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The poker world is one where millions of dollars per month usually transfers hands. Usually it is through high dollar poker tournaments, those with buy-ins of $5000 or $10,000, which is a sizeable chunk of change but is still realistic for the Average Joe to take advantage of. With that said, many tournaments use a satellite system (either live at the event or online) that allows for players to get in their games for much cheaper than the “suggested retail price” of the event itself. This factor, in addition with sticking to the history of the game, is why the World Series of Poker’s Championship Event has always been a $10,000 No Limit Hold’em Knockout Event – one $10,000 buy-in, one shot, one chance, no matter how deep your bankroll or how bountiful your experience.

About a decade ago, however, a new phenomenon began to creep into the tournament poker world. It is arguable that the phenomenon was created at the Aussie Millions in 2006, when the poker world was flush with money and players seemed to be coming out of the woodwork to take part in the games. Officials at the Aussie Millions, perhaps lamenting that they weren’t getting the “star” players at the final table, conceived the idea of the $100,000 Challenge, in essence the first-ever “High Roller” event in poker history. That first event was barely a sit and go, with 10 entries of $100K being put up and John Juanda walking off with the winner-take-all first prize of $1 million.

In 2011, the European Poker Tour truly let the genie out of the bottle when they held a €25,000 High Roller during the EPT Grand Final, that year held in Madrid, Spain. Demonstrating that there was a market for such tournaments, a group of 58 players put up the buy in as Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier walked off with the title and the €525,000 first place prize. Also that year, following their $100,000 Challenge, the Aussie Millions upped their game in offering the $250,000 Challenge. Stunningly, that tournament drew in 20 entries and was won by Erik Seidel and has since been won three times by Phil Ivey.

Now it seems that you can’t look at a tournament schedule without seeing a High Roller, Super High Roller or both on the roster of events (even some of the “smaller” circuits have “High Roller” events that are more expensive than their Main Events). The World Poker Tour even created a tournament circuit around Super High Roller events called Alpha8. The Aussie Millions’ $250,000 Challenge is now dwarfed by the WSOP’s “Big One for One Drop,” which is a charitable event ($111,111 goes to clean water efforts by the One Drop Foundation) with a $1 million buy-in. Throughout the year, there are also tournaments that range between the $25K-$100K level, at least two a month in some cases.

There are several big questions that arise from the “gold rush” of the High Roller/Super High Roller tournaments, though. Are they skewing the history of the game of poker? Do they have an effect on the different ranking systems that try to answer the question of who the best in the game is? Do the High Roller events have an effect on the poker economy? And does poker’s fandom really care?

It’s All About the Poker Rankings

There is no better way to see the effect of the High Roller events on the history of the game than to look at the all-time money earners list. There is no degradation intended – these men are extremely outstanding poker players – but all-time leading money winner Daniel Negreanu’s $32 million-plus in career earnings are hugely impacted by his High Roller results. Since 2013, more than $12 million of those earnings have come exclusively from High Roller or Super High Roller tournaments. The same is true of the man right behind him on that list, Antonio Esfandiari. Since he won the inaugural “Big One for One Drop,” Esfandiari has earned $20 million-plus of his $26 million in career earnings. You’ve got to go down to Michael Mizrachi in 15th place to find someone who doesn’t have a “High Roller” cash to his name, and this is a guy who has won the $50,000 WSOP Poker Players’ Championship twice (and has career earnings of slightly more than $14.6 million).

In addition to the historical impact that High Roller events are having, the current state of the game is also being affected through the different Player of the Year rankings. On the CardPlayer Magazine Player of the Year rankings, Bryn Kenney has been able to climb to the fourth place slot in putting together 2474 points so far this year. While he lags behind POY leader Ari Engel’s 3070 points, nearly half of Kenney’s points have been compiled from playing in Las Vegas at the Aria High Roller Series, a schedule of $25,000 buy in tournaments that normally run at least twice a month. Since the beginning of the year, Kenney has won two of those tournaments and made the final table in two other tournaments, compiling 1190 points for those efforts. If those finishes weren’t counted towards the CardPlayer POY, Kenney wouldn’t even be in the Top Ten in the rankings.

While their thorough computations for rankings tries to eliminate such situations, the Global Poker Index’s GPI 300 – which grades its players over a three-year time frame – is also affected by the High Roller problem. Currently ranked #1 in the world is Steve O’Dwyer, who is undoubtedly a great player who plays the European circuit exclusively and does very well. In examining the tournaments where he has received points, however, virtually every one of his points-earning finishes has been High Roller tournaments. You have to go back to May 2015 to find a tournament that O’Dwyer played in that wasn’t a High Roller (the WPT Amsterdam) where he earned some of his GPI points.

Size of the Poker Field

This is another area where there are questions. In these High Roller tournaments, it is rare that they exceed 100 players and, especially in the $50,000-$100,000 bracket, you’re talking about an echelon where the players know each other exclusively. Many of today’s less-than knowledgeable poker “fans” want to give the legendary Doyle Brunson a hard time because he won some of his WSOP bracelets against smaller fields…what’s the difference between Brunson playing 40 people in the 1970s and Ivey playing 40 people now in the High Roller tournaments?

Then there’s the question of the poker economy. In some of these cases, players are selling pieces of themselves to others (sometimes opponents they are playing against) and, after wins, shifting those winnings to others in the world of poker. That’s a nice way to filter the money through the system, but it isn’t one that is guaranteed. Someone like a Negreanu probably doesn’t need to sell pieces (he probably swaps shares for fun and action) and, in the end, the money gravitates upwards rather than trickling down to the masses (much like a political philosophy that doesn’t work). In the end, there’s just a shuffling of the money between the elites rather than any movement of the money towards those that are coming up the ladder.

The bottom line, however, is whether poker’s fandom really gives a damn. For the most part, poker fans like to see players that they know and can root for  and be able to talk about them on the poker forums the next day. While everyone likes the WPT or EPT final tables that feature a group of unknowns looking to make that big payday, the majority of poker aficionados prefer to yak about and dissect the play of those that they have a solid history on. Perhaps this is the reason that there has been an exponential increase in the number of High Roller and Super High Roller tournaments in the poker world.

As much as we like the story of Rudy, many would rather be The Wolf of Wall Street.

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Earl Burton

Earl Burton has been at the forefront of the poker media for more than a decade. In both print and digital media, Earl is a highly respected voice that has covered the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour and several other poker events across the United States. Whether it entails covering the political side of poker, its tournaments and players, the strategy of the game or its other myriad of nuances, Earl brings an inquisitive mind, a player's desire to learn and a journalist's quest for knowledge and tries to pass that knowledge along to the readers.