"This is our thing"-- The PokerStars No-Limit Hold'em Players Championship
If you watch David Carrion long enough at a poker tournament, you will see it. Most of the time, he's a picture of stoic control. He's on top of everything without seeming the least bit hurried or bothered. But keep watching, and you'll see it. The look begins with a half-smile and a fully-electric glimmer in his eye, almost like he was privy to a secret that only he knows. If you see that look, you know he's appreciating the moment for what it is.
If you'd seen Carrion over the past couple of months, you might have seen that look on his face. As it happened, he was indeed carrying around a closely-guarded secret.
"One of my dreams has always been to create--if such a thing exists--a perfect poker tournament," Carrion said earlier this week.
That secret? There were plans in the works to make Carrion's dream come true.
Carrion and his colleagues at PokerStars have set out to do that very thing. Earlier today, PokerStars announced the PokerStars No-Limit Hold'em Players Championship, an event that Carrion sees as a watershed moment for poker tournaments around the world.
The once-a-year $25,000 buy-in tournament, Carrion said, will turn its focus to the players themselves, setting a price point for life-changing money, dumping millions in added value, giving hundreds of recreational players free seats and catering to the players in a way they haven't experienced before.
"For me, this is the opportunity to really do something meaningful that impacts the industry and impacts the players," Carrion said.
The key word there is "meaningful."
Creating a Can't-Miss Event
There is no denying the fact that nearly 15 years after the poker boom, there is not a lot that hasn't been tried in the live poker world. A poker tournament in Evansville, Indiana can look the same as a tournament in Punta del Este, Uruguay. What started in 2004 as an electric circus of poker tournaments that people clamored to get into turned into something else.
"Live events were an integral part of the poker community and what built excitement about poker around the world," Carrion said. "Now they have kind of become a commodity in some regards."
There is no one specific to blame, Carrion said. A natural evolution started to occur. Poker pros extracted as much value from tournaments as they could. Weekend warriors recognized they were underdogs. Local circuits popped up. Eventually, it came to a point where a player didn't have to find a travel visa, book a plane, and pay for a week in a foreign country just so they could play in a poker tournament. In a lot of cases, they could just walk down the street.
Carrion watched it happen with a front row seat. He ran the Latin American Poker Tour for years and eventually was elevated to manage PokerStars' marquee event, the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. All the while, his talent didn't go unrecognized. Now, he's risen through the PokerStars ranks and has an opportunity to take a gamble on something huge that will look and feel different than anything available today.
"For a while, live events were something that ticked all the boxes. It was fantastic, and it was all about dreaming," Carrion said. "Some of the magic that the events once had has gone away, and now it's just another tournament. There is nothing special about it."
Carrion watched as PokerStars lumped all its popular tours under the PokerStars Championship and Festival umbrellas. It was a bold proposition aimed at freshening up a stale poker environment. While Carrion feels like the poker product itself remained as good as it had ever been, the change didn't offer any new electricity. Put another way, despite carrying the PokerStars name, the new scheme didn't speak to the ethos Carrion and PokerStars had exuded for so long.
Carrion thinks all of that is about to change.
He said, "I think people are going to look at this and say, 'Wow. This is the best value tournament of the year. There is more value here than in anything else. I can't miss this. This is really a special tournament.'"
Wait...how much added value?
In a world where it seems everything has been tried, PokerStars is going out on a limb and suggesting it may be setting up a eureka moment.
"We're trying to create something that doesn't exist, something for everybody, unlike anything that's been done before," Carrion said.
You would be mistaken to think of Carrion as some corporate hack trying to spin up another poker tournament and maximize profits in a tight economy. It's not his style. He knows business very well, but at heart, he's a romantic, one that knows that sometimes the greatest ideas don't come cheaply.
The front-end outlay for this new venture will see $8 million in PokerStars' money go into the prize pool before anybody buys in. It will see another $1 million dropped on top of first place. This is worth repeating: that's $9 million in the prize pool before registration even opens.
"A lot of people feel like we moved away from our passion for the game and what we've always represented," Carrion said. "Now, we're creating one event, once a year that can represent PokerStars and what PokerStars believes in. It's our opportunity once a year to put a show together for the poker fans and the poker players of all skill levels and from all countries. It's our event for the players. That's really what it is all about."
Saying it's for the players is a nice sentiment, but what does that really mean?
This is something Carrion has thought about a lot.
First off, setting the buy-in at $25,000 is going to keep the field to a manageable size for the player. While it's fun to compete against a field of 8,000 people, a tournament like that can seem like a mountain too high.
"We don't want this to be an event for the masses. We want this to be a boutique event that we can manage and take care of everybody who attends," Carrion said.
At the same time, Carrion is also very aware of how most of the $25,000 buy-in events in the world essentially cater to the same people: those who can afford to buy into $25,000 events. He's also aware those players would rather be playing for that kind of money against people other than themselves. That's where this thing gets really interesting. Remember all that money PokerStars is going to spend. This is where a lot of it is going.
"Because we know that $25,000 is very inaccessible to the majority of the poker market, we're going to put in more than 300 people...for free," Carrion said. "That means, before the tournament starts, we're going to contribute $8 million to the prize pool in free seats that we're going to give to people throughout the year. We want to cater to everyone who plays at PokerStars. These 300-plus seats are for them."
Read that closely. This isn't just for live players. This isn't just for players with big bankrolls. This tournament is for everybody, and everybody will have a chance to get in.
That's going to happen in a lot of ways. There will be seats for people who win major online series main events. There will be seats in the Stars Rewards loyalty program chests. There will be seats given away at other PokerStars live events at random times - just like the Platinum Pass handed to the two players in Prague today as a consolation prize for simultaneously busting on the bubble. By the time the tournament starts, 300 people will have gotten a seat without having to front the $25,000.
"The paths for being awarded these free seats are both online and live. Online, you can get in via our big online tournament series. There will be freerolls for all the people who play in these events. If you win one of the main events, you win a seat to the $25,000 Players Championship. Just by playing you have a shot to play the $25,000 for free," Carrion explained. "We'll be doing the same in our marquee events like the Sunday Million and the Sunday Storm. We'll also offer custom challenges and promotions for all players online, no matter what game or stakes you play. It will also be incorporated into our loyalty program, and there will be a few chests throughout the year that will have free entries for this tournament. You can also qualify live. There will be random ways to win seats, and you can win seats by winning events."
Why? Because it matters.
Carrion is well aware of how the last couple of years have played out. Right or wrong, some people have developed the impression the people behind PokerStars lost sight of their most valuable asset: their players. Carrion is prepared to stand up and prove that impression isn't true.
"We want to create a tournament for all players. We want to treat these players in a way they have never been treated before at any tournament," he said.
Carrion's vision goes back to that one word: meaningful.
He knows poker players don't want just another big tournament. They don't want just another expensive tournament. They want something that ticks all the boxes: big money, manageable field, a mix of talent in the field, lots of added value, and personal attention. It's a huge ask, and that's why Carrion has made it his number one task.
He recognizes his intentions may be questioned and that there will be skeptics. He's ready to prove PokerStars hasn't changed as much as some may say. He's ready to create something meaningful. He's ready to create something that excites people again. He's ready for everyone to feel something like they felt 15 years when everything was electric and new.
"We want it to become the players' tournament," he said. "If people give us an opportunity to do this and build on this, they are going to see we can create excitement in poker that at the very least gives us an opportunity to get together once a year and say, 'Yeah, this is our thing. This is our tournament. This really is the best.'"
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging. Follow him on Twitter: @BradWillis.