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Seth Palansky talks scheduling, growing poker and frustrating mathematicians

25 February 2016

The World Series of Poker announced the full schedule for the 2016 series on Tuesday, and poker players started circling events and making travel plans.

In addition to the schedule, WSOP officials announced changes in scheduled start times, blind structures and payout structures. Some changes had been hinted at before, while others — such as moving the Little One for One Drop after the start of the Main Event — were unexpected.

WSOP Vice President of Corporate Communications Seth Palansky chatted with Casino City to talk about the 2016 series and some of the changes that players can expect this summer.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Casino City: You dialed back start times for most events by an hour. Can you talk about the decision-making process regarding tournament starting times?

Seth Palansky: It's tricky. Our No. 1 job is to try to grow participation, to get new players to the event. When you talk to people not in poker, they say "Your hours are crazy. Why would I want to stay up until two or three in the morning? Why don't you start at 8 or 9 a.m. like I have to be at my job?" When you say "Well, poker doesn't work that way," then their response back is "Well then don't expect me to play." We took a hard look at everything, even shortening the playing day significantly to try to be out by 8 or 9 p.m. each night. In some ways we think there need to be radical changes like the non-endemic poker player is suggesting, but let's just say we didn't have the guts to go there this year and ended up settling on starting an hour earlier in an effort to get people out earlier.

CC: If you're talking about the possibility of radical changes coming down the line, how are you going to measure the impact that this change has? How will that inform what you do down the road?

SP:We're confident that adjusting things by one hour will not have a significant impact in terms of who's going to show and who isn't. If we did do something more drastic, we could see it taking a three-year curve of learning and adjusting and replacing the disgruntled with a new crop of people that type of schedule would appeal to more. Last year, 35.4% of our entries came in 10 a.m. flights. (Editor's note: Four events — the Millionaire Maker, Monster Stack, Seniors and Super Seniors — had only 10 a.m. starting flights, while three others — the Little One for One Drop, Lucky 7s and Colossus — had 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. flights) If the money is right and the event is right, there's no problem getting people there at 10 a.m. For the Seniors events, they say 10 a.m. is way too late. We also have to balance that with the fact that we have tournament staff that needs to work these events and is used to working certain hours, and to change it to a couple hours earlier for just a day is too tough on them. The bottom line is there is a need for more regular hours, so if you could get to a scenario where everybody was out by 8 p.m. and you started at 10 a.m., it seems more ideal for more people.

We are trying to grow the game, and an East Coaster that comes to play their event and is up with their body clock three hours earlier anyways, to have to sit around and wait until noon, which is really 3 p.m. for them, and then stay awake until 2 a.m. Pacific, which is 5 a.m. their time . . . in essence, they're up for 24 hours to get through a day. It's not fun. It's not a good experience. We were too afraid to be too drastic, but there is some common sense out there that shortening playing days or starting times could be beneficial.

CC: You're also paying 15% of the field in most tournaments this year, increasing the number of people who will cash in most tournaments by 50%. Did the experience with last year's Main Event payout structure influence that series wide change?

SP: [Last year's Main Event] was the first time we dipped our toe in the pool [to test deeper payout structures]. It's tricky. We have come recognize that paying more people is a positive thing. It helps with the fun aspect. Certainly walking away with 50% more than you paid to play in the event, or more, and paying 50% more players can lead to a lot more people having fun.

CC: How do you strike a balance between having a big first-place prize while also giving more people a positive experience with a deeper payout structure?

SP: It's very delicate and very difficult. If you think of the lottery or if you think of daily fantasy sports, the human psyche is drawn to the idea of paying a little to win a lot. People don't play the lottery until there's $1 billion to win, because for some reason $400 million isn't enough. You can't deny the existence of the appeal. But mathematicians are telling us "You guys are crazy. Every position should relate to the other. You should pay no two positions the same. First should be getting nowhere near that much. Anyone at the final table shouldn't be getting anywhere near as much." If you were doing a smooth mathematical model this is far from how you'd do it.

At the end of the day, it's the player's money, and we're just helping determine how it gets redistributed. We know if we altered too much, if we said "Instead of winning $1 million for first you're going to win $182,000 because that's what the Pythagorean theorem says that's the right thing to do," it would have a dramatic impact on attendance, because people would reconsider whether their investment into the event is worth it for the return. There's a lot of thought and a lot time and consideration spent to make sure we're doing this right, and that said, we continue to evolve as we see the marketplace and where things are going.

CC: Are the payout structures published?

SP: Yes, but we actually didn't get to where we wanted to be at this time. We're still working on an actual payout calculator, where you simply put in the event you're playing and type in any number of entries and it will automatically populate what the prizing will be. That's what we're trying to get to, and we hope to have that up prior to the series starting.

CC: After the disappointment many felt regarding the first-place prize in the Colossus last year, how important is it to you to have that information available to players?

SP: At the end of the day we really do want to be transparent. We want to be sure everyone understands what they're getting into in advance. We will be completely honest, we had 8,773 players in the 2006 Main Event. Our loftiest projections internally last year for the Colossus were 10,000-12,000 players. We didn't anticipate 22,000+. We really believe we could have had 25,000 or more if we were on point more in things like registration and will call. It was overwhelming; we never did payout calculators out that far. It's actually a laborious task, and to go from 10,000 players to 20,000 is twice as much work.

