For the record: the importance of keeping score

keep tally

I spent a few days over the past couple of weeks staring at a spreadsheet full of numbers. After my eyeballs stopped spinning and I untangled the wires of my abacus, some of my work produced the revelation that players on the European Poker Tour (EPT) contested prize pools of €499,908,225 over its first nine seasons.

Let’s all take a moment to gulp together as we contemplate those figures. That’s nearly half a billion smackers for a game of cards.

PokerStars, the tour’s sponsors, put together a press release to carry the news and also released an animated video (watch it below) taking us through the tour’s rapid expansion. It was an appropriate fanfare, but here’s the something you maybe don’t know: those numbers are actually probably too low.

When we were going back through the tournament results, which date from 2004, it soon became obvious that they were incomplete. Particularly in the early days, record-keeping in poker wasn’t what it is now and we quickly established that some tournaments had been played during EPT festivals whose results had never been published. Instead of guessing the size of these prize-pools we omitted them from the calculations and focused only on those we could verify. The fact is, we’re probably already through that half a billion euro mark, we just can’t quite tell how far.

As has been written countless times, the EPT has become the most successful poker tour in the world and these numbers tend to bear out the assertion. But beyond the raw statistics, there are other small ways in which poker has changed owing to the EPT, not least in the more professional approach now taken to keep records up to date.

These days it is impossible to think that a major tournament could take place without the score being noted, and the Global Poker Index’s (GPI) acquisition of the Hendon Mob database clearly suggests that there may actually be a way to monetise results-keeping in poker. It remains to be seen exactly what the GPI have planned, but they are certainly tabulating and analysing poker results more closely than ever before.

But back in those early days of the EPT, the host casino would usually have more control over the actual mechanics of the tournament than PokerStars or the EPT itself ever did. The online giants would drape their branding and arrange television coverage, but the existing card-room management would determine start times, dinner breaks and a side event schedule—and manage the records. Those missing tournament results likely languish to this day in filing cabinets in Copenhagen, Dortmund, Vienna or Deauville, where they were shoved at tournaments’ conclusions, probably at 7am and with the cleaners already hoovering around the tables.

I have also spent some time in my career sifting through boxes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where the Binion’s archive is now stored. There are a few binders in there that contain the original results documents from the early days of the World Series of Poker.  “Official” makes this sound too grand, actually. These are usually scrawled notes on scraps of paper, sometimes graced with ruled lines around them to make tables. And they are also far from complete.

These were the days of payments in bricks of cash, which winners would then squirrel away lest they be gnawed at by the IRS or creditors. Or the wife. Many of the spaces in the “Name” column are therefore blank or filled with pseudonyms. (Some character named only “The Frenchman” seemed to do rather well.)

Anonymity is not really on offer in poker anymore, much to the annoyance of the tax-crippled players from Scandinavia. But it’s important that records are kept, not only for the sake of pedantic completeness, or accountants’ audits, but also to continue poker’s attempts to be regarded as akin to a sport. There are droves of stats fanatics in the likes of baseball and cricket and if we keep on keeping track of poker, it can offer them another tab in their notebooks.