Staking Out the Series

Black Friday, the April 15, 2011, Justice Department crackdown on online poker, was supposed to cripple the game in the United States. At the time, experts were predicting a World Series of Poker Main Event that would drop back to pre-Chris Moneymaker levels. It’s true that Main Event numbers are down from the high-water mark in 2006, but as a whole last year’s Series drew a record number of attendees. And WSOP spokesman Seth Palansky expects similar numbers this year.

That means more people are playing, but for lower stakes—and steering clear of the $10,000 buy-in that Main Event players will pony up come July 7. If this is poker’s new adulthood after its explosive, volatile adolescence, that newfound maturity comes with less tolerance for risk.

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Those who still play for keeps are enlisting help for their buy-ins. Players selling off percentages of their action—taking cash for a promise to pay out a piece of their winnings to investors—has always been a part of the game. It’s a way for players to lower their variance. They take on less risk, at the expense of sacrificing reward when they finally score.

But “staking” has now evolved into a complex business of its own. The popular forums of poker website feature a marketplace where players design elaborate packages of events to sell off—complete with stats on their play, and how much “markup” they charge as a premium for skillful play. You could have bought, say, 5 percent of a player known online as “Protential” over 11 events for just less than $1,300—more than $1,000 worth of buy-in power at a 22 percent markup.

Pro player Rob Perelman took a more low-key approach this year, turning to his 2,500 Twitter followers to sell his action. He estimates that more than 75 percent of players have pieces of themselves out—mostly to other players.

Although some big-time stakers, like Jason Mercier, are still putting several horses in events, some of the backers who used to be able to bankroll careers just can’t do it anymore. With online sites essentially out of the domestic picture following Black Friday, those pros aren’t drawing the big salaries the sites used to offer. (Pro Tom Dwan said he made more than $1 million in salary in just under two years as a member of Team Full Tilt.) Neither is there the sponsorship money—in 2010’s Main Event, players who agreed to wear a Full Tilt hat and patch who made the ESPN broadcast on featured tables could make $12,000.

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Even some professionals’ appetite for flash seems to have died down. It’s been an open secret for a long time that expensive tastes and spendthrift ways were a paper-thin mask for a cash-sucking black hole. You hear stories of guys who score a big win and get followed to the cage by their debtors. The survivors didn’t survive by accident.

“If my experience in poker has taught me anything, universally, across the board, no one is doing as well as they’d have you believe. People want to keep it on the down low,” says Chris Sparks, a former pro who turned backer for two years before transitioning out of the game to pursue venture capitalism.

So if the dough isn’t going to bottles and cars, and players are trading pieces of themselves to their peers in this relatively closed community, who actually has the money in the game?

“That’s a good question. I have no idea,” Perelman says. “Caesars, I guess.”

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