Despite the challenges facing it this year, the World Series of Poker has been running fairly smoothly.
Before the series began there were worries about various logistical or emergent problems that could arise. Endless lineups, critical dealer shortages, event cancellations, controversial disqualifications or a massive COVID outbreak were among them.
With less than a month left to go in the series, none of those things has happened, at least not to the extent that some feared. True, there has been a bit of a dealer shortage, but its impact has been small. From the players’ perspective, it has meant a need to be patient with occasional ten-handed play and some less experienced dealers than usual.
That said, the unusual timing and vaccination requirements of this year’s series have produced one significant effect. Attendance, as expected, is well down this year. How much so has varied from event to event. For instance, attendance for the $1000 Super Turbo Bounty early in the series was almost unchanged from 2019, the last year it took place in person. Conversely, the field for the $10,000 Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em Championship was cut nearly in half.
One week into the WSOP, I observed that it looked like the drop in overall attendance would be roughly one-third. That trend has continued.
But what about the Main Event? That’s the part of the series people care about the most. Its first starting flight will begin exactly one week from today, on Nov. 4. A one-third drop in attendance would mean a little over 5,700 entries. That, in turn, would be the smallest field since 2005.
Searching for a Main Event bellwether
I’ve been wondering whether there’s a better way to predict Main Event attendance than just eyeballing the performance of the overall series, however.
The WSOP is a little bit hard to predict because the schedule changes every year. Generally speaking, it expands every year, but events get dropped as well as added. They also get moved around, which matters because the crowds aren’t consistent throughout the duration of the series.
There’s usually an early rush, a mid-series slump, and then an even greater flurry of action in the lead-up to the Main Event. Weekends are also busier than weekdays, and the spacing matters when it comes to events that are similar to one another.
Fortunately, placement on the schedule doesn’t seem to matter as much for certain marquee events. If a particular Championship or, say, the Monster Stack is someone’s primary reason for attending the series, they’ll play it whenever it happens. Naturally, the Main Event itself falls into this category.
So, the question becomes whether there’s any particular marquee event that most closely resembles the Main Event. If there is one, and if it has already happened, then that should be our best predictor of Main Event attendance.
From afar, the Millionaire Maker looks like the Main Event
One promising event is the Millionaire Maker. With its guaranteed seven-figure top prize and a comparatively affordable $1000 buy-in, you could call it an alternative to the Main Event for players on a budget.
At first glance, it seems like a good event to look at because the attendance figures are usually similar.
The “Milly Maker,” as players usually refer to it, began in 2013. That year’s attendance was virtually identical to the Main Event’s: 6,343 for the Millionaire Maker, and 6,352 for the Main Event. Both have also exhibited a similar amount of growth since then. The 2019 Millionaire Maker got 8,809 players, while the Main Event got 8,569.
This year’s Millionaire Maker got only 5,326 entries, a drop of nearly 40%. If the Main Event were to follow its trend, that would mean around 5,140 entries.
However, despite being of similar size and long-term performance, they don’t track each other very well year to year. The Main Event’s growth has been quite steady, while the Millionaire Maker’s has come mostly in two big jumps, one in its second year and the other in 2019, when the WSOP was celebrating its 50th anniversary.
$10k PLO Championship: the Four-Card Main Event
As it turns out, we can do considerably better when it comes to predicting single year fluctuations in Main Event attendance. Ignoring the average size of fields and looking only at percentage changes, one event stands out as having tracked the Main Event closely in recent years. That’s the $10,000 Eight-Handed Pot-Limit Omaha Championship.
That makes sense, since they’re both $10k Championships, and represent the two most popular ways to play poker in the 21st century.
The PLO Championship also happens to be one of the oldest events on the schedule. However, the correlation between it and the Main Event is more recent. That’s probably because Omaha enjoyed a boost in its online popularity in the years after Black Friday. Before then, during the boom years, the vast majority of players were only interested in No-Limit Hold’em.
So, if you go back to the early 2000s, the PLO Championship and the Main Event weren’t very correlated at all. However, look at their respective annual changes since 2014:
Every other potential bellwether event I considered had at least one recent year where its annual change in attendance differed from the Main Event’s by 10 percentage points or more. Most also sometimes gained when the Main Event dropped or vice versa. Conversely, the change for the PLO Championship has been within 3.5 percentage points of the Main Event’s since 2014, and often much closer than that. From 2018 to 2019, they were effectively identical, differing by just three thousandths of a percentage point.
This year’s PLO Championship drew 344 entries, a drop of 33.6% from 2019. If the Main Event matches that drop, it will get about 5,690 entries.
On one hand, that’s a little bit of a boring result. A 33.6% drop in attendance is essentially the same one-third I guessed at simply by eyeballing the numbers for the first week of the series. On the other hand, it’s always nice when two different estimates line up, as it suggests that you’re on the right track.
Even so, there are a couple of reasons you might want to adjust that guess.
First, there will be four starting flights in 2021, rather than the three that have been traditional in recent years. This may not make a big difference, however, as the event is still a freezeout, so it doesn’t mean players can fire more bullets. For lesser events, having more flexibility in starting flights can boost attendance. However, the WSOP Main Event is not something that interested players try to fit into their schedule. Rather, they build their schedules around the Main Event.
What may matter more is the status of the Main Event as a once-in-a-lifetime dream for many recreational players. In a year like this, I think that hurts it. Think about it: If you thought you’d play the Main Event exactly once in your life, would you choose the year when attendance will be way down, and when you might get disqualified if you catch COVID? I would not.
Setting an over/under for the 2021 WSOP Main Event
For that reason, I’d expect the Main Event to underperform the PLO Championship a bit in terms of annual change, though it may still do better than the Millionaire Maker. Where does that leave us?
Well, the 2005 Main Event got 5,619 entries, and that was our first point of comparison. One way or another, this year’s field should be the smallest since then. If it looks more like the Millionaire Maker, then it might even be smaller. If its annual change is more like the PLO Championship’s, it might be a little bigger.
That being the case, if we want to set a betting line, 5,619 seems like as good a place to draw it as any. What’s your prediction: Over, or under?