It’s been a different sort of World Series of Poker in 2021 to date, as one would expect. Between the shift from early summer to mid-autumn, caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and all the other pandemic-related changes that one sees on a day-to-day basis, one never knows quite what to expect.

There’s also one thing that hasn’t changed, and that’s the three seasons of the WSOP. With the main event underway, we’ve entered the third and final season, which is, well, the Main Event, complete with all its trappings. But there are two distinct phases that come before that, and those offer contrasts of their own.

The first season of the WSOP — of each WSOP — involves the opening festivities and the first week or two of play. The WSOP has become such a festival unto itself that the first week or two is the time of reunions and returns, a gigantic meet-and-greet of the cream of the poker world. It was more pronounced than ever this year, what with the nearly two and a half years that have passed since the last “live” World Series of Poker, back in June and July of 2019.

The WSOP, of course, played into this with their “Reunion” event that helped kick off the 2021 series. And that was a nice, fun way to start the nearly-eight-week run, but the return to the Rio was a lot more to that, too.

The daily WSOP grind — Whining Season

Sooner or later, however, the freshness fades into the background. Then it’s time for the daily grind, when a couple of events kick off virtually every day, and the triumphs and the bad beats and the all of it just seems to blend into a never-ending, almost seamless whole.

That’s when the whining erupts. Whatever’s wrong at the WSOP, perceived or actual — and most of it is actual — that gets brought up on social media during this stretch. There are a series of perennial topics that never seem to change, including high rake, event structures, very cheap and easily-damaged cards, and so on.

Add in all the pandemic-related gripes unique to the 2021 series and it was actually a very busy whining season overall. The largest of the new whines is certainly the severe dealer shortage the WSOP continues to endure, and there’s simply no way to fix it. The series could literally have used hundreds more dealers, and the lack of that resource has caused the cancellation of quite a few secondary offerings, as well as pushing back the start of a few bracelet events.

There’s even a space issue developing on Tuesday, November 9, when over 2,900 players are returning for Day 2 play in the Main Event after bagging during the Day 1A, 1B, and 1D flights. That’s roughly 300 tables taken up right there. The larger problem? Tuesday is also the final starting day — the 1F flight — for Day 1 action. That might cause another couple of hundred tables to be needed, and it’s anyone’s guess from the outside looking in as to whether the WSOP can get all those tables staffed early in the day, when they’re most needed. Another day or so will tell that tale, but I expect delays lasting several hours.

The other, annual whines aren’t going anywhere either. Yes, the rake is higher than ever, but that’s not going to change. Everyone who plays at the Rio ought to understand that there’s a prestige factor in being able to play at the WSOP. Combine that with all the extra expenses involved with putting on what is at heart a temporary, traveling series, and that overhead will always be very high. Parent company Caesars remains very cash poor, and the WSOP is a small but profitable entity. That means the larger company can and will continue to squeeze revenue out of the series however it can.

Take those cards, for instance. They’re as cheap as always, a low-grade, lowest-bidder product from an otherwise quality maker. Yet people complaining about how cheap the cards are don’t fully appreciate the full revenue stream involved. Not only is it less expensive overall despite running through many more decks, it also creates a virtually free secondary-revenue product — “Real WSOP-used decks” that are then resold through Caesars’ and the WSOP’s gift areas and shops. That may not be a ton of secondhand revenue, but it’s yet another trickle. It’s all part of the equation.

Main Event season arrives third

The funny thing is that the whining always dissipates with the arrival of the Main Event, except for issues specifically tied to the ME, like the potential scheduling issue mentioned above. The flimsy cards? You won’t hear about them much during the Main’s two-week run. You’ll hear some about the high prices on food and drinks throughout the Rio, but those are casino prices; it’s to be expected.

That’s the allure of the Main Event at work. The anticipation and the dreams literally drown out the little bad things that everyone at the WSOP has to endure. That lasts, usually, for the rest of the series, even if there’s a little twist this time around.

For the first time in recent memory, action in the Main Event does not also wrap up the live WSOP series. There are still 21 more bracelet events to be contested, the last few of which end several days after the 2021 Main Event itself will end. The first of those events begins today, the biennial Little One for One Drop tourney. Day 2 of the Little One on Tuesday may also factor into the space problems that are likely to occur on Tuesday.

But who knows? With the Main Event ending earlier than in other years, there could be a fourth season in the 2021 WSOP atmosphere this time around. Maybe it’ll be a reprise of the whining. More likely, though, it’ll be about the WSOP winding up its long history at the Rio. In 2022, the series is moving over to Bally’s and Planet Hollywood on the Strip. It’s likely there won’t be too much true sadness; the Rio’s warts are well known, though it has its positives as well. But it’ll be a time for change.

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