Poker players far and wide are fuming at Harrah's Entertainment, Inc. and corporate sponsor Pepsi Cola due to the last-minute admission of poker legends Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, and Phil Hellmuth in this year's exclusive World Series of Poker (WSOP) Tournament of Champions (TOC).
The WSOP Circuit (WSOPC) tournament event took place earlier this month at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The most coveted of all WSOPC events, the TOC was originally slated to boast a $2 million prize pool and a select playing field of 108 players, all of who qualified by finishing in the top 20 of a 2004-2005 WSOPC event. And, while the tournament did host some of the poker world's top players, including the 9 final table finishers from the 2005 WSOP Main Event, Brunson, Chan, and Hellmuth did not qualify.
Rather, the pros were entered to compete in the tournament at the behest of Pepsi Cola, which was using the poker venue to push its Sobe Adrenaline Rush energy drink. The billion dollar soda corporation paid Harrah's $2 million for the honor and requested sponsor exemptions in the from of the 3 high profile pros, as the company is reportedly planning to launch a national advertising campaign around the three WSOP record breakers in the near future.
Pepsi entered the picture after the WSOPC began but before the TOC took place. Indeed, in a Harrah's press release circulated by PRNewsire.com on November 1, the company announced, "Among professionals who've committed to play are 10-time World Series of Poker bracelet winners Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan, and nine-time bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth."
Needless to say, players were pissed at Harrah's. Pissed at them for making last minute exceptions to pacify a corporate sponsor in a tournament with a pre-established set of guidelines; Pissed at them for doing it at the expense of a playing field that had legitimately qualified for the event; And pissed that Harrah's failed to follow its own rules, rules that poker players across the nation (and world) were aware of when forking over their $10,000 plus juice at WSOPC events last year in the hopes of qualifying for the TOC.
Pro player Daniel Negreanu perhaps put it best in his November 6 blog: "All three of those men had a chance to qualify just like you, but didn't make the cut. Ah, but that's ok, they let them in anyway."
In order to avoid similar controversy at next year's TOC, Harrah's has already issued a statement reserving the right to offer 6 sponsor's exemptions.