Straight Fire With Bart Shirley: The WSOP Should Be A Shootout

By Bart Shirley
January 23, 2022
Straight Fire with Bart Shirley

Straight Fire with Bart Shirley

I realize that the WSOP Main Event is sacred to poker players, and to suggest a substantive change is akin to sacrilege. Nevertheless, it’s time to change the event’s format to a shootout tournament.

Why, do you ask?


The World Series of Poker has crowned Main Event champions since 1970. It has run a no-limit hold’em freezeout tournament to determine the winner since 1972.

However, since 2003, the tournament fields have grown from hundreds of entrants to thousands. While the increased entries have inflated the prize pools, they have also increased the amount of good fortune the eventual winner must enjoy.

If the winner is truly to be a world champion, he or she should have earned that title through as much skillful play as possible.

I’m not here to take anything away from the guys who won. It’s not their fault that the gods smiled upon them.

But…shouldn’t a World Champion of anything be, you know, kinda the best at it? At least one of the best? That seems logical somehow.

Why a shootout?

In a shootout, players must defeat the other players at their tables in order to advance.

In effect, each table becomes its own mini-tournament. Rather than worrying about the massive field, each player must only concern themselves with the eight others seated at the table.

Each round carries its own set of blinds, too. So, the effect of time pressure on each player would be the same, at least at the beginning.


The first reason why this format would be superior would be that it would be incredibly fair. Each table would begin with equal chip stacks for all players.

The equal starting stacks would allow the most skilled players to exert their abilities in a profound way. No player could simply go on a heater and amass an unassailable stack until the very end of the tournament.

In other words, no damn final tables where some guy shows up with half the chips in play. It’s not hard to wait for a winner when you’ve got 1000 big blinds in front of you.


This format would create a clear gauntlet for players to navigate. A shootout would likely increase appearances from the best players in the world since there would be a greater degree of skill required.

Alternatively, it would expose the pretenders so that we don’t have to put up with the Jerry Yangs and Robert Varkonyis of the world.

The system could also generate excitement if two or three top players end up at the same table. Imagine how fascinating a first-round matchup between Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth would be, where avoiding each other is ultimately out of the question.

Hellmuth would have nowhere to hide after Ivey whipped him like a government mule. God, that would be great.

Easy payout structure

In any tournament, players are constantly monitoring the other tables to see how close the money is. Bubble play is both important and incredibly aggravating, leading to lots of weird, meta plays like folding pocket kings or stalling for time.

Screw that…seriously.

With a shootout, it would be simple: win the first table, and make the money. With nine players per table, the tournament would pay out 11% of its field.

So, the only people between you and a Main Event cash would be the eight others at your table.

What’s the catch?

No system is perfect. If shootouts were without cons, they would be the default structure.

However, to quote that big guy on Bar Rescue, I don’t embrace problems; I embrace solutions. In that spirit, here are the main drawbacks of moving to a shootout format.


The math of organizing a shootout is far and away the biggest concern. Tournament entries rarely end up as multiples of nine. Because of that, balancing tables would be an absolute nightmare in the early stages of the tournament.

There is also a problem when it comes to the remainders of tables. Even if the first round of winners could divide by nine, there might be a couple of leftover players, and you can’t just give them byes into the next round of payouts.


The number of tables available would be set in stone as a multiple of 9

  • For fields as large as the Main Event, that would likely mean that the tournament could offer exactly 729 tables.
  • Officials would need to balance all 729 tables as best they could so that no table had more than 1 extra player. 9-handed play at 729 tables is 6,561 seats.
  • So, below that threshold, tables would either have 8 or 9 people at them. Above that threshold, tables would have 9 or 10 seats.

Players would need to register prior to the tournament

  • The need to calculate the seating arrangements in the early stages would necessitate a small amount of time for tournament officials to have all the entries.
  • Late registration would simply not occur.
  • This rule would also eliminate the phenomenon of players arriving late and receiving a full stack, particularly after others have already busted or crippled themselves.

The tournament field would be capped at the number of tables multiplied by 10

  • The need for an absolute number of tables would create a cap on the field numbers.
  • Potentially, hundreds of players could find themselves turned away.
  • The last solution would be the most problematic. Capped fields means capped winnings.

However, the point of this tournament is to determine that year’s most skillful player. So, if a person is truly motivated to become that player, they will find a way to submit their registration early and under the cap.

In a related story, I have no sympathy for people who arrive late to the airport. They’re not going to let you on once the doors close, moron – quit screaming at the gate agent who definitely doesn’t make enough to put up with you.

I could give a damn who you are – right now, you’re a guy who needs to reschedule.

Table draw

The shootout format also increases the importance of table draw. Some tables might draw only amateurs, but others could be tables full of top pros.

That problem could lead to several big-name players ousted in the first round of play. There could also be several beneficiaries of weak tables to make the money.

Solution: None – not everything can be fair, you know…

It’s true that some players would get a relatively easy road to profit in this format. However, that’s true of the current format, too.

Day 1 reports are always littered with notable players’ demises. Norman Chad and Lon McEachern — between uncomfortable references to Chad’s failed marriages — breathlessly report each time a world champ heads for the exit, so it’s not like the current format is immune to big names going out early.

However, in a shootout, the second round of play would clean up many of the pretenders. So, even if someone got a walk to the first tier of money, they would find a cage of tigers waiting – eight other players who were capable of winning their spots, too.

Wait times

The last issue would be the amount of wait time that round winners would potentially endure. Particularly in the first round, there could be a wide separation between the 1st and 729th table finishes.

Solution: Pay out the minimum prize immediately after each table finishes

The wait times are unavoidable and create a bit of limbo for players. However, an immediate payout to each table winner would remove the sting of having so much cash tied up in the tournament.

In effect, winners could begin celebrating early, and the rest of the Main Event would feel like a freeroll. It’s a helluva lot easier to wait for something with an extra 25 grand in your pocket.

The 2018 Main Event as a shootout

All of this may not make sense without an example. Don’t worry – nausea from the confusion will pass in time.

Anyway, here’s what the 2018 Main Event would look like under this system:

Entrants: 7,290
Players turned away: 584
Prizepool: $68,526,000
Players in the money: 729

Sample payout structure:

  • 1st – $9,311,000
  • 2nd – $5,800,000
  • 3rd – $4,200,000
  • 4th – $3,150,000
  • 5th – $2,375,000
  • 6th – $1,800,000
  • 7th – $1,400,000
  • 8th – $1,150,000
  • 9th – $1,000,000
  • Round 2 winners: $200,000
  • Round 1 winners: $35,000

Note: These figures are based upon historical WSOP payout structures. The payouts at the lower end were adjusted to reflect the difficulty of achieving each level.


There’s no chance that a format change as radical as this one is in the offing for the Main Event. There are too many changes and too much tradition involved for such a step.

But…shouldn’t we all come together for a plan that could get Hellmuth to stop bitching about his luck?

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