Monday, 5th December 2022 01:54
Home / Features / Pricing a poker tournament: How the bookmakers do it

With the Sunday Million 14th Anniversary event fast approaching, we recently fell back on an old favourite format for a blog post. We asked the age-old question “Who’ll win?”

Although the answer stretched into two long parts (read part one and part two), the simple truth is that it’s almost impossible to predict winners of poker tournaments. There are just too many players, and poker is such a volatile game.

Despite that, we are hardly alone in speculating as to who might come out on top of a major event such as this, and where there’s an appetite for speculation, there’s usually an opportunity to invite people to back their hunches with cold hard cash. Over at BetStars, our bookmaking friends tend to offer markets on poker tournaments at least a couple of times a year, treating the tournaments as they would any other major sporting event and offering prices on some of the top names.


The responsibility for pricing poker tournaments usually falls to a man named Justin Reilly, who is a senior sportsbook trader focusing particularly on US sports, boxing, MMA and poker. Some regulatory red tape means that unfortunately there won’t be a book for this particular record-breaking Sunday Million, but it still seemed like a good time to get in touch with Reilly and ask a few pertinent questions.

How do you actually set a market for a poker tournament? What are the tricks of this particular trade? Reilly was happy to talk us through it.

“As with any betting market the main fundamentals are to ensure perceived value for the customer, while ensuring a target margin for the book itself, allowing it to make a profit naturally with an even spread of money over as many selections as possible,” Reilly says.

In our examination of the Sunday Million, we took a look back at the recent results in similar tournaments, and picked out a handful of names who are typically still competing when the tournaments reach their business end. Reilly says that he does exactly the same thing.

“When tasked with pricing up a poker tournament outright, you would approach it like most sports outrights focusing on some areas of key data that will allow you form an early opinion,” he says. Reilly adds that he organises the field by career lifetime stats, winnings live and online, and looks at who is currently playing to their ranking and is in form going into this tournament. He says he looks at the main media outlets to find players who are maybe down the rankings but who are in good form, or new players making waves early in their careers.

“Once you have a good grasp of the current global poker live and online landscape, you can begin to build your betting book on the tournament, and this is where it starts getting interesting,” Reilly says.

Part of the particular challenge presented by poker is the sheer size of tournament fields, with the game’s inherent luck factor then also playing a major part. Reilly said that even when looking at a live tournament, which might have, say, 200 runners, it’s initially very hard to set accurate parameters.

Enormous fields make pricing poker tournaments exceptionally difficult

“There are very few other sports markets, if any, quite like poker,” Reilly says. “For instance, using golf outrights as an example, you may have a similar enough field size to poker but your favourite may be an eight-to-one shot as the golfer’s form, skill and ranking will dictate their price in the main. With poker, skill and rankings are certainly elements but luck would be much more of a factor. As such the eight-to-one favourite in golf could be a 25-to-one or bigger favourite in poker depending on the circumstances.”

If the field swells to the size of, say, the WSOP Main Event, where there might be 8,000 players, a favourite would be priced somewhere between 40 and 66-to-one. The odds would only grow even bigger when contemplating something like the anniversary Sunday Million, where more than 50,000 entries are needed for it to reach its spectacular $12.5 million guarantee. Any unnamed player — i.e., “the field” — is far more likely to be the winner than even a long list of fancied individuals.

Nevertheless, identifying a specific favourite is an important step in the process of compiling the whole market, Reilly says, before the bookmaker looks again at how to make sure the whole process is both attractive to punters but profitable for his employers. “Once we’ve settled on a favourite we can build the book outwards,” Reilly says. “The fundamentals are always at the core of markets like these (value to the customer and margin to the book) but at the end of the day poker betting markets are recreational more than anything and big stakes would always be to a minimum due to the amount of luck involved over the course of the tournament.”

Betting on soccer far eclipses any wagers on poker

In comparison with markets about the most popular sports — soccer, for example — the amount of money wagered on poker tournaments are miniscule. But there are other ways to make poker betting more attractive, specifically by offering more compact side markets, known as “derivatives”.

“They can be very popular indeed,” Reilly says. “We have offered a ‘Top performing PokerStars Pro’ market in the past and it has done quite well. Also head-to-heads (player A v player B), two v two etc. are all very popular. Or we can offer mini-league betting with say a list of the 10 best players battling it out in their own outright betting market.”

He adds that the BetStars traders will also watch the tournament progress and offer so-called “in-play” markets, where prices move up and down as the chip-stacks of the named players move as well. “If the favourite has a sizeable chip lead at any stage we can also offer a ‘Betting without the favourite’ market to make it competitive again,” Reilly says.

One last point on this complicated subject: don’t think that the betting markets might offer a temptation to players to chip-dump in a bid to lose at the table, but win with the bookies. There’s typically a maximum payout of $1,000 for a poker bet, and there’s also a whole department analysing suspicious play across all of The Stars Group’s sites.

“We actively monitor all of our markets and our customer database to ensure that issues like this are kept to a very minimum,” Reilly says. “I have never experienced such issues but if they did occur it would be referred to a compliance team who would investigate the issue and make a decision on what action, if any, is taken.”

In the meantime, head over to BetStars for all manner of markets on all major sports, plus some options for betting on the U.S. Presidential Election and the Eurovision Song Contest. Trump is favourite in one; Russia the other. Go figure.

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