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PStars' Neil Johnson: "I Don’t Expect a Grand Final in 2017"
The first-ever event under the new PokerStars Live umbrella - the PokerStars Championship Bahamas - is now a couple of weeks in the rear view.
There were a few changes from the old PokerStars Caribbean Adventure days - for example Day 1 started an hour earlier, and with longer levels the structure was changed slightly.
Main event numbers also dropped to just over 700 players - over 200 less than last year.
Is this a sign of things to come? Are there still more tweaks to come to both the schedule and the structures for these Championship events?
PokerStars Head of Live Poker Events Neil Johnson gave us an outlook for 2017 with a sit-down chat at Atlantis.
Neil Johnson: Basically we gave the main event the old EPT structure. But in the Bahamas we’ve always done things a little different.
The Super High Roller, for example, plays out before the main event instead of alongside it; the event was always shorter than the big European festivals like Barcelona, things like that.
And then there are regional variations playing in. Here in the Bahamas the restaurants close rather early so it’s nice to finish play before nine for people to be able to go for dinner.
But in general, we do want people to know that this is what they get in the new series no matter if they are in Macau or in Panama or in the Bahamas.
It won’t be standard to start at 11 AM but the structure and level times will be like this from now on.
We’ve made adjustments to the payouts, to the rakes, we’re standardizing the length of tournaments, so no matter where you are the tournament you want to play will be the same as it was at the last stop.
PokerListings: Are the payouts going to stay the way they are?
NJ: I don’t anticipate any more changes. We basically didn’t get any negative feedback of any kind, neither in Malta, Prague or New Jersey. We’re confident that we now have enough feedback and that we found the level that works.
We’ll be using the lower payout levels for tournaments with $10k+ buy-in and we’ll use the 20% payouts for the lower buy-ins with about 1.5x the buy-in at the bottom.
The only noise we really got was from high-stakes players in Barcelona last year, and even they agreed that it was a good thing for the lower buy-in events. They just didn’t want it to be there for the high roller events so we addressed that.
I’m not saying everybody likes it the way it is now, but the overwhelming majority is OK with it. The 20% payout was mainly an issue because we used the 20% as the floor and not the ceiling.
Now that we’ve changed that it looks like we’re getting a bit more understanding from the players. If you look at the number closely you see that 20% doesn’t mean we’re paying 21.5%, but rather that we’re paying 18%.
We’ve also smoothed out the double-bubble issue and it seems to be a fair distribution of the prize money now.
PL: You recently said that you don’t expect much to change with the new name for the series. Numbers in the main event have dropped by some margin, however.
NJ: There are a number of things that account for numbers in the main event – the number of qualifiers showing up, the strength of the dollar which is important for the LATAM players, some players decided to go to Australia this year, and several other things.
I don’t think the name has anything to do with the drop. It’s correct that the numbers went down a bit but I don’t have a detailed answer because I haven’t seen a breakdown of the numbers yet.
What I can say is that I’ve seen a lot of players I don’t recognize, and that’s a rarity. I do believe that it has to do with the Spin & Go qualifiers.
We started bringing these in last year in Monaco. When the number started to grow, it felt a bit like in the old days – players saw that there were more and more qualifiers who came in for ten bucks and they thought they had to come and play, too.
The assumption there obviously was that the qualifiers weren’t very good and played over their heads. But then one of them came 4th, so apparently, that assumption was a little general.
Also, don’t forget that all the Elkys and Mike McDonalds and Kevin MacPhees started out as qualifiers. Anyway, Americans don’t know what a Spin & Go is because of the online poker ban so we won’t have the same effect in the Bahamas as with the Europeans.
PL: Are dropping numbers a general tendency?
NJ: Barcelona and Prague went up, so I don’t think so. There are too many different factors to give a clear answer.
The storms on the US West coast might affect us, some country might not run a promotion they did last year, even the building of a new casino like the one in Maryland just now can have an impact.
But let’s say we had a thousand players last year and 750 this year, what’s more important for me is how many of them are unique new players because these numbers tell us trends.
PL: High Roller events on the other hand seem to become more and more popular. There were events in Prague that weren’t on the schedule. It’s almost like there’s a reversal of trends.
NJ: It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of that subset of the poker world. I think the first high roller ran during the Aussie Millions 2008.
Then Full Tilt got involved with the Onyx series, and later PokerStars joined in, too. For a long time people were very apprehensive. We didn’t know if we really wanted players to put in $100,000 to play and then even more when the re-entry events came along.
But it has evolved and now you have let’s say a group of a hundred people who’re very comfortable playing for five figures. If they have the choice between a $2k event with 500 players and a $10k turbo with 50, they will chose the latter because it’s more challenging.
These players still want a title but it’s sometimes mind-numbing to them to play Day 1 as it’s so deep. In the beginning it didn’t really feel like high roller events were a thing for PokerStars, but maybe we misread how fast that segment was growing.
PL: Let’s talk about the coming year. Will there be any completely new games in Panama or Macau?
NJ: Not for this year but probably in the long run. We want to bring in Mah-jongg and Go, like we brought poker and chess together.
This will always be a niche but I'd like to expand the mind sports aspect of poker, and even if the events are small there are people in these who we would never have gotten in a poker event.
PL: What numbers do you expect for the first PokerStars Championships in Panama and Macau?
NJ: For Panama I think you could look at around 500. The event is just after the LAPC and the Bay 101 so the question will be if the players are tired or energized.
The weather will be good, it’s a great city, so I think it has a couple of things going for it. Macau on the other hand is a place everybody pays attention to as it makes more money than Vegas.
It’s close to China and Hong Kong, which opens up possibilities. Europeans tend to go to Asia a lot but for the Americans Macau is what the Aussie Millions is for Europeans.
It’s not a trip you’d want to do every year because it’s so far away, but you’re going to go at some point. I spent three weeks Macau in 2016 and I was really thrilled.
We’ll have about 80 events, there’ll be a chunk of high rollers, so there’s a lot on offer. I would expect the whole festival to be a little bit bigger than Panama because of the proximity to China.
Either way, 500 seems to be a healthy base number. To me that should be the expectation for a PokerStars Championship.
PL: With the season now starting in January, what’s going to happen about the Grand Final?
NJ: I don’t expect a Grand Final in 2017. In the past both the EPT and the WPT had their seasons ending just before the World Series started, so they ended it with bigger, special events.
It’s not like that anymore. We don’t have the higher buy-in in Monaco anymore and we don’t have the deeper structure anymore. Things have changed.
PL: Thank you, Neil Johnson.
For a more detailed discussion of the changes in payouts, check out Johnson’s post on the 2+2 forum.