The Price of Poker

Price of Poker

Mid stages of a tournament, we’re on the flop holding Ks 8s, which we’d called from the big blind, and we saw a pretty flop, As 2s 6h. We’ve got the nut flush draw and our opponent has just moved all in, we put him on top pair, therefore we have 9 spades to catch, approximately a 2/1 hand. We ask the dealer how much then we add on the raise, blinds and antes pre and we work out if we are getting the 2/1 price we need to call.

Pot odds will dictate our decision, if the price is 2/1 or better, we call, if the price is less than 2/1, we pass.

But what if the dealer refused to count our opponents stack and in fact concealed it, just stating that it wasn’t for all our chips and we’d have to make the decision based on that.

Everyone would agree, that was an appalling decision by the dealer. Poker is a game of incomplete information, but not being told how much your decision to call will cost you, that’s not the information that should be incomplete.

In tournament poker our buy in is made up of two amounts of money, the cash that goes into the prize pool which we are playing for and hoping to win back, not only our own contribution but that of many others. The other amount is the tournament fee, the rake, the juice, the cut, the take, the vig. This is money that the players will never see again but it’s money that compensates the bricks and mortar casinos for hosting us, it’s the money that pays for the staff and the dealers who allow us to play this wonderful game. It’s made clear what this is with the buy in format £100+£10; £100 goes to the prize pool, £10 to the organisers.

Myself and most other UK players are used to this fee being 10%, and for this fee to be clearly stated up front:

UKIPTs £700+£70 and £1,000+£100 for this season’s events.
GPS £400+£40.
25/25 series £200+£20.

When we look at bigger buy in events like EPTs, high rollers and super high rollers, this fee is advertised as approximately 6% for 5k buy ins, 3% for 10k and 2% for 25k, 50k and 100k buy ins.

However, a growing trend by some casinos and tours is to include the registration fee with the buy in. The recent Sky UKPC had a straight £1,000 buy in and previously the WPT500 and WPT Main at Dusk Till Dawn had £500 and £3,000 buy ins.

This resulted in the £1,000 buy in being £900+£100, the £500 being £450+£50 and the £3,000 being £2,700+£300. A price increase on the usual 10%, where we actually pay as much as 11.1%. But more importantly, a pricing structure that seems to have been designed purely to hide this higher than normal fee. Possibly with the intention of confusing the average punter, the majority of whom won’t read the small print, after all if the buy in is £1,000 and the registration fee is £100, 100 is 10% of 1,000, right? But £100 is not 10% of £900.

Combine this with a one million guaranteed prize pool, make the numbers published on the Hendon Mob match the advertised guarantee rather than the actual amounts given out as prizes and we end up with something that fits a marketing strategy and a squeeze on players but doesn’t accurately represent the total money charged to play or the total paid out.


A similar lack of transparency that has been the hallmark of the World Series of Poker. It’s simply not immediately clear how much you’re paying towards a prize pool and how much is paid in tournament fees. They don’t advertise a breakdown, you either know because you’ve worked out prize pools and payouts from previous years, or you’re in the dark about how much of the money goes to the prize pool and how much is our fee for playing.

To a lesser extent, some criticism can be levelled at PokerStars events. An asterisk and small print reveals that 3% of EPT & UKIPT prize pools will be withheld for staffing costs. This makes a £1,000+£100 UKIPT Nottingham buy in really a £970+£130. A 10% fee becomes 13.4%. A €5,000+€300 EPT Malta buy in becomes a €4,850+€450. A 6% fee becomes 9.27%.

These numbers are published (in small print) and most regulars know them, but along with the events mentioned above, for players, it is as clear as mud how much we will actually pay to participate. We wouldn’t tolerate a dealer not giving us the chip count of an all in player, we wouldn’t tolerate a menu in a restaurant with no prices or a supermarket that hides what the goods cost. The normal operation of a marketplace is that the provider of a service makes his price known to the consumer and the consumer consents to purchase the service at that price. If he doesn’t think the price represents good value, he doesn’t buy the goods or service.

Any attempt to hide the true price is angle shooting. As the consumers/players, as we become aware of this, we are rightly suspicious of their motives. Trust and respect are damaged and that will inevitably lead to ill feeling and resentment.

Poker needs to be profitable to the service providers, the price we pay, if it’s reasonable, isn’t my issue. My issue is that the price we actually pay is higher than advertised, higher than what we are led to believe. For poker to thrive, the providers need to have a sustainable business model and if the price needs to be 11.1% or 13.4%, then that is what it needs to be, but a fair and transparent marketing and advertising of that pricing model is essential for continued goodwill.

