Thursday, May 08, 2008

What Should Harrah's Do?

It’s been interesting reading various responses out on the Internet tubes to Harrah’s/Caesar’s WSOP final table changes. I’ve already had my own babble about why I think it’s a bad idea and don’t have much to add, but I find it interesting that perhaps the best argument people can make for it is something along the lines of:

“Eh, why not try it? The more publicity and press that poker gets, the better.”

For me, that gets pretty close to the real crux of the problem, and where I think Harrah’s is truly dropping the ball. Like it or not, they’re in a pretty unique position to drive the future of poker, sitting on not only the WSOP brand but also possessors of many huge honking casinos and an established working relationship with ESPN. If your best answer to boosting poker’s popularity and increasing your long-term profits evokes a shrug of the shoulders and a “Sure, why not, give it a whirl.” from supporters, well, it’s hard for me to believe you’re on the right track.

Harrah’s seems to simply want to cash the checks (and want those checks to be as big as possible) that poker generates for them but shy away from shouldering any responsibility for the future of poker. People have pointed to improvements that Harrah’s has made to the WSOP (simplifying the registration process, improved access to food and facilities, scaling out the tournament to accommodate gargantuan fields, etc.) and granted, that’s all true; Harrah’s has kept the kept the WSOP train on the track despite enormous growth up until last year.

But those are all knee-jerk reactions, really, and not much more. See big problem, fix problem. Ignore small problems until they become big problems. If solution is worse than original problem (i.e. the poker tent), fix problem. They have made incremental progress, which should be pointed out, and each year’s WSOP has been better than the year before from an operational standpoint.

If you look at many of the problems of past years, though, (and foreshadowing problems the new final table format will inevitable cause), a reasonably disturbing trend emerges; Harrah’s couldn’t care less about the spectator or player experience. I mean, sure, they care insofar as they prefer for there to be no problems and for things to run smoothly, but their sole focus is on milking the WSOP for as much money as they can. Which is a reasonable enough focus, but one that potentially is sacrificing the long-term growth and future of poker by chasing short-term dollars.

If someone is willing to pay to sponsor a deck of cards that’s virtually unplayable, sure, sign ‘em up. Wait, what, poker players can’t play with the decks when they’re put into play during the WSOP? Really? Well, shit, okay. Players are squawking about ante chips from a cash game being the same as a big denomination chip in a HORSE tournament? What the hell are they squawking about, we’re talking about cash games and tournaments? People don’t think blinding off an absent stack if a player dies before the final table resumes is a good idea? Why not? If they’re not there, they’re not there, just blind ‘em off. And on and on and on. Pull the stack instead? What does that mean? You're talking Greek or something.

My biggest complaint about the new final table format is that it seems to me a sign of Harrah’s simply giving up and trying one last ditch effort to cash in before unloading the WSOP on someone else a few years down the line, when poker ratings continue to drop and the Main Event field continues to shrink. And who knows, maybe that would be best for poker, depending on who picked up the ball at that point, but the really frustrating thing here is that Harrah’s has the clout and resources to elevate poker into a both a lucrative spectator-friendly and TV-friendly sport, which would be a win-win for both Harrah’s and for poker players.

If you’ve gotten this far (and Jebus bless you if you have), your response to all this blathering is (and should be): “Well, der. Of course Harrah’s is being short-sighted and looking to milk it for what it’s worth. They’re Harrah’s. That’s what companies like Harrah’s do.”

And I can’t argue with that at all. But all this blathering is a bit necessary to set the stage for Part II: What Harrah’s Should Do with the WSOP But Never Will in a Million Billion Years.

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