Who wants something for nothing? It’s a tempting offer, isn’t it, but while most of us in the 21st century know that it’s always worth scrutinising the fine print before believing there’s anything even slightly resembling a free lunch, there really have been some amazing poker promotions down the years. (And we’re not even including when the World Series shot dollar bills into the air over the Amazon Room.)
Back in the early days of online poker, the major sites were clambering all over one another to sign up potential customers, and they often offered incredible incentives to players to join. Of course, all of us just signed up for all of them, took the freebies and then based our playing habits on the sites that had the best software or the best tournament schedule. But the sites weren’t to know that, and besides, that’s all part of the game.
We don’t live in that land of plenty any more, but there are still a handful of decent promotions that pop up every now and again. Here’s a quick look at some of the best poker promotions through the years, many of which genuinely did dangle that most coveted of all carrots: FREE MONEY!
Of course we’re biased, but arguably the greatest poker promotion of all time happened very close to home. For various well-documented reasons, PokerStars was not a particularly popular entity in the mid 2010s but then someone hatched an idea that was greeted by near-unanimous excitement: a massive live poker tournament in which rank amateurs could go up against seasoned pros, with millions of dollars on the line, and PokerStars boosting the prize pool to the tune of $4 million.
The first PokerStars Players No Limit Hold’em Championship (PSPC) was a $25,000 buy-in event, open to anybody, with $1 million added to whatever the first prize was set to be. That was the first enormous giveaway. But PokerStars was also offering 300 special tournament tickets, known as Platinum Passes, to players, which cost nothing, but came with a seat in the game and an expenses-paid package to the Bahamas. The Platinum Passes had to be won in the year building up to the event, either by sheer luck (in random giveaways), by winning contests hosted by Team Pros, by cracking codes, as a sweetener to other tournament successes, or just by being a general good egg.
The PSPC was a soaraway success, with 1,039 players, a prize pool of $26,455,500 (inc. the $1 million added) and Platinum Pass winner Ramon Colillas walking away with a $5.1 million first prize.
The World Series of Poker first offered $1 million to its winner in 1991, but as poker gained popularity in Europe in the same decade, there was a race to be the first tournament outside of the United States to offer a winner’s prize of a similarly eye-catching amount. That particular race was won by the Poker Million, a tournament sponsored by Ladbrokes and hosted on the Isle of Man, with the final shown live with hole cards exposed. The hook: £1 million for the winner, come what may.With the buy-in set at £6,300 and the first prize guaranteed at £1 million, the tournament needed at least 167 entries to break even if it was going to be a winner-takes-all event. Six grand was still an enormous buy-in in 2000, and only 156 players could manage it, generating a prize pool of £936,000. The sponsors added the best part of £300K in a bid to make sure the last 10 all received a payout, but even after doing so, the money jump from second (£100,000) to first (£1 million) was eye-watering.
Still, it turned out to be a spectacular tournament, won by former Team PokerStars Pro John Duthie, after a final of enormous tension. At the time, Duthie was best known as a TV director but with some of his new-found fame and wealth, he established the European Poker Tour (EPT), which became Europe’s most prestigious tournament series. All’s well that ends well.
This one sounded like an incredible promotion right from the off, but remember the correct definition of “incredible”: “so implausible as to elicit disbelief”. Certainly plenty of people were sceptical, and some predicted disaster, for the so-called Stadium Poker Tour, especially when the details were first announced. The idea was for a poker tournament played inside Wembley Stadium, the UK’s national stadium, requiring 30,000 entrants to reach its $30 million guarantee. The first round would be played by people sitting in the stadium crowd, all holding iPad like tablet devices. It would then move to real tables in the middle of the pitch.
At the time, the biggest tournament ever hosted on European soil had 1,765 players, and the biggest in Las Vegas was 8,773, so this one needed to break records.
Reader, it did not break records. As the event got closer, the guarantee dwindled and the 30,000 players did not materialise. The tournament did, however, actually happen with a reduced prize pool of around €2.6 million — nearly €600,000 of which was overlay. There were officially 761 entries to the live portion of the tournament, which did indeed take place at Wembley Stadium, and by the time they reached a final table, they quickly decided to chop it. Leaving €200,000 on the side for the winner, Poland’s Jakub Michalak became the champion and banked €436,000.
The idea was interesting. It was ambitious. It tried something that had never been tried before. The result, however, proved costly and this “tour” did not take off.
The Sunday Million is the most popular tournament in global online poker, and has been for nearly 14 years. We can be so sure of the length of its success because we celebrate its anniversary every year, this time with the biggest guarantee ($12.5 million) in its history.
Only once, however, has there been an extra special cherry on top of the always enormous anniversary prize pool. That came in 2011, for the Sunday Million 5th Anniversary, when the tournament first prize also came with a Lamborghini Gallardo car, worth $200,000. Yep, the winner of an online poker tournament was to be gifted one of the slickest sports cars in the world, just like that.
Predictably, when the tournament reached its final table, the last nine players set about negotiating some kind of deal. In fact, they simply chopped the prize money nine ways and left the car on the table, so to speak. Luke “Bdbeatslayer” Vrabel, who had locked himself up $671,093.81 during the deal negotiations, went on to win what essentially became a winner-take-all single table tournament and bagged himself the car.
Did he drive it off into the sunset? No, he didn’t. He sold it. But it was still a terrific promotion.
Professional players might pay for their food bill, as well as all of their other daily expenses, thanks to their abilities at the poker table, but there was an innovation in 2015 that allowed even the most casual recreational to play for their dinner. The PokerStars All-In Kitchen was a promotional tie-in with the UKIPT stop in London, and it offered a dinner worth £50 whose cost could be reduced to nothing dependent on the outcome of three hands of poker.
The world’s first pay-by-poker restaurant, which came through an association with Jones & Sons, drew the attention of some notable London press for its three-day opening. It didn’t get repeated anywhere else, but was a lot of fun while it lasted.