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A bit of twitter drama last week between poker pro Allen Kessler and the Playground Poker Room in Quebec serves as an excellent conversation starter on the issue of tournament fees. Kessler is well known for being a critic of fast structures and high fees in major poker tournaments, and the label “Chainsaw Approved” has come to mean that an event or series is a good value.

Kessler’s issue with the Playground Fall Poker Open was that the total house rake on their $3,850 main event was not the $3,500 + $350 as advertised, but a whopping $3,395 + $455. While many players have said that the room is so well run and so many extras are provided that the extra rake is worth it, this is certainly a high percentage for such a large tournament.

The issue became heated when the Playground twitter account @playgroundpoker told Kessler that if he didn’t like it, he shouldn’t play there. This was followed by a storm of tweets from players on both sides and eventually led to a semi-apology from Playground. Unfortunately, the twitter drama, and Kessler’s anger about the actual fee percentage, deflected away from the real problem.

The Real Problem

The real problem here is that the real number was not disclosed clearly in the first place. The real problem is that the real rake number is almost never disclosed at any tournament. It is hidden behind 3% that comes out for staff, dealer appreciation add-ons, and chunks of money taken from the prize pool for prize packages and trophies.

During the twitter mess, many players noted that it is the right of a business to charge whatever they like for their product. While this is generally true, I would argue that if the business has a government granted advantage or monopoly, then they should be subject to regulation. If they want a fair fight, then they shouldn’t complain when everyone else has the chance to open up a poker room to compete with them.

In this writer’s opinion, the reason that the rake numbers are a problem is not because they are so high. I would clearly like them to be lower, generating larger prize pools for me on the occasions that I win, and leaving more money within the poker economy even when I don’t win. The reason that rake numbers are a problem is because they are not being clearly labeled.

I don’t care if you add sugar to your applesauce, and in fact I encourage it. But you can’t lie about it on the label and call it all-natural with no sugar added. Poker rooms are allowed to label their tournament buy-ins however they like. Most states require that the rake for cash games be posted right on the table, usually next to the dealer, but there is no such requirement for tournaments.

A $550 tournament might be $510 + $40 with no other fees or percentages, making it a great value. That same tournament might also be $495 + $55 with 3% coming out of the prize pool for the staff, a $10 dealer appreciation add-on, and $200 coming out of the prize pool to pay for the trophy. If we assume 100 entrants in this tournament, then the real rake number is $478 + $82.

Yes, I rounded up by fifteen pennies to get a number that didn’t look ridiculous. Get over it.

In the first example, the players keep almost 93% of the money that they spend to enter the tournament. In this case many players, myself included, will try to stay at the hotel, give them some action in cash games, and tell people about the event on social media.

In the second example, players keep just over 85% of the money in the prize pool. The house makes more than twice as much money in this case, and players who are aware of what is happening will either not play at all, or if they find out later they will talk about it on social media, refuse to give the house any more of their money, and probably never come back.

The Fees Never Stop

On top of the house fees there will be a tip box, sometimes more than one, waiting for you if you manage to make the money. If you don’t tip at all, people will certainly talk about it, even though you already paid 3% and a $10 dealer add-on. I don’t have a problem with tipping. From bartenders to dealers in cash games to massage therapists, I always tip well, but when I am already forced to tip 3% and $10, I want to know it so I can adjust my tip accordingly. If a restaurant charged you an 18% gratuity, as they often do for large groups, but tried to hide that fact from you, wouldn’t you be angry?

I think this issue simply comes from the basic house attitude that you have to hide the fact that the house makes money in everything you do. If they offered coin flips where you paid the house 6 to 5, no one would play. This is why casino games that are more complicated in the way they hide the odds, like craps, are so popular.

In tournament poker, this attitude backfires. Everyone already knows that the house takes a piece of the prize pool, and the bad players don’t care how much that piece is, they just want to play poker. The good players care and they can do the math on their own. Attempting to hide the fees only fools the bad players who didn’t care anyway, and it makes the smarter players angry.

What Can We Do About It?

So how do we fix this problem? Well, we can support Kessler in his one man crusade to keep the rake down and hold the house accountable, but one man, no matter how devoted he is, is not going to solve this problem. The only way this problem gets fixed is if the TDA gets involved. Would you rather have them spend three days at the Flamingo mulling over the “first card” rule that no one wanted anyway, or should they be addressing something that players actually care about?

If the TDA came out tomorrow and stated that there was a new TDA rule that reads –

Rule #57 The house claiming to use TDA rules must state tournament entry fees on all printed and online materials in the following format –

(Money that is paid out to players in cash from the prize pool) + (money not directly paid out to players)

then our problem would be solved. Some houses would resist, but players would expect things to be done a certain way, they would tell each other that the house was not playing by TDA rules, and it would expose this problem for the deception that it actually is.

A house that doesn’t mention the 3% of the prize pool that is withheld for staff, or a dealer add-on, in their printed materials is just doing the standard thing. But with a TDA rule in place, players would see it as a deception. Ignoring the one TDA rule that makes them extra profit would make the house look terrible to the players, and soon almost every poker room using TDA rules would disclose their rake truthfully so that we could judge one tournament fairly against another.

Then when the Playground poker announces their sky high rake, we can have a conversation about why the rake is so high. If players who have been there tell me how great the place is, and that the money is well spent, then I may decide to go anyway. But if I don’t hear about how high the rake is until I get there, then the best customer service in the world is not going to make me happy.

No one likes to feel like a victim of a bait and switch. The TDA can fix this problem. If you are curious why they haven’t fixed it, feel free to email them at this address – and let them know that you think this issue is an important one and that it is easily fixed.



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Chris Wallace

Chris "Fox" Wallace is a professional poker, author, and poker coach from St Paul, Minnesota. While he spent most of his career playing cash games,Fox recently started playing more tournaments and won a bracelet in the $10,000 HORSE World Championship in 2014. Follow him on twitter