The summer of poker officially kicked off last week at the ARIA on the Las Vegas Strip. While the World Series of Poker was preparing to start over at the Rio, the high rollers of the poker world were gathering near the ARIA poker room to collect seat assignments for which they paid $300K each.
The 2016 Super High Roller Bowl built on the success of the past year and again offered a massive high buy-in tournament. Pre-registration took place months ago and hit its maximum of 49 players easily. The buy-ins were rake-free, and the sponsors coordinated to toss an extra $300K into the prize pool as added incentive for the competitors. Those sponsors included 888poker, ARIA, and Poker Central, as well as names like Pizza Hut, Anheuser-Busch, Amazon Coins, Jack in the Box, and Dollar Shave Club.
In the end, four days of high-stakes action broadcast on outlets like Twitch and CBS Sports Network resulted in seven players getting pieces of the $15 million prize pool. Dan Shak took the minimum payout of $600K for seventh place, and others who cashed were Bryn Kenney, Matt Berkey, Phil Hellmuth, and Erik Seidel. And after a grueling heads-up battle, Rainer Kempe beat Fedor Holz for the title and top prize of $5 million.
Entertainment Value: High
The tournament was praised by players for everything from the organization to the shot clocks that forced players to act within 40 seconds in most cases. Even with the time limitations, players felt that they had ample flexibility with the solid structure.
Viewers enjoyed the action as well. They had a number of ways to view the tournament and see some of their favorites like Phil Hellmuth in all their glory. The commentators – industry veteran Ali Nejad and poker pro Nick Schulman – were hailed for their detailed analysis and ability to work together quite well. And with Kara Scott and Jesse Sylvia doing highlights during tournament breaks, poker fans got their fill of poker information in all forms.
And despite a few light-hearted complaints about what seemed like millions of Dollar Shave Club ads, the general consensus was that the big names as sponsors was a positive move for poker and something that has the potential to bring more dollars and popularity to the game going forward.
Relatability Value: Questionable
Allow me to preface this by saying that the 2016 Super High Roller Bowl was a success in almost every sense of the word. I was one of the many enjoying the coverage in various forms.
The problem is relatability. This is not a tournament to which I and most others can relate. I never once thought that I could, some day, be one of those players. I had no aspiration to one day have $300K that I could use for a poker tournament buy-in. I did not hope to have enough money that a bustout from such an event would result in being able to say, “That’s poker.”
On the contrary, I found that I was detached from the players. Despite knowing of most of them through my decade-plus years in poker writing, I had no vested interest in who won or lost. The money won or lost would likely have little to no effect on any of their daily lives. The outcome would have little chance of broadening the game or inspiring more people to play it.
While many poker fans tuned in to see high-level poker and the associated commentary, most of those viewers were likely already poker players in some form. The Bowl may have inspired more players to want to play cash games at ARIA when they go to Vegas, but it is unlikely that new players tuned in and decided to take their kitchen table action to a casino or card room in order to one day play in such an elite tournament. Since it takes most average Americans 6-10 years to make $300K, the idea of plunking it down for less than 10% of a chance of doubling it is not something to which most people – poker players or not – aspire.
Finally, there was only one woman in the field. Most women in poker are not able to compete at the high stakes of the 49 who played the Bowl, only one of whom was a woman. Kathy Lehne is a businesswomen, the highly successful founder and CEO of Sun Coast Resources, and she often plays in high-stakes tournaments like WPT Alpha8 and others. I related to her more than the other players for the obvious reason, and her elimination at the end of Day 2 was more than a little disappointing.
In the end, when Rainer Kempe was interviewed about just winning $5 million, he could not manage to crack a smile, much less exhibit any excitement about everything that just happened. His friend and runner-up finisher Fedor Holz showed more enthusiasm for Kempe than the winner himself. So, even after all of the hubbub and the positives and the amazing production that was the 2016 Super High Roller Bowl, I felt a little like Kempe: Meh.