U.S. dollar drop may affect tourney attendance

The Money
How much bang does the buck really have right now?

It's often true that day-to-day happenings in the outside world have little or no effect on the culture of poker. Anyone who's spent time with the game can tell you that it seems to exist in its own little corner of the universe, where, even if bombs are dropping outside, there's always another hand to be dealt as long as two people are seated at the table.

For the top echelon of players - those with sponsorship deals or vast personal wealth - even a worldwide economic downturn would probably not make much difference. But for the remaining millions of poker players, especially those who mainly play major land-based tournaments, economic woes (or good fortunes) can make a difference.

Case in point: the sinking value of the United States dollar. Since 2002, the U.S. dollar has declined steadily against the world's other major currencies, dropping as much of 40% of its value in that six-year period.

That might not have been a big deal to even casual poker players a few years ago, when most of the world's major tournaments took place in North America, but today currency shifts have an impact on an expanding international tournament calendar.

I recently spoke with Tom Schneider, 2007 WSOP Player of the Year, about the business of finance and poker.

Europe: High stakes, higher expenses

While tournament poker has been around in Europe for quite some time, it has only recently started doing big business. There are now 10 events in Europe with buy-ins equal to or greater than $10,000, and the tournament fields have grown to the point where they are comparable to major U.S. tourneys. Last season's EPT Grand Final drew a whopping 706 entries at €10,000 a pop.

Tom Schneider
Schneider with his mind on the money and money on his mind.

The value of last year's Grand Final buy-in in U.S. dollars was $13,300, a significant jump over the standard U.S.-based major tournament buy-in of $10,000. This year's buy-in, though it has not risen, will probably cost American players something more in the range of $14,000-15,000.

"Taking those packets (of money) and sprinkling them around the world - a lot of people are doing that and haven't hit anything for a year," says Schneider. Without a win, those players have no way to recoup their expenses. "It can be real disheartening."

In addition to the actual poker costs, there's another place where American players are being hit harder than ever: travel expenses. Even when prices in Europe stay the same, the sinking dollar makes things harder for a Yank every time he boards a train, has a beer or eats a meal.

Add to that the frustration of long travel times and the likelihood of busting out before the money, and more Americans may decide to stay at home.

Australia: Poker booms Down Under

Before Joe Hachem won the WSOP Main Event in 2005, not many outsiders knew that poker was being played Down Under. Things have changed since then with the rise of the Aussie Millions, where back-to-back record fields at Crown Casino have reshaped tournament poker in the Southern Hemisphere.

Australia's surging interest in poker is mirrored by the Australian dollar's 40% jump in value against the U.S. dollar since 2002. That's good news for Americans who head south for their poker fix, since the prizes they win are worth more back home.

Jimmy "Gobboboy" Fricke, for instance, took home $1 million AUD for his second-place finish at last year's Aussie Millions. In 2007 U.S. dollars, Fricke won $795,000.

Erik Seidel
Because of the falling U.S. dollar, at least he made more money than Gobbo did for second place in 2007.

Erik Seidel, who finished second at the Aussie Millions this year, also took home $1 million AUD for his performance. But thanks to the sinking value of the dollar, Seidel's take in U.S. dollars was $879,000 - nearly 10% more than Gobboboy's the year before.

The flip side of more valuable Aussie tournament prizes, of course, is that the costs of traveling to and staying in Australia only grow as the dollar slips, a significant factor when travel expenses alone can cost several thousand dollars.

"The travel costs, even if the dollar wasn't so bad, are just prohibitive to most poker players," says Schneider. "With the airfare and the hotel room, by the time you get in (the tournament) you're already in the hole."

It still looks as if the international poker masses will continue to flock Down Under every January, but any further drop in the U.S. dollar might put a damper on the American contingent at the Crown Casino. If that happens, expect the locals to still eagerly buy up all the empty seats and set a new attendance record.

Asia: New kid on the block

Asia is the newest frontier for tournament poker. Before last year's introduction of the
APPT, sponsored by PokerStars, there were no major international poker tournaments in Asia.

The four new APPT events, with $2,500 buy-ins for three of the four tournaments, drew fields comparable to those of the first season of the EPT, which started with similarly low buy-ins but has since blossomed into one of the richest tours on the planet.

Also worth noting when considering the APPT's start is that its Macau event in November was the first major poker tournament in Chinese history. Being first on the ground in China, a market that Western poker interests are eager to crack, might prove to be a real boon to the APPT's fortunes if the game takes off there.

Though the APPT Grand Final in Sydney was paid out in Australian dollars, the other three APPT events (Macau, Manila, Seoul) used the U.S. dollar as their currency of choice. That makes the Asian tournaments an affordable international alternative for Americans whose dollars don't go as far as they used to.

With Asia being such a new venue for poker, it is difficult to say what the future holds. The relative affordability to foreigners of the APPT tournaments may be balanced out by increased travel expenses.

The vast majority of the players who cashed in first-season APPT events were from Europe or North America, so much of the tour's near-term success may ride on whether those players choose to make - or can even afford - the return trip.

North America: I'm not dead yet!

For all the growth seen in international poker tournaments over the last few years, North America - particularly the United States - is still home to the premier events on the yearly calendar.

Those tournaments have routinely drawn foreign players in the past, but they may begin to see an even higher foreign contingent as the euro and the pound appreciate in value and tournaments throughout the world that trade in U.S. dollars approach what borders on a bargain for European players.

The Champ
Viva la Euro!

Frenchman Bertrand "ElkY" Grospellier, for example, won the EPT's first event ever held in the Americas, the $7,800 PokerStars.com Caribbean Adventure.

The PCA have an enormous field (over 1,100 players), and it was a relatively cheap event as the EPT goes, costing ElkY the equivalent of €5,400 back home in France. Meanwhile, the average EPT tournament winner will have bought into events in Europe for around €7,500.

Then there's the matter of the WSOP. With its myriad $1,500 events, each of them with a huge field and championship bracelet, the WSOP might just be the best bargain in the game for Europeans.

The recognition and sponsorship opportunities for a European player who wins a bracelet, even in the lowest buy-in event on the schedule, create a significant overlay. And when a foreigner wins, there is often a ripple effect on poker's popularity in his or her home country.

"The WSOP is becoming a more international event," says Schneider. "Those people who have come over (from abroad) and won bracelets… have created a stir in their countries. I think that does as much [as] or more than a currency improvement."

Gazing into the crystal ball

Foreign players might be benefiting the most from the currency situation, but it's not all a wash for Americans.

U.S.-facing online poker sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker often sponsor overseas events. That means Americans with funds online can find a true bargain in the cheap, readily available satellites for event packages, which cover most travel and lodging costs no matter what the destination.

Today there are also more tournaments at varying buy-in levels in North America than ever before, leaving lots of options for players who don't want to foot the bill for a big trip. With the WPT, WSOP Circuit and other smaller tours filling up the tournament calendar, Schneider says the need to hit the road for action just isn't there.

"A lot of people think, 'Why should I travel to Europe when I can stay right here?' There's a pretty significant tournament anywhere you want to play at some point during the year."

In the end, Schneider wouldn't be surprised to see those factors make most American players - at least those without serious bankrolls - stay put.

"Some people will (travel) one time because they want to go somewhere. They're good at their casino, and they think, 'Hey, I want to go to France.' They go there one time and get busted out and say, 'I'm never doing that again.'

"You're not as likely to go the second time. Your excuse to go see it was to play a poker tournament, and now you've seen it. And there's another tournament just around the way."

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