Barry Carter discusses the history of poker betting markets at sportsbooks, and considers whether the upcoming iSeriesLIVE event can turn them into a sustainable long term business in poker.

When most poker rooms have a sister sportsbook product, it seems inevitable that we are able to bet on the outcome of a poker tournament. Poker betting markets have emerged over the last six or seven years, but despite a lot of attempts to make something out of them, they haven't materialised into a particularly sustainable niche within the industry.

This is partially due to how the sportsbooks themselves have approached the markets. They have never been treated like a hugely profitable venture for a bookmaker, nor have they been marketed in such a way they could be a viable way for a punter to make a large sum of money.

Novelty markets

Betting on kidpoker
Rather, they usually have been used as a marketing tool, not for the sportsbook itself, but for the online poker room tied to it. Often this includes running books on events sponsored by the online poker room, for example, PaddyPower tend to have a lot of markets on the Irish Open, or by including special 'last longer' type bets featuring the sponsored players from that site, for example in the WSOP.

In the early years of poker betting markets, the bookmakers did not want to invest heavily in them because poker was an area where they had a rare gap in knowledge. A lot of names in the field might have appeared to be random names and thus priced high, but had the screen names of these players been common knowledge, they probably wouldn't have given such generous odds. What this led to was bookmakers both reducing the minimum bet allowed to a 'fun' amount and/or or by giving quite stingy odds on almost everyone in the field.

At the absolute worst, I once saw Phil Ivey listed at 8-1 to win the WSOP main event outright, despite a predicted field size of 7000+. This brings me onto another problem for the bookmakers, the fact that field sizes were so big it was impossible to run a book with everyone accommodated, or indeed a book where punters could pick out a realistic winner. The solution to this was to introduce 'last longer' style bets with well known players, thus effectively reducing the field to big names we all knew.

These didn't prove particularly popular, but one shot in the arm poker betting markets received was when the WSOP decided to introduce the November Nine concept, which gave us all plenty of time to consider the market, and get to know the final table, in order to make an informed bet.

In-play markets

Lots of money will be bet on Phil
This week the first iSeriesLIVE event was announced to take place during the Irish Open. The first event is a €10,000 single table tournament with big names including Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, and the Devilish. It will be the first event of its kind to offer in-play betting on a number of markets including outright winner, field bets, last longers, and even 'what colour will the next flop be' type instant bets.

In-play betting has revolutionised just about every sport it appears in, and this really is one of the first times poker has had the potential to accommodate it. Most poker bets happen before the start of the event, then we have limited options to view it as a spectator. Finally we can watch a poker event live and enjoy it in the way we can a game of football; both for the spectacle itself, and also as a gambler.

I'm not sure betting on poker is a long term thing customers can really call a pastime. However, I will say that if it will ever work, now is the time. The quality of poker live streams is so strong at the moment that the market really is ripe to try something like this. I worked on the PartyPoker Big Game live stream last year, which featured an interactive chat/games element to it, and it was an amazing experience and enjoyed by all. Whether this will prove profitable remains to be seen, but it is almost certainly going to be fun to watch.

The most intriguing thing by far, however, is actually seeing what effect this will have on the 'poker celebrities' likely to play. In a fascinating and very clever move, the players involved will be getting a percentage of the revenue that is wagered on them. So if, for example, a huge sum is wagered on Phil Hellmuth to bust first - even if he does, he will take home a portion of that revenue.

Star power?

Does the Devilfish still have star power?
I have no idea whether the revenue involved would even be enough to cover the buy-in for the players, let alone eclipse the prize pool guaranteeing them a big payout even if they bust early. If the revenue involved turns out to be significant, it could have a profound impact on the 'sponsored player' scene. 

This will be the ultimate test of star power in poker. For years sponsors have thrown money at players with very little way of knowing their true return on investment. This is actually a great way to discover the true marketability of a player. It is inevitable that Negreanu and Hellmuth will walk away with the biggest sum, given their fan base, and it would be fascinating to find out what the revenue percentages on all the players were - even if they do not give us the actual sums.

This would mean we get to see the players really working for that money, both before and during the tournament. It would be foolish of the players involved to turn down interviews or not start huge twitter campaigns to get interest in the event, and we have already seen Daniel Negreanu getting banned from 2+2 for promoting the event too heavily. It would also mean the players would have to be much more entertaining during the event (Why the hell was Tony G not invited to the first event?) to get more in-running bets on them.

All of which would be music to the ears of everyone involved in the event, as it will be ensuring that (really for the first time) the onus would be on these high profile players to really promote the event, and make it entertaining.

Although I am really against elitist events like the Epic Poker League, I actually like where they are going with this one. This is not a money-added event for a fortunate minority, rather it is an example of the players involved going into the event as business partners. If they work hard at promoting it and making it entertaining, it might just work out for them, it could also prove completely unsuccessful and they get nothing.

Will it work? Probably not, but I hope I am wrong. I know it will be entertaining and hopefully that will be enough to carry it forward. I am not sure if the poker betting market niche has enough growth for this to be sustainable without an additional sponsor. The one thing I really like, however, is how this could change the attitude of the famous and sponsored players, and actually get them working for the privileges they enjoy.

by Barry Carter