Table Talk: Can Alpha8 be Profitable for WPT?

Johannesburg in the evening

High Roller tournaments are all the rage these days for a small group of high-stakes poker players around the world. They splash around in big pots worth a lot of money in an effort to put an elite title on their résumé and in their Hendon Mob results.

Some fans enjoy watching the tournaments when available as well, with well-known faces and a few wealthy businessmen usually in the mix. It’s a glimpse into a world that the vast majority of people don’t understand but by which they are fascinated nonetheless.

So the World Poker Tour jumped aboard the High Roller bandwagon and launched the Alpha8 series last year. The series of high-stakes tournaments offered a $100K buy-in tournament with unlimited reentries. But more than that, players were also offered top-notch accommodations at the venues, limousine transportation, parties and festivities, and the general star treatment.

Just to clarify, players who can afford to buy in to a $100K tournament (more than once, mind you) are promised five-star treatment – on WPT’s dime – to compete.

With that said, Alpha8 started off with a bang. The inaugural event was held at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in southern Florida last August with 21 players. The top four players were paid from the $2 million prize pool.

The second event was at the Palm Beach Casino Mayfair in London in October. The 20 players in the £100K event created a $3.1 million prize pool. And at the Royal Beach Casino in St. Kitts in November, there were 28 players for a $2.7 million prize pool.

Despite how the WPT portrays it, though, those are not necessarily the number of individual players but the number of entries. That is not clear in the wording of promotional material.

Nevertheless, the turnouts were decent, prize pools substantial, and potential promising. Then came February and the offering of the next Alpha8 event at the Emperors Palace Casino in Johannesburg, South Africa. It seems there were nine players with one reentry from Antonio Esfandiari. The top three were paid, and the winner received $500K.

Basically, it was an SNG with the benefit of playing on a beautiful set for a filmed tournament, along with an amazing hotel stay and other perks.

My first thought is that this can’t be profitable. There may be a lucrative television deal in place that will cover some of the costs, and the venues must be compensated greatly for the hosting of the Alpha8, but is there really enough money being made to keep this going?

My second thought is that the same players continue to show up over and over again. Daniel Cates is not as regular of a live High Roller tournament player as the likes of Jason Mercier, Erik Seidel, Philipp Gruissem, Phil Ivey, Jeff Gross, and Antonio Esfandiari, but his presence at the tournament was not exactly a surprise. The only real “story” at the South Africa tournament this weekend was a local businessman named Kinesh Pather, who held his own and took second in the tournament for $275K. How many storylines are there, really?

As always, I wish the best for the WPT and acknowledge all that they’ve given to me and to the poker world overall. I think the WPT regional and league activities are something that really reaches out to more people and makes them feel welcome to play, and the WPT’s lowering of buy-ins to bigger WPT events has been a positive step as well.

Catering to the highest-stakes players in the world, though, is not my favorite move by the WPT and may be short-sighted and doomed. As popular as some of these players are with the poker public, there are only so many SNGs that can be fun to watch on television when the same players compete almost every time.

Perhaps I’m jaded because I see these players with more and more opportunities to compete for stakes that are out of the reach of most of us. Nearly every EPT stop has a Super High Roller event now, and the WPT hosts the occasional $100K buy-in. The Aussie Millions just featured a $25K buy-in, $100K buy-in, and the massive $250K buy-in. And Phil Ivey won the latter. Yawn.

Daniel Cates just won the WPT Alpha8 in Johannesburg, not long after he spent some time in an interview complaining about how many players and poker sites owed money to him. He just won $500K at the Alpha8, but by the tone of his recent interview, that doesn’t even come close to what he’s really owed.

For most people who have real-life struggles with money, including me, the Cates victory is just another one to which I cannot relate.