After moderate hype, the Epic Poker League debuted at the Palms Resort in Las Vegas this weekend with David 'Chino' Rheem picking up the inaugural title, as well as the one million first prize. He defeated a tough final table which included Erik Seidel, Jason Mercier and Huck Seed.
The League was formed and announced earlier in the year by Federated Sports and Gaming, a body cofounded by former WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack. The (public) message was simple: "to celebrate the world's best poker players and treat them with the respect they deserve."
It many ways, they achieved this and were true to their word: $400,000 overlays for each event, no juice, free accommodation and a $100 daily food allowance - it was a necessity in order to counter the level of opponent and $20,000 buy-in fee, but a welcome bonus nonetheless for the more exposure-hungry already intending to play.
Unlike most tournaments, the EPL went against the grain (and a mantra which makes poker so unique) and confined entry to poker's elite, the selection criteria carefully drawn out so that it included the near-entire spectrum of poker's 'big names' and the current crop of hot shots, whilst thwarting the one-hit wonders and as many unknowns as possible. The result saw a few unwanted casualties - Jamie Gold and Chris Moneymaker, for example - but the overall line-up was as close to a sponsor's dream as you're ever likely to get.
Naturally, the Americans dominated the list of 200 (which rose further post-WSOP), but amid the haystack were a few British needles, including Roberto Romanello, James Akenhead, Praz Bansi, Roland De Wolfe and John Kabbaj. Although poker's grapevine suggested players such as Marty Smyth and Surinder Sunar may succumb to temptation and seek staking, Chris Moorman and Sam Trickett were the only flag-fliers, both sponsored and enjoying lucrative years at the live felt.
At Black Belt Poker, Neil Channing and Richard Ashby were eligible, both earning a two-year/season pass with the latter creeping over the $1.25 million threshold after two final tables in Vegas this summer. However, neither stumped up the buy-in, and neither had any real intention of doing so, the main explanation being one that appeared to be held by most of the British contingent: "Why would I want to pay $20,000 to play in a tournament against the world's best poker players?"
"I have to admit that despite being a massive cynic, I was actually pretty excited to have made the cut," confessed Neil. "But, whilst my ego allows me to be happy to qualify, my poker brain asks me whether the whole thing is a great idea for me. My whole poker career has generally been spent trying to find players who are worse than me, a search that is getting harder and harder by the day. Does exposure on TV in a country where they seem keen to criminalise poker appeal any more, when I represent a company that can't take U.S. players?"
With a bustling trophy cabinet and a set of results longer than Mr. Tickle's arm, Julian Thew also received an invite. When I asked him about the League several weeks back, he'd barely even heard of it, never mind had any contact with the organisers. In a climate where even the sponsored pros are saving their pennies, attending was the last thing on his mind.
"I think the buy-in's 20 grand, so I'm certainly not going to pay," he revealed, "and it's a bit out of Sky Poker's budget too I would imagine. There are that many tournaments anyway that I wonder why someone would want to play a 200-runner field with a 20-grand buy-in; it just doesn't appeal to my poker life at all. I think quite a few will still want to play though, but I doubt the list accurately represents the 200 best players in the world, especially for the online MTTers, which is pretty retarded really. I think most people would admit that the online grinders are leading the way at the moment.
"This is just for players with very deep pockets in my opinion, and if they want to play it, good luck to them. There aren't many invitational events in poker, and one of the good things about the game when I got into it was that there was no qualification; if you wanted to pay your money, then you could, and that was all you had to do."
Julian isn't the only player to express an element of doubt in what the EPL are doing. Daniel Negreanu was one of a number of high-profile names (Johnny Chan, Phil Ivey and Doyle Brunson, to name three of the big guns) who were missing in action, and he explained his decision in a recent blog entry on FullContactPoker.com.
"… I chose not to take part in the World Team Poker event for one sole reason: I didn't think it would be a success. The same holds true with the Epic Poker League. Not just because of the bizarre choice in name, but because I don't believe this product will resonate with the public and based on my intimate knowledge of how these types of things work, I don't think it's possible to bring in enough revenue to survive."
One crucial point that Negreanu makes is that with all the money the EPL are spending, the only hopes of them turning a profit lie in the future of online poker, and its regulation in the U.S. They may bang on about putting "professionals first" and "making them the rule, not the exception", but, in the end, it's about money, and if poker were to be legalised, then the EPL would be in a great position to enter the market. They will have built up their brand with small-screen exposure and online coverage, and boast a good rapport with the players, of whom they would have the pick of the crop for their poster boys.
However, poker is an unpredictable industry, and although the game will likely be regulated in the future, there are still plenty of 'ifs' to consider, as well as the dreaded 'when'. If poker were regulated by the end of the year with license restrictions / waiting periods for current online cardrooms, then the EPL could start reaping immediate rewards and soak up the explosion of a second poker boom, of which would likely involve genuine interest from major commercial sponsors; but, if we're still asking 'when' in five years time, then the stream of money could eventually run out with little sign of return.
There also lies the question of whether there is a wide audience for televised poker. The educated audience now prefers the analytical broadcasts such as High Stakes Poker, while many suggest that the casual audience has simply got over the initial novelty and have become weary of watching what has become a perhaps sterile and saturated format. The ESPN coverage of the World Series has been suffering for quite a few years now - despite the creation of a November 9 - and following this year's lacklustre, and rather star-less performance, viewing figures are unlikely to have changed.
As Negreanu alludes to, "There are only so many 'I dropped out college because I was making more money 24-tabling online' stories you can do," and it's hard to disagree. Your average poker fan isn't interested in three-bet ranges or VPIPs; like most shows, they're attracted by the characters, the various tales, but if everyone's the same, where's the conflict and drama? The originators of the poker boom all had different characteristics, different backgrounds and stories to tell, and that's what helped televised poker get off the ground in the first place, not the hands being played.
Ironically, the inaugural winner is a 'character' who will trigger intrigue, yet someone who the EPL won't particularly enjoy having at the forefront of their brand. Rheem was already fighting a questionable reputation with mumblings of unpaid loans and rumours that he spent four months in prison for burglary and marijuana possession, but just days before the opening leg of the EPL kicked off, Canadian pro Will Molson accused Rheem on the Two Plus Two forums of borrowing $40,000 at last year's London EPT with no intention of paying it back, despite coming third in the High-Roller event for $148,290. In an industry currently licking its wounds from scandals such as Full Tilt's misdemeanours and the Girah scamming affair, Rheem is certainly not someone who's going to have a positive effect on the EPL and its image moving forward.
I'm not looking to party-poop or burst any balloons, but the EPL have a challenge on their hands. It's one that they're clearly embracing, but unless they can gather momentum and the audience required, it's difficult to see this as the future of the game. The idea of regulation is just that, an idea, and with little knowledge of when it's going to happen and how the process would work, the EPL are effectively spinning the wheel. The gamble could pay off, but it's still a pretty big gamble to take.