Table Talk: Enough of the High Roller Madness


Someone pour me a glass of the finest cognac that the bar has in stock. And please put it on the tab of any of the high-stakes poker players who regularly throw down $25k to $100k for tournament action. I’m sure they won’t mind paying for my drink.

When I returned from my recent vacation, I had a fresh outlook on poker. I monitor the poker news for several of my gigs, and I’ve been trying to view tournament poker players with a renewed sense of appreciation for the work that they do. I wanted to get excited for them again, read their stories and be happy for their hard-earned victories, whether they were pros or newcomers to the game.

For the most part, I’ve been successful in my mission. And then high roller tournaments ruin it for me.

When high roller tournaments first came on the poker scene, they were a rarity, something to highlight the big names in poker, those who played for higher stakes than most. It offered a look into that world without fans having to filter through a list of tournament entrants that included new and unfamiliar names.

Over time, however, those tournaments have become commonplace. Look at any major tournament series, either live or online, and there is a high roller event included. They are awarded the same trophies and accolades as other events, simply because it’s technically “open” to anyone who wants to play.

But the price tag on these tournaments has grown to a point that it is becoming prohibitive for the vast majority of players. It used to be that a $25k buy-in event was considered the highest available, though the World Series of Poker did introduce the $50k Poker Players Championship in 2006. It was the highest buy-in tournament at the time and was thought to be something quite special, bringing the best of the best to the tables for the fans as well as the players.

Today, however, the European Poker Tour has at least one high roller tournament at every stop. It’s not unusual now to find a €25k buy-in as well as a €100k buy-in. And the World Poker Tour jumped on board in recent years as well with a $100k buy-in tournament that has now turned into its own tour – Alpha 8. And the Aussie Millions not only features those types of buy-ins but a $250k buy-in, too.

To top it off, most of the high roller events now also offer rebuys.

When is enough enough?

These tournaments find the same people exchanging money on a regular basis now. The events consist of the same names in poker, with the exception of an occasional new face of a player who just won a major event elsewhere. There are also wealthy businessmen who join the games because the money on the line offers them a unique chance to play with the best and win an amount that means something to them.

In my opinion, though, these types of events exclude the vast majority of players. The amount of money required to play is extremely prohibitive, and no matter how much a typical grinder wins in regular and affordable tournaments, there is no chance at affording a seat in a $25k or $100k buy-in event.

It also leaves out most poker fans. Sure, they can tune in to the EPT or WPT and see their favorite players. Daniel Negreanu will most likely be in a seat, as will Erik Seidel, Phillip Gruissem, Antonio Esfandiari, Dan Shak, Sam Trickett, etc. Phil Ivey may join, and a businessman like Bill Perkins is no stranger to the high stakes tables either. That part of it all is good for poker fans, watching some of the best names in the game battle it out for millions of dollars. But what is missing is the identification that fans have with the players. Most fans cannot identify with players who pony up $25k or $100k (plus re-buys).

The WSOP Main Event offers a $10k buy-in, and while that is too much money for most players, those who dream of playing the tournament scrimp and save for it, or play satellites with friends, or try to win their seats in online tournaments. There are ways to get it done, as shown by more than 6k of them showing up each year to give it a try. But a $100k buy-in is off the radar of most players, not even something to strive for.

Therefore, the Moneymaker effect is not even in play. No one looks at the high roller event champions and thinks, “That guy is just like me” or “If he can do it, so can I.”

I contend that high roller tournaments do nothing for the game except provide an avenue for the highest stakes players to move their money around and pick up extra titles. They also get a lot of recognition for the games, as the poker media has put as much emphasis on the coverage of those tournaments as any others.

I’m afraid that the extreme focus that is put on the high roller events will turn many players off to the game over time. It’s time to put the proper attention back on the events that are attainable for most players, as well as highlight the winners that are new to the game. It’s the only way to keep the game growing.