Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Cash or the Crown?

Which is more important in poker tournaments, the trophy or the prize money?

During the final table of the WPT Deepstacks LA, commentators Owais Ahmed and Tristan Wade got into a brief debate over which is more valuable, winning a first place trophy or winning the most money possible, with Owais speculating that some people might be willing to take a little less money if it meant getting the crown, and Tristan insisting that money rules the day, and he could always go buy a trophy if he really wanted one.

This is a debate that has been knocked back and forth at least since the poker boom, with conventional wisdom being that any “real” poker player is only in it for the money, and should have as a goal to make as much as possible, with no consideration to accolades (one might argue that any “real” poker player who’s only after cash wouldn’t play tournaments at all, but that’s another debate). 

On the other side of the debate are more skeptical types who suggest that when push comes to shove, many of these “real” poker players deeply covet the prestige that comes with bracelets and trophies, and value them much higher than the monetary reward.

The Trophy vs. The $$$$

I think that in the real world, the two concepts are completely inseparable. The first place trophy only has significance because of the financial win it represents. If I win a WSOP bracelet, that has meaning because people know that hundreds of opponents invested their own (or sometimes, someone else’s) hard earned cash to get that title, and were highly motivated to stop me from winning it. I highly doubt that anyone would display their World Series of Online Play Money Poker championship bracelet with any particular level of pride. Conversely, if I tell someone that I won a poker trophy but someone else got more money because we made a deal before hand, that person would probably get the sense that despite my owning the hardware, I didn’t really win the tournament at all, and just kind of bought a meaningless title that I didn’t actually earn.

The Experiment

Fortunately, as a philosopher, I can design a thought experiment that truly brings this question to light. The experiment goes as follows:

You are a fairly strong professional poker player. Strong enough that you have made a decent living for yourself although your bankroll fluctuates considerably, and you have the respect of your peers. You receive an invitation to play in a poker tournament that purports to feature the nine best players in the world (including yourself). There is no entry fee and no prize money, but the winner will be declared World Poker Champion, and the event will be televised on broadcast TV in prime time, so that if you win, even casual fans of the game will know you as the poker champion of the world.

Later that day, you receive an invitation to a private home poker game. It will be a sit n go with only one prize, a million dollars for first place. Since the other players in the game are wealthy hobbyists who want to test their mettle against a pro, there is no entry fee for this game either. However, this game takes place on the same day as the World Championship and you cannot play both. Which would you choose?

I submit that many tournament pros would probably go for the World Championship trophy, even though no money is up for grabs. I believe this for two reasons. 1) A successful tournament pro can always make more money, and while the overlay is infinite, winning the million dollars in the money game is not guaranteed. 2) The opportunity value of being World Champion is probably worth more than a million dollars in sponsorships, invitations to profitable games and tournaments, and other general perks.

I also think that the money vs. fame debate is not absolute. If you are a mid stakes grinder who has never made more than $50,000 a year playing poker (but has never lost money in a year of poker), the money game is a no brainer. Not only could it potentially change your life, but at your level, it’s probably more profitable if people don’t know your name, style of play, or amount of skill. On the other hand, if you’re Daniel Negreanu or Antonio Esfandiari, you’d probably be at that World Championship table before your wealthy friend could get out the worlds “million dollar freeroll.” 

You can also see how your perspective on this issue can change not only from player-to-player, but can also fluctuate for an individual player depending on where they are in their poker career.

Fortunately, most of us will probably never have to make this choice. We’ll keep playing for first place because that’s where all the money is, and happily take the trophy/bracelet/ring that goes with it, and whatever other perks of poker fame that hardware brings.

Have a different take? Let me know in the comments.

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