CC: You touched briefly on the registration process last year. Can you talk about the changes you've made that will make a difference this year?

SP: [Not allowing players to pre-register for more than one flight] will certainly help. You're not going to be starting at a table that only has six players while the table next to you has nine because there are three players that registered for all of the flights but survived another one. It will be a little trickier to get in a line to reenter the event, but with six starting flights over three days, we really don't think it will be that bad and we'll be prepared and fully-staffed in all cages to handle that. On the back end when it gets time to pay everyone out, by paying in flight over six different times, we'll really alleviate the payout issue we experienced last year too.

CC: How close were you to missing the bubble last year?

SP: I read about it in your story and was not aware of that at all. In fact, it never got back to being discussed with me. I was surprised to hear that. I do believe that it's logistically challenging [to pay out over 2,000 people spread across several different rooms], so this move to payouts on Day 1 will help that.

CC: The special events — the Colossus, the Millionaire Maker, the Monster Stack, and this year the Crazy Eights event — have taken on a life of their own.

SP: We've been overwhelmed by the response. The typical $1,500 field size — 2,000 was great, 3,000 was unbelievable — to see these special events get to 7,000 players and 22,000 for Colossus … it's hard for a player to pick and choose which event to play. You look at the schedule, we've got 69 events this year. Of course you can't play them all. I think we've aided the public's ability to circle their events, pick what works for them. Ty Stewart deserves all the credit here for his marketing ingenuity to create these tentpole events that stand out as ones you should plan your trip around. It's been very effective for us.

CC: Another innovation this year is the team event. There have been team events in the past, but none quite like this. There have been a lot of questions on Twitter about the logistics. How difficult do you think this event is going to be to run?

SP: It will be logistically challenging for us because of the new dynamics involved, and you're getting floor staff and dealers and players all with no experience in a format like this, trying to wade their way through it. If the response we've seen thus far is any indication, it will be really popular. It does put a bracelet in anyone's reach for as little as $250.

Day 1 will be challenging for players. If you think of a basketball team you've got five guys out there at a time and you're all part of it together. In poker, you've got to stick to the one hand per person rule. It's not logistically feasible to have 27 additional players crowding around a table while the other nine are playing. We believe that for Day 2 and Day 3 of this event, we'll be able to structure the setup to be very player friendly, where the teams can be nearby cheering on their guys. But Day 1, depending on the number of teams that register for this event, it's going to be challenging just from a spacing standpoint. Our idea going in is that there is one guy inside the ropes playing the hands, the rest of the team has to remain outside the ropes. If the player at the table is not in the hand, he can get up and go to the ropes and talk to his teammates, he can tag out and the other person can come in, that sort of thing. The one thing that will be challenging is the wanting to all be crowded around the table.

CC: Justin Schwartz is predicting at least one major fight.

SP: In between team members?

CC: Between team members or between teams, I don't know which.

SP: Honestly, this event was created with three letters in mind: F-U-N. It's Ty Stewart's creation. He wants the guy whose wife never comes out because she doesn't get to see him for three days straight because he's glued to a poker table 14 hours a day, and she's stuck doing everything on her own that weekend. The brother or sister that doesn't play poker but just knows from their sibling what it's like, or the home game guys who play, they come out together but they're at different tables and they don't get to experience the same things together. Father and sons. The real goal is to get people who wouldn't partake in poker or the World Series of Poker before to give it a try, to have a fun, low-stakes, low-stress, enjoyable experience. That's what we're trying to create. I hope the players that are so advanced and professional will choose not to play in this event.

CC: Talk about the relationship with One Drop and why it's worked for the last five years.

SP: It's been incredibly successful all around. The issue of water and its effects on the globe are significant. We have a big international audience that participates in our events, and people can really relate and understand this charity's impact. We've raised $12 million since the partnership began. It's off the backs of the players who have done that, and they deserve the applause here. But it's something that's been really successful for us, and we want it to continue because we are seeing the impact. We are sending players to these third-world countries where water is a life-or-death issue, and they are contributing to the building out of the projects to get clean water to folks. We're very proud of how it's all worked and want to make sure that we can continue to contribute funds to this worthy cause.

CC: Why did you decide to move the Little One for One Drop after the start of the Main Event, while the Main Event is going on?

SP: It remains to be seen whether it's a smart move or not. Without July 4th weekend coinciding with the Main Event this year, we expect more people to plan their time to be out here, and if they don't happen to make it through the Main Event, they will be looking for something to do. The Little One has been one of the most successful events we've run since we started running it. We hope it does well there. We've seen other properties in Las Vegas do very well with post-Main Event tournaments that captured those Main Event players who were eliminated, so we'll see if we can keep them on the property, awarding one last bracelet and doing some good for charity at the same time.

CC: Any chance you'll give me a scoop on where the $1 million Big One for One Drop is going to be?

SP: We don't exactly know yet. We would have announced it if we had a definitive deal locked up. We are working on it. I can tell you Europe is where we're pivoted toward, to try to be in better proximity to European and Asian players. Hopefully we'll pull it off and have something to announce next month.
Seth Palansky talks scheduling, growing poker and frustrating mathematicians is republished from CasinoVendors.com.
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Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.