When we look back at Harrah's experience from last year, the unmet needs were truly the most basic: adequate restrooms, adequate food, the blocking and tackling of coordinating services to handle the thousands of people utilizing the resources of Harrah's Rio.
Beyond strides in these basic needs, a major initiative launched since the 2005 WSOP was the Player's Advisory Board. Seven pros and three recreational players were selected to provide input to Harrah's as they worked to improve on the World Series. There were no shortage of ideas and opinions in the poker world. Raging debate has continued on whether the Main Event should either be capped or if the entry fee should be raised. No changes have been made regarding the Main Event, but probably the most noticeable result from player ideas was the $50k H.O.R.S.E event.
Although Pollack was reluctant to name the key operational issues confronting his team during a press conference Thursday, here is my draft of the critical few, as well as what has been done to date from my perspective:
- Dealer capability and turnover. There have been rumors that dealers were leaving 100 at a time on Thursdays after they received their paycheck. The dealer challenge is significant for Harrah's, as 218 tables need to be staffed each day for tournaments and cash games. Staffing issues are a significant organizational challenge for the World Series. For tournaments held at the Bellagio, for example, dealers are drawn from an existing employee base as well as those who can be called in for big tournaments. Harrah's has no ability to do that, as the Rio basically creates a huge poker room that lives for six weeks each year then is disbanded. It is a Herculean task. The Amazon Room could turn into the site of a hair products convention in September or hold the national sales meeting for an industrial kitchen equipment manufacturer. Compensation issues plagued the relationship with dealers in the first weeks of the World Series. This is difficult to understand as there truly is nothing more important than compensation in an employer-employee relationship. Never screw with someone's paycheck. It is easy to come to the conclusion that Harrah's has underinvested in compensation for the dealer staff. Changes have been made, moving from payment per hour to payment per down; however, it is fair to say that the relationship with dealers is hardly robust.
- Consistency of floor decisions. Poker rooms around the world lack common procedures for virtually anything. Within a poker room or tournament, consistency should be mandatory as it protects the integrity of the game. I should receive the same ruling that Doyle Brunson or Mike Matusow receives. No one has claimed preferential treatment exists at the World Series, but most people point to poor floor staff as being a big problem. This may or may not be the case, and I'm not knowledgeable enough about the background and resumes of the staff to know if all staff members are fully qualified. That shouldn't be as relevant if all procedures are clearly defined and understood by all floor personnel. Harrah's is confronted with trying to run the NCAA basketball tournament with referees who have little training and lacking common rules. You could have the most motivated, well intentioned people in the world, but without this framework success would be minimal.
- Logistics. Think of this as being a traffic cop and it seems to be one of the areas where improvement is most visible from the beginning of the World Series to the end. The Main Event almost seems like a separate tournament when it comes to logistics, with limitations on spectators, hard rules regarding being in the tournament area during breaks, etc. While still not perfect, it is a welcome improvement for all parties involved. One issue that Pollack raised was space, saying that there are space constraints for his operation. This is difficult to understand, as additional ballrooms nearby house hospitality suites, as well as conventions like a Custom Doll convention and a Dental Products trade show. I may simply lack knowledge regard NGC regulations in the context of facilities; without that, space should be the least of Pollack's worries.
- Information flow. The World Series of Poker significantly lags other sports and competitions when it comes to information accessibility for virtually anyone wanting it. Pollack referred to this in the press conference as an area for focus next year for spectator improvement, and it makes a lot of sense. It would be simple to print programs for sale with table seating charts, install computer-based systems to show who is where when. Technology is five-ten years old which would provide wireless information flow to keep track of things like player location, bus touts, etc. Signage and monitors could keep everyone informed, as could information kiosks. Saturday brought printed player rosters alphabetically organized showing table and seat for the first time. This is a big step forward for media and online poker sites; however, it should be a basic that will ensure the capture of proper information.
- Events and scheduling. It is in the best interest of Harrah's to schedule the best balance of events at specific buy-ins to maximize revenues. It's hard to fault the World Series of Poker becoming the World Series of Holdem, as every $1.5k and $2k event had record entrants. If this is the World Series, the championship of championships, shouldn't events reflect that? You'll see more changes next year to respond to some of this, but it will be important for the Player's Advisory Board to pull input and provide vision in this area. Five events going on in one day is at least two too many.
There are many other issues that are of significance that affect media and ultimately poker fans around the world, but I'll keep it to this group of five items. To me, one overarching question should be answered: What is the relationship between Poker and the WSOP? Who ensures that the World Series of Poker produces the champions of poker? I've never met Pollack, but there is no question he is an employee of Harrah's. My impression is that he and Harrah's aspire to fill the void in poker, the void for leadership, vision, and strategy. There is a risk that poker suffers some of the challenges baseball has confronted, their current commissioner coming from the owner's box to the front office. Who sits above the sport to look after the good of the sport? Jeffrey Pollack may be the WSOP Commissioner, but there is no Commissioner of Poker. Players fire off press releases, a couple of them gather to gripe about something, organizations try to organize with little success. All the while, no one is looking after the good of the game. In this dynamic and risky time, this gap is more dangerous than ever before.
The Main Event is running - maybe better than the first weeks of the World Series. What we'll see the rest of this year and next is can the World Series become world-class, a benchmark for sport and competition. It's possible as part of a five-year journey, but everyone would like to see the operational improvements advance at the same pace that the marketing, branding, and profit generation has advanced.