For the longest time, poker tournaments paid about 10% of the field. And in fact, the earliest WSOP events were winner-take-all, if memory serves. But there was a general sense that the top small handful of people should take home all the money.
As time has progressed, most of us in the business have come to believe that paying out more of the field is better. That is, increasing the number of players who get something back is preferable to putting an extra bonus on top of the already staggering size of the prizes at the top.
To give an example, suppose first prize at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA) was going to be $1.5 million. But suppose that instead of paying that guy/gal $1.5 million, we paid him or her $1.2 million and paid out 15 more people at the very bottom of the cash ladder $20k each? I claim that that move would be +EV for the overall game and industry. Yes, in some senses, we'd be costing our winner $300k, which is serious money. But let's be real - $1.2 million is massive life-changing money no matter what. Our winner is going to have an exceedingly good day. But we've just made 15 more people have a very good day too.
And the fact of the matter is that while we talk about the massive prizes up top, and everybody talks about not wanting to min-cash, there are two indisputable facts that lead me to believe that that's not the whole story.
First, look at all the final table deals. If everybody really wanted that almost unimaginably large first prize, then deals wouldn't happen. But in point of fact, they happen almost all the time. No matter whether it's nervous amateurs afraid of playing for huge sums, or seasoned pros trying to reduce the variance, there seems to be a universal appetite for deal-making.
And let's talk about the bubble. For all the people who talked about not wanting to min-cash, look at the wave of "chip and a chair" behaviour as the bubble approaches. Those people are not making ICM-optimal decisions to maximize their chances for a final table; they're doing whatever it will take to get to the money. The very smallest minimum payoff.
My point is this: whatever people's plans and dreams are at the beginning of a tournament, for most folks, there comes a point where locking up some money right now is preferable to the possibility of more money later. Call it the "Bird in the hand" theory.
So we studied on that for a while and then somebody said, "Well, what if we paid 50% of the field?" "Don't be silly, you can't pay 50% of the field." Well, in point of fact, you can. After we worked out the details, here's what we came up with:
When we get down to half the field, we're going to return the original buy-in to all remaining players. So suppose it's a $1000+$100 event with 80 runners. When 40 players are left, we walk around and drop $1100 in cash (or chips) in front of each of the remaining 40 players. The money that's left is distributed in an 8% payout structure (not too terribly different than how regular tournaments used to get paid out in the old days). So there are really two bubbles: at 50% of the field and 8% of the field. Being the marketing geniuses we are, we borrowed and adapted the name of a classic American bubble gum and called these tournaments "Double Bubble".
Obviously, these tournaments aren't going to return massive prizes at the top - if you want to go for the big brass ring, sign up for one of our regular tournaments. But if you want some good fun with nominally a 50% chance of getting your money back, and the chance to still win some nice prizes deep in, maybe Double Bubbles are just the thing for you.
We're going to give them a test-drive at the PCA, which is the perfect place for a light-hearted entertainment-centric event such as Double Bubbles are. We think they'll be fun and offer players a chance to try something different. Do we expect Double Bubbles to revolutionize the poker tournament scene? Not likely, but there's no harm here -we'll run a few and, as always, see what the players tell us with their feet.
So, do you think you can outlast just half the field in a poker tournament? If so, in a Double Bubble, you'll get your buy-in back and will be freerolling for the serious money. Look for Double Bubbles at a PCA near you in early 2015.
Lee Jones is the Head of Poker Communications at PokerStars. He first joined the company in 2003 and has been involved in the professional poker industry for over 25 years. You can read his occasional tweets at @leehjones.