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Top-10 Epic Poker League observations

8 Aug 2011

By Aaron Todd
The Epic Poker League (EPL) officially got underway over the weekend, with its first $1,500 Pro/Am at The Palms Casino Resort. The elite poker league – and whether it can succeed – has been the subject of a great deal of debate in recent months.

While the first Main Event gets underway on Tuesday, there were some good indicators of what to expect from the league based on its first tournament. But there are still plenty of questions remaining. Here’s a top-10 list of observations from this first Pro/Am and things to watch for as the first Main Event gets underway.

10. First Pro/Am a success
With a $400,000 overlay planned for the first Main Event, the last thing Federated Sports + Gaming (the company behind the EPL) wanted to do was pay an overlay in the $1,500 Pro/Am. The top nine in the tournament were guaranteed $20,000 seats into Tuesday’s Main Event, a six-max no-limit Hold’em invitation-only event. With $1,365 of each $1,500 buy-in going to the prize pool, the Pro/Am needed to draw 132 players to avoid paying an overlay. With two Day 1s, the tournament drew 190 players for a prize pool of $259,350, meaning the top 18 players finished in the money, with the top nine earning seats in the Main Event and first place paying an additional $23,810.

9. Qualifiers supportive (so far)
Sixty-eight of the 252 players who are eligible to play in the EPL’s first Main Event played in the Pro/Am. Most of them were likely looking for value, as getting into a $20,000 event with what could very well be a $4 million prize pool for a mere $1,500 would be quite a bargain. With more than a quarter of the EPL qualified players already supporting the league, plus a legion of other recognizable pros who didn’t make the league’s initial cut joining the fray, it’s clear that the pros are generally supportive of the idea.

8. Anyone can win
It’s a poker cliché to say that anyone can buy into a tournament and play with the best and still walk away with a victory. Of course, it’s also true. Two of the Pro/Am’s final nine earned a spot in the $1,500 event through satellites, and now they get to play with poker’s elite. George Long, who finished eighth, has career winnings of $97,253, thanks almost entirely to three victories in $1,000 weekly events at the Bellagio. He qualified in a $180 satellite two weeks ago. Clifford Waite, whose only five-figure score came as a result of a fifth-place finish in a Heartland Poker Tour event, also won his way into the Pro/Am in a satellite and is still in contention for the Pro/Am title, sitting in third chip position with six players remaining for the televised final table. In total, 40 satellite winners played in the Pro/Am. Long and Waite’s success, combined with the three satellite winners who finished in the money (including Mike Matusow), may entice more people to give the EPL’s satellite system a try.

7. Pro/Am TV coverage – meh
Speaking of the televised final table, this is an area that is going to leave a lot to be desired. Of the six players who qualified, the only recognizable player for most fans is Andy Bloch, who was the only EPL player to earn a discounted seat in the Main Event. While Steve O’Dwyer has had some TV time, and a few of the other players have had some impressive results, they are not poker celebrities.

But the real problem is that the most interesting aspect of the tournament – winning a seat in an EPL Main Event – occurred before the television broadcast picks up. When the difference between fifth and fourth is less than the tournament buy-in, that’s not compelling television. Even first place only sees a payout increase of $11,910 to $23,810. If first place offered a season pass, then there’d be something worth watching.

And there’s still no guarantee that poker fans will know where to find this Pro/Am coverage, which will be broadcast on various channels, based on Heartland Poker Tour's nationwide syndication.

6. Where’s the money?
This is a question that still hasn’t been answered. While the satellites and the Pro/Am generated some revenue, they still account for less than 10 percent of the $400,000 overlay that FS+G is offering in this week’s Main Event. With three more Main Events with similar overlays, a season-ending $1 million freeroll, a seven-hour time buy to broadcast Main Events on CBS and no announced sponsorship arrangements, it remains to be seen if the EPL is financially viable.

5. EPL needs more reporting staff
Poker fans are used to the coverage they see during the WSOP. And with only 10 tables to cover at any point, it wouldn’t be too hard to get a few interns to provide some live coverage of the big names playing in the EPL Pro/Am. While Michael Craig is doing well providing end-of-day write-ups, and the EPL is sending out tweets and Facebook updates throughout each day, the EPL website left a lot to be desired. While Craig’s Day 2 update was posted and had all the relevant information, those interested in the event could not easily find a list of the final six players and their chip counts. This needs to improve going forward, especially if so many EPL qualified players continue to play in the Pro/Am events.

With many in the poker media covering the Punta del Este on the LAPT, the big live coverage sites didn’t have anyone covering the Pro/Am. The EPL needs to staff their own live coverage team if no one else is available. And if pros looking to increase their Q factor know there’s going to be live coverage that will get them some added attention, they may decide to play more Pro/Ams in the future.

4. Not all the players know the rules yet
Sean Getzwiller finished in ninth place, winning a seat in the Main Event with no cash. Getzwiller, a great young player who has not met the qualification criteria to play in season one of the EPL, didn’t know that he couldn’t buy in to Tuesday’s $20,000 Main Event. As Craig wrote in his Day 2 roundup, Getzwiller was “pleased to learn he was wrong only after he won his way in.”

3. Charity an important aspect
Poker players have come out to support charity events in the past, and the first EPL Charity Event (there will be one just prior to each Main Event) raised more than $50,000 for Operation USA, an international relief agency that helps communities at home and abroad overcome the effects of disasters, disease and endemic poverty by providing privately funded relief, reconstruction and development aid. And Andy Frankenberger, the winner of the event, donated the $2,500 cash prize right back to Operation USA.

2. How many will turn up for the Main Event?
This is really the most important question that remains. Among the 252 players who qualified (not including the nine Pro/Am winners), there are some notable names that seem unlikely to make an appearance at Tuesday’s Main Event (Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson and Phil Ivey, to name a few). You’ll almost certainly see high-stakes tournament regulars like Daniel Negreanu, Jason Mercier, Erik Seidel and Barry Greenstein. But what about Allen Kessler, Greg Raymer (who played in the Pro/Am but did not make the final table) and Matt Matros? These are some of the best players in the world, but do they believe they’re in the upper tier of players who have qualified for the EPL and want to risk a $20,000 buy-in? Would they be able to find people to stake them against the field that they would face? What about international players like Jeffrey Lisandro, Alexander Kravchenko and Juha Helppi? If they are not already in Las Vegas, will they make the trip to the U.S. just to play in this event against the world’s elite? If the league is going to succeed, it will need these players to fill out the fields and fatten the prize pool.

1. Will there be a second season?
With $2.6 million in overlays, players are bound to love the EPL. And with Matt Savage on board as tournament director (disputes with Daniel Negreanu aside), players know the tournament will be run in a professional manner. But the league will need to develop a revenue source to make it to a second season. Operating at a loss is sustainable – until the investors decide the gig is up. If the tournament ends up being must-see poker programming, the league may just find a way to keep going.
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