Alternative Action

The 43rd World Series of Poker kicks off at the Rio in a week. This one’s gonna be interesting, as participation will provide an important gauge as to what’s going on in the poker world one year after Black Friday (and probably less than a year before the online game is legalized, in one form or another). It’s a long tournament—it runs until mid-July—and I’ll get into what’s really good about this greatest of all gambling events in an upcoming column. Here I want to discuss how you can get the big-tournament experience for less.

If you want to take a shot in the WSOP, the least it will cost you is $1,000, and there are only a few events where the buy-in is that low (most are $1,500). That’s a pretty hefty chunk of change for most. Hence, for the past five years, alternative tournaments have run concurrently with the WSOP. Of course, no one would slum it in the alts unless there was a big incentive to do so, and there is: They cost a lot less.

This year the ancillary action began early with the inaugural “WSOP Warm-Up” series, currently in progress at Caesars Palace (running through May 20), with most buy-ins either $130 or $240. That’s about one-tenth the tariff at the World Series. After a five-day break, Caesars will begin its Mega Stack Series, running from May 25 to July 16. Mega Stack also offers lots of events with $130 buy-ins, along with more expensive ones sprinkled in.

The other tournament on the Strip is the Venetian’s Deep Stack Extravaganza, running May 24 to July 15. There are several big buy-in events here, but the majority with 4 and 7 p.m. start times are just $200.

Downtown hosts two more: the Golden Nugget’s Grand Poker Series from June 2 to July 4, and Binion’s Poker Classic from May 25 to July 8. Of the two, the least expensive events are at the Nugget, where many buy-ins go for $125. None, except the Grand Finale and some super satellites for WSOP seats, cost more than $230. The Binion’s buy-ins are just slightly higher, mostly $150 to $200. If you’re on a really tight budget, wait till the end of the Binion’s meet, when $100 tournaments will be held at noon on July 7 and 8.

While these alternative tournaments are fun, frugal and a good way to learn, there’s one very important caveat: They usually don’t represent the best gamble from a mathematical standpoint. That’s because they tend to come with high “take-outs.” In the tournaments at Caesars, for example, the $130 buy-in is really a “100+30,” which means that $100 goes into the prize pool and $30 is retained by the casino. This constitutes a wicked 23 percent take-out, and that’s difficult to overcome if you’re playing primarily for profit.