It needs to be said, I would rather pay 13.4% for UKIPT staffed events than 10% for lesser skilled staff. I’ve played in some good and some bad card rooms and UKIPT/EPT staff are head and shoulders above the standard of anywhere else I’ve played. From the tour manager, to TDs and floor staff, to dealers and staff at buy in desks and the information desk, they are quite simply the best in the business. Having played in some poorly organised tournaments, I know PokerStars provide a premium service and I’m happy to pay more for it.

Equally, Dusk till Dawn is a jewel in the UK poker landscape. Rob Yong and Simon Trumper are rightly highly respected and admired for their years of relentless work. Time after time putting their money where their mouth is, creating huge guaranteed prize pools, stepping in to save events and giving the live UK poker scene the solid foundation it has.

When poker pros from around the world are asked what their favourite card room is, huge numbers of them talk about a converted warehouse on an industrial estate in the East Midlands. There’s nowhere else I’d rather play cards.

And there’s no question that both PokerStars and Dusk till Dawn have given good value to UK players. Both have had significant amounts of overlay for events they’ve organised in the past few years. Overlay is the shortfall where an event guarantees a prize pool, say 1 million, but the event has insufficient entries to generate the million and the organisers make up that shortfall, effectively giving money to the players.

There is no question that they give great value and provide a fantastic service to the poker community, but they sometimes fall a little short in transparency for fees. Before buying in, a player should know the fee they are paying to play. This isn’t always the case.

The Price of Poker

Price of poker table
The web site for WPT Nottingham has a table which states 10% of the prize pool is withheld as a registration fee. That is accurate but it is an accounting trick. To think the most pedantic, nerdiest, group of maths geeks ever assembled on the planet wouldn’t see through this, it’s an insult. We sniff out bullshit narratives for a living, this bluff isn’t getting through. We know that the real rake is the amount taken as a percentage of the buy in that goes to the prize pool, so as per the tables above for WPT, that’s 11.1%.

WPT table

Another recent trend that is becoming more widespread is the inclusion of entries to a further tournament, a satellite within a tournament. My first experience of these was my local Edinburgh Genting casino, who used to add 2 entries into a larger buy in upcoming seasonal tournament. These seats were added at a cost to the casino and represented extra value for the players. This extra incentive, this bonus value, was appreciated and added an extra dimension at the final tables where the final few pay jumps held extra value.

Then in June last year, a seasonal special event, the Summer Sizzler was announced, it was to have a £25k guaranteed prize pool, but part of that prize pool was x5 £600 packages to Newcastle GPS. Rather than added value given by the casino, the cost of these packages was to be taken from the prize pool. In effect, the casino was deciding for you how to spend £600 of the money you would win (£440 seat, £160 cash for travel/hotel).

I wasn’t going to be able to play Newcastle GPS so I was then faced with the prospect of playing a tournament where up to 12% of the prize pool I was contributing to was of no use to me. But even if I had been available to play, I didn’t feel it was right that the venue could dictate to the players how the prize pool, money that belongs to the players, should be spent. Why not include x5 60” plasma TVs for the top 5 finishers, paid for from the prize pool? It’s the same thing!

The way it is worded appears to be deliberately ambiguous, “£25,000 guaranteed, including x5 £600 GPS packages”. Many players reading that believed that the casino was including the seats, topping up the value of the tournament to encourage people to play. So clearly as a cynical marketing ploy, it is effective.

I completely understand why a casino would want to offer payout structures like this. It is entirely in their interests to get players to pre-spend part of their winnings on entries to events at their venue. But it is not transparent and it is not the casino’s money, it is our money, the prize pool belongs to the players.

The Scottish poker community has a fantastic social media presence, in thanks wholly to Martin J. Smith, who runs Poker In Edinburgh, Poker In Glasgow and His websites and FaceBook pages have given us a really good sense of community and let us come together to project our voice.

The majority of responses on social media to these ‘included seats’ were negative, many interesting points were raised and anomalies in the structure highlighted. However I need to give full credit to the casino, this event went ahead as planned with some minor changes, but since then there has not been a repeat of the casino dictating how players’ money is spent.

This feels like a victory for player power but that was only possible because the casino recognised it has to take the players with it and keep them onside. Fair play to Genting Edinburgh for doing that.

Some of the key arguments used against this ‘satellite inside a tournament’ structure were:

● The prize pool belongs to the players, casinos should not dictate how it is spent.

● Being raked twice, £10 rake for initial entry, if you win a seat, £40 rake is taken from that.

● You may not be able to attend the event, so lose £440 value.

