Anatomy of a PokerStars Championship
Ask any poker player -- in any hand of poker, there's a lot more going on than meets the eye.
Those on the rail or watching over a live stream or on television don't always realize just how much that goes unseen can affect every bet, raise, call, or check. Even when hole cards are revealed there's much more to the story, with players' preparation away from the table and constant adaptations to changing circumstances during gameplay all influencing just how a hand goes.
Such is also true of the PokerStars Championship events staged in the Bahamas, Panama, Macau, and all over the globe throughout the year. These large-scale tournament series involve extensive preparation and planning, require constant adjustments as they play out, and are subject to post-series reappraisals afterwards in advance of the next stop.
As with a poker hand, what goes on when a PokerStars Championship plays out is much more complicated than it might appear. And it requires not just a few "players", but hundreds -- event managers, dealers, staff, media, and more -- all working together to make it happen.
"It's like a big wheel," says PokerStars Tournament Director Europe Thomas Lamatsch, suggesting how each of those involved play an important part keeping it rolling forward.
Preparation and Planning
Think getting a home game together can be complicated? How about setting up and running multiple international poker events where you're juggling as many as a hundred individual tournaments in less than a fortnight with hundreds, if not thousands, of players coming from all over the world?
For well over a decade, PokerStars' tours have included visits to dozens of different locations, each with its own particular conditions affecting when a series can be held, what the series can include, and a myriad of other logistical matters to be sorted through well in advance.
Once dates have been settled on and a venue chosen, those constructing the schedule have to consider both local guidelines and/or restrictions, as well as any physical limitations potentially imposed by the space available.
"We're very lucky in several places we go, where space usually doesn't become an issue," explains PokerStars Department Head of Live Poker Operations Neil Johnson. "But space is always something to consider -- we always want more."
Venues selected for PokerStars Championship events generally have rooms that can accommodate well over 100 tables, meaning more than 1,000 players can be in action at any given moment. Onto that map the many tournaments are scheduled, sometimes as many as 16 in a given day (including satellites).
"Most of the time what gets slotted into a schedule is determined by what will fit," explains Johnson, noting how any given situation can present a special challenge. Complicating things further is the careful carving out of tables for cash games, a very important part of the PokerStars Championship mix and greatly valued by many of the players.
Games for All
Also factored in is a desire to accommodate players of different backgrounds and bankrolls. As Johnson points out, the typical PokerStars Championship schedule features three "tiers" of buy-ins -- low, middle, and high.
"It's a little SCOOP-ish," he says, alluding to the similar three-tiered format of the popular PokerStars Spring Championship of Online Poker series.
"The schedules for the higher, five-figure buy-in events have been constructed carefully with the players," he says, and "kind of operate on their own level." Those include the High Rollers and Super High Rollers, with events like the recently introduced "single day" high rollers originally proposed by the players themselves.
The middle tier of the schedule Johnson describes as the "bones of the PokerStars Championship". This includes the PokerStars National Championship (formerly the Main Event of tours like the Estrellas, Eureka, France Poker Series, etc.) and the PokerStars Championship Main Event.
Meanwhile the PokerStars Cup and PokerStars Open (with sub $500 buy-ins) accentuate the lower tier events.
"There are actually 3.5 tiers, in a way," adds Johnson, referring to the non-hold'em variants that also get built into the schedules, games which tend to appeal to their own special audience of participants.
With all of this to consider, it's no wonder the schedule is the product of a team effort, going through several drafts and receiving input from many before being implemented. Then it's all put into execution -- also a highly-coordinated team effort.
On the Ground
"It's like a game of Tetris," explains Luca Vivaldi, the longtime Senior Floor Manager for PokerStars events, alluding to the constant flux of tournaments starting and ending and the need to anticipate when to fit events into available spaces.
"First to each tournament I assign a floor person and senior dealer who is the floor's helper," he explains. "Then I look at the numbers from previous years and guesstimate how many players we'll have, then plan for how tournaments will break, figure out what time I might need to move a tournament to another room, and so on."
A constantly updated video screen with color-coded tables lets players entering the room know immediately where specific tournaments are playing out, conforming very closely to Vivaldi's Tetris comparison.
In addition to ensuring the games run smoothly the administrative work remains constant for those "on the ground." Thanks to the PSLive sign-up system through which players register for events, Vivaldi and others managing the tournaments can access instantly at all times how many are registered, helping with the assignment of seats and redraws, handling payouts, and all other aspects of tournament management.
The PSLive system also helps players who have won online satellites register for the events for which they've earned their seats, or buy-in directly to tournaments using funds from their PokerStars accounts. The system is also of great use to the media who cover PokerStars Championship events.
"I can extract player lists, seating orders, results, all these things," says Media Coordinator Jan Kores, who many times over the course of a series forwards such information to the reporters. For many events chip counts taken at breaks are collated and sent out as well, helping audiences following the coverage keep up with who is doing well as a tournament winds toward its conclusion.
Speaking of media, it goes without saying that the PokerStars TV crew who provide the live stream and later televised shows are also engaged in a pursuit much more complicated than might be suspected.
"Planning for a live event starts months in advance," says Francine Watson, Executive Producer of TV & Online Programming. In fact, considering all the work to create set designs, obtain materials and construct sets, create graphics and title sequences (many of which will be new for the PokerStars Championships), "that lead time is more like a year as so many departments are involved."
The Only Constant is Change
Even before a PokerStars Championship ends, feedback is being obtained along the way from players as organizers think ahead to changes and improvements. Then surveys go out to all players afterwards, from which further response is collected.
"It's probably one of my favorite things about the tour," says Johnson, "having built a relationship with players and getting their feedback."
"We only have so many of these PokerStars Championships per year, and so only a finite number of opportunities to get feedback," explains Johnson. "So when we have an idea for how to improve a schedule or tournament, we want to implement it as soon as we can."
Again, it's not unlike the player who while finishing one hand is already thinking about how to play the next.
Preparing, planning, executing, and evaluating -- the overlapping stages of a PokerStars Championship.
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Martin Harris is Freelance Contributor to the PokerStars Blog.