’s proposed to make poker legal in all forms, online and off.
While I’m at it, congratulations to Dennis, Josh “The Poker Lawyer” Schindler, and about a dozen other St. Louisans we know who played in the Main Event and are still in it. They’re representing our hometown very well — and they were all smart enough to pre-register to be sure they could play!!