● If the seat is transferable, and you sell it, you will likely have to sell at less than face value. Seats were changing hands at £350-£400, a big difference over winning your own £440 cash.

● Tournament pace and structure is altered because there is a double bubble, 1 for the cash prizes and 1 for the x5 £600 packages.

● In this event the pay jump from 6th to 5th was greater than the pay jump from 5th to 4th or the pay jump from 4th to 3rd. Pay jumps should never be smaller than the previous pay jump.

● It is in effect, a compulsory ‘last longer’ bet, where the £100+£10 buy in is really an £85+£10+£15 ‘last longer’.

● The terminology “included seats” is just not transparent or understood properly by the majority of players.

Although we haven’t seen this repeated in Scotland, elsewhere in the UK it seems to be a regular occurrence. Tournaments regularly run with 10%, 20% and as much as 30% of the prize pool withheld, converted into seats for upcoming events, which ensure the prize pool, the players’ money, never leaves that casino. You have been forced to spend it on their upcoming tournaments. I feel it’s an appalling abuse. The casino’s role should solely be to hold onto the prize pool while we play, it should have no say in how that money is spent. That money is ours and they are taking liberties with it.

Where this happens in an extreme way is Dusk till Dawn. There are 2 recent examples I’d like to highlight.

Firstly in February and March this year, the Sky Poker UKPC mini £100+£10, £200k GTD, with x50 £1k seats taken from the £200k guaranteed prize pool (£50,000 taken from the prize pool). 209 players cashed in this event, 51st place finisher received £500, 50th got £500 and a £1,000 seat. The next occurrence of a £1,000 pay jump didn’t happen again until the final table, the pay jump from 8th to 7th.

Clearly this is a massive distortion of the normal structure of a tournament. £50,000 of players’ money is automatically re-circulated within the card room, raked twice, and the players have no say in the matter other than to not attend and not support this fantastic card room and the great events they hold.

Secondly, last November we had the WPT, with a series of events leading up to the £3k main event.

If you played the series of WPT events:

WPT Warm Up £125, £250k GTD, with x100 WPT500 £500 seats taken from the prize pool (£50k). If you won one of the WPT500 seats, and then played…

£1 million GTD WPT500 with x50 £3k seats (£150k), won one of those seats and then played…

£1 million GTD WPT Main event £3k.

You’ve just had your money raked 3 times, whether you wanted it or not.

Looking at the results pages for the WPT500:

It’s impossible to work out at a glance if the prize pool displayed includes the ‘included’ seats, or if they’ve been deducted. While the UKPC main reports a £1,002,000 prize pool, yet we know that includes the rake and the actual prize pool paid out is really £901,800.


UKPC no correction

Because of the combination of the 1 million guarantee and the registration fee being deducted from the prize pool this rather strange anomaly occurs. In a situation where there are 900 players and it doesn’t look like hitting 1,000, there is no incentive for anyone else to join the tournament as no extra money from the next 100 entries goes into the prize pool. It merely meets the card room’s tournament fees and stops them having to pay out an overlay. In the eternal battle of the players’ interests versus the casinos’ interests, it would be in the player’s best interest not to make other players aware of the overlay. 11.1% more players just makes the event 11.1% harder to win. The optimal play from the players’ point of view is to dissuade others from coming to play. Casinos rely on word of mouth as a way to attract players, having a situation where its optimal for players to be on social media ‘radio silence’ to maximise their own chances, clearly that isn’t ideal.

Huge overlays and casinos losing money by staging events with guarantees that aren’t met, isn’t good for the long term prospect of poker. Casinos and card rooms need to be viable and profitable.

These observations needs to be balanced with the gratitude we have that card rooms like Dusk till Dawn and tours like the UKIPT stick their neck out and put on £1,000,000 guaranteed events. These big numbers draw the crowds and create excitement and hype, stimulating the UK poker economy.

So the balance has to be right for us both. Poker tours, casinos and card rooms need to be profitable but players need to be treated with respect. The product on sale and its cost has to be transparent. No one likes to feel conned or cheated so it is fundamental that before we cough up our hard earned money, players need to be aware of ‘the Price of Poker’.

When you fail to be transparent, we have to assume it’s because you have something to hide.


One thought on “The Price of Poker

  1. Very nice, in depth. Players are waking up to the cost of exchanging money for chips. You might have grown an appreciation for the definition of “effective rake” from the player’s perspective:

    “Ideal Poker” is a theory to stabilize inter-site effective rake by creating a standardized measurement for effective rake.

    Please send along other related articles! Good Luck!

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