Inside the WSOP

If you’ve watched the World Series of Poker on ESPN, you might think that it’s a pretty laid-back event. Sure, there’s plenty of tension at the final table, but it’s basically just a bunch of guys and gals getting together to play cards, right?

Actually, the two-month tournament at the Rio is all about the cards, but it is orders of magnitude more complicated than your Tuesday night home game. With 57 bracelet events, daily satellites and nearly 80 cash games going on over the course of the tournament, the World Series of Poker is more than an event.

“It’s an organization, not an event,’ says Jack Effel, vice president of international poker operations and director of the World Series of Poker for Harrah’s Entertainment. “It’s got to be that way to be successful.”

Planning for this year’s tournament started well before last year’s tournament was finished. The logistics are staggering. Getting tens of thousands of participants and hundreds of employees where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there isn’t easy; neither is coordinating multi-million-dollar prize payouts. But Effel and his team at the tournament quietly get it all done.

Effel, a Dallas native who combines a lifetime love of poker with a business degree from the University of Mississippi, has brought new-school organization planning to an old poker institution. It’s a necessary marriage: Since its 2004 acquisition by Harrah’s, the tournament has more than quadrupled in size from slightly over 14,000 entrants in that first year to nearly 61,000 last year.

Giving those 61,000 players good poker requires an army of dealers, cashiers, supervisors, beverage servers, security officers and back-of-the-house financing and accounting folks. The military metaphor is apt; an organization of this size needs clear lines of command to function.

No fewer than five managers report directly to Effel. They include day and swing-shift tournament managers, who oversee the action in all bracelet (championship) events; a satellite manager, in charge of smaller buy-in events that can land players seats in the main event; a live manager, in charge of the 78 tables hosting “live” cash games in which players bet as much or as little of their own money as they wish, like they would in any poker room; and a dealer manager, in charge of the more than 900 dealers who have been hired to deal the games.

Just to put it in perspective, this year the WSOP has well over 300 tables spread out in the Rio’s Amazon and Pavilion ballrooms. The average Las Vegas Strip poker room has 15 tables (the Rio’s year-round room has 10).

That’s just the organization; then there are the games themselves. Before the explosion of the WSOP, no one had organized poker tournaments with thousands of entrants and hundreds of “cashes,” or players whose finish merits a share of the prize pool. With a dozen or so players finishing in the money, it wouldn’t be hard to compute the right payouts. But when hundreds of players are cashing at an event, it’s not so easy.

After a small percentage is retained to pay the tournament’s staff, the rest is divided among winners. Obviously the winner should get the most money, but there are many ways to divide the pot: Should it be top-heavy with the final table taking most of the money or more gradually distributed? The problem has occupied some of poker’s brightest minds for the past few years. So Effel, in consultation with the Player Advisory Council (particularly Barry Greenstein and Howard Lederer) and Adam Schwartz, his finance professor at Ole Miss, devised a computer algorithm that allows a sensible and fair distribution of cash prizes. Based in part on the Golden Ratio—a mathematical concept familiar to Pythagoras more than 2,500 years ago—the computerized calculation is a good example of Effel’s blend of old and modern, all in service of a better tournament.

As the World Series of Poker continues to grow, there’s no accepting the status quo.

“There’s never a moment when we say we’re good enough,” Effel says. “We have to continue to push forward because that’s the only way we’re going to make improvements.”

So no matter how well things go this year, you can bet that Effel and his crew will be working to make the tournament run that much better in the future.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.