WSOP Circuit Harrah's Cherokee

The World Series of Poker Circuit: Poker’s “Minor League” Becoming a Major Deal

WSOP Circuit Harrah's CherokeeSince its launch in 2005, the World Series of Poker Circuit has evolved into a significant tournament series with additional stops being introduced each year. Not only has the WSOP-C expanded to cover more of the calendar from August to May (pausing while the WSOP in Las Vegas takes place each summer), its function has changed considerably during its nine seasons as well and currently represents what might be regarded as the most popular “minor league” poker tour going.

I’ve had a chance to cover four WSOP-C Main Events during the 2012-13 season, including the most recent two stops at Foxwoods in Connecticut and Harrah’s Cherokee in North Carolina. At Cherokee I spoke with WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla about the turnouts there as well as about the current state of the WSOP-C, generally speaking.

To give a little background, the WSOP Circuit debuted in early 2005 with just five stops on what would come to be called the 2004-05 season. More stops would be added over the next couple of years, with the initial buy-ins for Main Events starting out at $10,000, then (with a few exceptions) dropping to $5,000 in 2007.

Initially ESPN televised those early WSOP-C final tables (during 2005), most of which featured the same “name” pros who were starring in the regular WSOP broadcasts during those “boom” years, with Chris Ferguson winning a couple of early ones, Jeff Lisandro winning another, and Phil Ivey, Jennifer Harman, Erick Lindgren, and other recognizable players turning up and being featured on those shows as well.

The ESPN broadcasts of the WSOP-C were discontinued in 2006, but the tour continued in a similar vein, competing somewhat directly with the World Poker Tour as a top tier tournament circuit attracting many of the high-stakes players.

However, following the 2010 WSOP in Las Vegas, the WSOP Circuit changed course markedly, reducing the Main Event buy-ins to $1,600 (or thereabouts) and thereby opening up the tournaments to a greater number of players. The number of stops have gradually increased as well, with 15 stops during the 2010-11 season, 17 in 2011-12, and 20 in 2012-13. The WSOP-C additionally added a season-ending National Championship event for which players could qualify by winning Circuit Main Events, winning “Casino Champion” at individual stops, or accumulating player points to qualify.

The result has been the transformation of the WSOP Circuit from “major” to “minor” league status, with fewer of the higher-stakes pros participating and more players from the region surrounding each venue participating. Each WSOP Circuit stop usually follows a similar schedule, with 12 ring events with buy-ins as low as $365 and culminating in a $1,675 buy-in Main Event. Other non-ring events usually appear at each stop as well, including seniors and ladies events.

Earlier this week I asked Dalla first about the Cherokee stop — a new addition to the WSOP-C schedule — then about the future of the WSOP-C, generally speaking.

Flushdraw: The preliminary events here at Harrah’s Cherokee have drawn some remarkable numbers. The first two $365 NLHE events drew 872 and 949 entrants, respectively, Event #4 (a $365 NLHE re-entry) attracted 1,315, and the Main Event saw 856 entries. Even the non-ring Seniors Event drew 648 players, which you’ve reported as the largest seniors-related tourney ever outside of Las Vegas. What had been the expectations going in for Cherokee?

Nolan DallaNolan Dalla: This was the very first ever World Series of Poker Circuit event in the great state of North Carolina, and indeed the first to take place in the heart of the old South, and the numbers are really way beyond what we could have expected. Even our most optimistic projections were that we’d get 400-500 or maybe 600 for our bigger events, but the numbers we’ve seen would be great anywhere, let alone a first-time stop here in North Carolina.

FD: So it sounds like the WSOP-C will be coming back to Cherokee?

ND: Absolutely. In fact, because of the overwhelming response and huge numbers from the poker players in all of the surrounding states here, Harrah’s Cherokee has already announced that we’ll be coming back here in 2014. So this is hopefully the start of something bigger and better every single year.

FD: Have you been able to gather any feedback from players regarding their experience participating in the tournaments?

ND: One of the most interesting things that we have seen here in North Carolina is how accommodating and patient the players have been. The first few days there were some large crowds for the early events, and thus because of the crowds there were some lines, and there were people who had to go onto an alternate list before taking a seat. Any other place in the country, that could have been problematic, but here it really wasn’t.

I think that was due in part for two reasons, one being the gentility of the south and the gentlemanly and gentlewomanly type players here. There’s just a politeness here where people seemed to understand and get it that this was our first time out of the gate here, and everyone was very accommodating. We really didn’t hear any complaints from anyone.

And then, of course, the second reason was that players had waited so long for a World Series of Poker event or something on that level to come to this area, and we finally came and they welcomed us with open arms, so the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

FD: This year the WSOP Circuit features 20 stops packed into 10 months, plus the National Championship in New Orleans in late May. Has the WSOP-C reached a limit in terms of expansion, or will there be even more stops added?

ND: One of the most interesting things you hear in the mainstream media — and even in the poker media — is this myth about how ‘poker is dying’ or ‘the poker boom is over’ or the like. But when it comes to the WSOP Circuit, we’ve been able to expand every single year. And it’s not as though we are diluting the product, because as you know when you come to [a new stop like] North Carolina, we pick up more players — and not just hundreds of players but thousands of players.

FD: So we could see more WSOP-C stops in 2013-14?

ND: The truth is I think it comes down to the fact that there’s not enough calendar days or months or time to fit in all of the events that we potentially could have. It’s a nice problem to have, but that being said next year we should have something in the neighborhood of 20 or more WSOP Circuit events, including several new stops.

* * * * *

A look at the entrants list for the WSOP Circuit Harrah’s Cherokee Main Event does support Dalla’s point about how adding a new stop tends to attract new players. Of the 856 entries, more than three-quarters of those who played hailed from North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, with the winner — John Bowman of nearby Hickory, NC — having never played in a tourney with as big a buy-in as $1,675 before in his life.

Indeed, Bowman won his seat via a satellite at Cherokee a couple of days before, and took away $250,380 for winning. He also won a WSOP-C ring, a seat in the $10K WSOP National Championship in May, as well as a seat in the WSOP Main Event in July (a special prize at Harrah’s Cherokee).

While the WSOP Circuit appears to be thriving as a “minor league” for North American poker players, it is interesting to note how the prizes being awarded have nonetheless grown to rival those of the more prestigious tours. In fact, Bowman’s first prize for winning the Main Event at Cherokee was nearly five times the amount won by Phil Ivey for winning his ninth WSOP bracelet in Event #3 down under.

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