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Top-10 observations from the WSOP Circuit Main Event in Pennsylvania

13 May 2013

By Aaron Todd
Since I started covering the gambling industry in 2006, I've spent my share of time at the World Series of Poker at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. I have a good sense of what to expect in a tournament, and even though I usually only spend one week there, I do enough wandering around to know the property as well as people who spend their entire summer at the series.

One thing I hadn't done until very recently, however, was attend a World Series of Poker Circuit Event. But with a family trip planned to Philadelphia coinciding with the WSOP Circuit Main Event at nearby Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack, it seemed to perfect time to go check out the WSOP's traveling road show.

Here are 10 observations on the similarities and differences the WSOP Circuit shares with the annual Las Vegas event.

10. Setting
One of the striking things about the Rio is the huge banquet areas where the WSOP takes place. Tens of thousands of square feet are available for more than 400 poker tables each year, and there's action from cash games to daily deepstack events to, of course, bracelet events.

The Circuit event in Chester took place in the Harrah's Ballroom, a spacious room that allowed for 50-60 tables – plenty of space considering the demand (the largest tournament drew 643 players, but it had two flights and allowed players to enter the second flight if they busted from the first).

One thing that the Circuit lacks, however, is the staging that accompanies the bracelet events at the WSOP. When I first walked in, it didn't feel like I was attending a big event. It felt like any old casino poker tournament. That feeling wasn't diminished when I saw multiple tables in disrepair. Many had black duct tape covering rips in the rail, and there was no branding on the tables to indicate that players were participating in a WSOP event.

While the Circuit certainly needs to use the equipment that is available at participating properties, Caesars did appear to bring the final table setup with them. A beautiful, 10-seat table with padded chairs and WSOP branding, the final table was set off to the side of the room and had a WSOP backdrop. There was no stadium seating, but there were about a dozen chairs around for people to sit in as they railed their friends or family.

All these decisions seemed appropriate given the scale of the tournament, but my initial reaction was that this event did not carry with it the importance of other WSOP events I had seen.

9. Structure
WSOP events typically have one-hour levels, except the Main Event, which stretches levels out for a full two hours. Circuit events vary from this a great deal, starting with levels of 30 minutes and working up to as high as 75 minutes. The first 15 levels in the $1,675 Circuit Main Event lasted 40 minutes, and then there were 10 one-hour levels before the tournament switched to 75-minute levels until the winner was determined.

The variable lengths allow tournaments to shrink more quickly, while still allowing for more time to play when the money is on the line. It seems like a decent compromise for a smaller buy-in event.

8. Allen Kessler there to comment on structure
Tournament pro Allen Kessler is well known for his meticulous attention to tournament structures, often taking to Twitter to air his grievances with tournament directors' decisions. The Circuit event was no different. With 14 players starting the final day's play, the final table wasn't officially determined until nearly 6 p.m. local time, which meant that the final nine were in for a long slog to determine the winner. Kessler opined that tournament directors should have played more levels on Day 1, which would have meant a shorter Day 3. The tournament finally did end at about 4:30 a.m.

7. Chips
I arrived on Day 3 of the tournament, so the T-25, T-100 and T-500 chips had already been removed from play. All that remained were T-1,000 and T-5,000 chips. I had heard reports that the lower denomination chips were pretty gross, and this picture seems to confirm it.

I'm a little bit of a poker chip fanatic, so seeing Paulson's in such a state was somewhat disconcerting. But more importantly, this Harrah's property's T-25,000 chip is apparently almost the exact same color as the T-5,000 chip, so instead of coloring up and using T-1,000s, T-5,000s and T-25,000s, they used T-1,000s, T-5,000s and T-10,000s. That confused just about everyone, from the players to the dealers to the spectators, and it's seriously poor planning. While it may be difficult (and a bit of a security issue) to move chips from property to property for Circuit stops, it would solve the problem presented here.

6. Crowds
At WSOP events at the Rio, there are hundreds of poker fans wandering the halls, looking for poker celebrities for autographs and/or pictures. The final table stage is rarely less than half full during the casino's normal busy hours (it can get a bit empty when a tournament runs past 2 a.m.). The Circuit event crowd had a much more personal feel. While loved ones are often there to cheer on their friends and family at the WSOP, there are also random folks there who want to watch a part of history.

In Chester, almost every observer other than yours truly and the lone PokerNews reporter providing hand and chip count updates had a rooting interest. It made for a much more intimate setting, and we were close enough that I even got a good-natured (and well-deserved) ribbing from one of the players for talking on my cell phone too loudly.

5. Lack of free stuff for media
Yeah, this is a selfish observation, but when I'm at the WSOP at the Rio, I'm presented with more Jack Link's Beef Jerky than my digestive system could possibly handle. You can imagine my excitement when I discovered that the WSOP Circuit is sponsored by Southern Comfort. Unfortunately, there was no free booze for media. In retrospect, that probably was a good thing.

4. Enforcing rules
WSOP tournament officials have often been called the "Fun Police" for their incredibly strict adherence to the WSOP rule book. One of the rules that is heavily enforced at the WSOP is the "approved electronic devices" rule. Players are allowed to use such devices with headphones in the early stages of tournaments, but once the money bubble has burst, players are not allowed to use devices with headphones. However, at the Circuit event in Chester, players were wearing headphones throughout final table play, with one even wearing them during heads-up play. It was clear that tournament officials had developed enough comfort and familiarity with the players that they felt it would be okay to suspend the rule. I, however, think that it detracted from play, as several players were distracted and didn't realize it was their turn to act.

3. No cash on the table
One of the best parts of heads-up play at the WSOP is that they bring the cash right out on the table for players to look at when victory is oh so close. That didn't happen at the Circuit event, though they did bring the ring out to the table so Rex Clinkscales and Michael Jukich could look at that when they reached heads-up play.

2. The thrill of victory
I've mentioned a number of ways the Circuit event felt like it was less important than the WSOP at the Rio in Las Vegas, and to be fair, it is less important. But one thing remains the same between them: The thrill of victory. There was no doubt that Clinkscales wanted to win a ring badly. The poker pro was making his 10th Circuit final table appearance, and he had yet to win a ring. When his pocket sevens beat Jukich's K-Q suited, he clapped his hands together, screamed "YES" at the top of his lungs, and gave his girlfriend an enormous hug. He went outside to collect himself and call friends and family, and it was clear how much this moment really meant to him. As a jaded reporter who had spent the last 14-and-a-half hours watching poker, it made me glad that I stuck around and watched Day 3 for its entirety.

1. Community
The one area where I feel like the WSOP Circuit has the WSOP beat is its community. When Clinkscales eliminated Beverly Cheney in ninth place, he went over and gave her a huge hug and she wished him luck. Players around the tournament room came over to say congratulations to her and to also wish Clinkscales well. The mix of players – traveling tournament pros and local players – provided an interesting dynamic. You could easily tell who the traveling rounders were, because they were always there to root each other on.

During the dinner break, I had the good fortune of meeting Tom Christopher, a Las Vegas resident by way of Missouri, who travels the Circuit. He talked about how much fun it was to play in the events and meet so many different people who love poker as much as he does. He said that the people who play in lots of events at the WSOP are often some of the most skilled in the game, but don't have the same passion for the game, looking at it only as a means of making money. While he's certainly doing his best to win money, Christopher plays because he loves the game. And the Circuit seems to be as good a place as any for people who feel that way.
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