WSOP, GGPoker Struggle in Early Weeks of 2020 WSOP Online

The poker world is three weeks into the 2020 World Series of Poker Online series jointly hosted by WSOP.com and GGPoker, and it’s been a rough trip to date. The worlds most esteemed poker brand, driven by the global COVID-19 pandemic into offering its riches, bracelets and glory online, has instead sought to overcome its failures and oversights, large and small. If the first three weeks are any indication, headlined by the suspension of events on the international offering, GGPoker, then the WSOP will have to rethink how it plans to do online series in the future.

By: Haley Hintze

It hasn’t all been fail, it’s important to note. The entire concept had to be brought to fruition in what was likely 60 days or less, just an eyeblink on a corporate scale. Even though many of the logistic issues of a live series have largely disappeared, some still remained, and WSOP and GGPoker still deserve quite a bit of credit for hammering out, on such a short notice, a series offering many tens of millions of dollars in prize money.

There have also been several great player stories emerging from the online WSOP. Ryan Depaulo managing to win a bracelet from a vehicle parked in a Las Vegas Whole Foods parking lot is one such tale, as is veteran live grinder Ron McMillen deciding to give an online tourney a try, and taking down that event for his own first bracelet. There’s even the curious story of California’s Pat Lyons, who was reinstated for WSOP participation in 2019 after having been banned for several years, and who also managed to post his own first bracelet win.

Entertaining “people” stories emerge every WSOP, and it’s good to see that trend continue. Yet in the structure and operation of the series, it’s been an abysmal display on both of the sites. Rushed or not, it’s hard to fathom how many major issues have plagued this online series from the start.

This summer’s 85-event series consists of two distinct elements. First, there’s the 31-event slate hosted on WSOP.com. It’s the “American” part of the series, open to players physically present in the US states of Nevada and New Jersey. This portion of the series offers one new event per day, every day of the month throughout July. All this is joined by a larger, 54-event slate on the GGNetwork platform, which is offered to internationally-located players in countries where GGPoker offers its services. The GG slate began this past weekend, more or less, and it will run all the way into early September.

While GGPoker’s weekend issues were more severe -- we’ll visit these in a bit -- the WSOP.com slate has itself been mired in mediocrity. Let’s start there and try to piece together, point after point, why WSOP.com’s series has been such a disappointing experience for most of its players. Many first-time registrants have been aghast at all the basic problems at WSOP.com, but in large part those problems aren’t new and haven’t been bothered to be fixed by the WSOP’s online staff.

One basic gaffe has involved final-table payouts. Numerous players have complained publicly that these payouts make little sense and have been structured improperly. Payouts should increase logarithmically: Both the payouts and the gaps between each payout should increase with every spot reached at a final.

On WSOP.com, however, the payout schedule has always been fouled up. While the gaps at a typical nine-playe final do climb higher, they do so in clumps. As I recall (and I played hundreds of small tourneys on the site in 2019), there are one or two flat-increase jumps, and there’s even one spot, somewhere around sixth, where the pay jump to the next-higher spot actually decreases. It means, using sixth place in this example, the difference in payouts between sixth and fifth is smaller than that between seventh and sixth.

This is basic incompetence; it’s a case of one or several people understanding the basics of escalated payouts but preferring to use rounded-off percentages and showing special love for final-table payout percentages ending in 0 or 5, just because it looks neat on paper. The thing is, it’s only a middling issue to make such a rookie mistake. The less-forgivable error is leaving the mistake in place for years, as has happened here.

Participants in short-handed events on WSOP.com have also reported a related issue, where these events have seen payouts calculated based on nine-player-table payout. In a six-handed event, seventh and eighth (or seventh/eighth/ninth) usually receive the same money, because the players busted out of the event in the same relative spot at multiple tables still in play. Some people at the WSOP have apparently never wholly grasped the concept.

Moving on. Registration problems have been legion. A portion of this isn’t actually Caesars’ or WSOP.com’s fault, as it arises from reporting and recording requirements mandated by Nevada and New Jersey officials. However, other problems are the WSOP’s alone. First, numerous players reported issues registering for events, likely caused by WSOP.com’s mandate that multiple players cannot register from the same IP address. This would create major problems for anyone playing from a large hotel, where other players might also be playing.

In a case of too clever by half, WSOP.com announced a couple of weeks before play began that all Caesars properties in Nevada and New Jersey would be whitelisted and exempted from the one-player-per-IP-address rule. The rule exists as a safeguard against some forms of cheating, but it’s largely ineffective. And the whitelisting wasn’t anti-cheating anyway; instead, it was a thinly veiled move to drive out-of-state visitors to stay at Caesars properties.

A lot of this is all about money, and there’s been another money grab afoot in the elevated rake for these online WSOP.com events. Here’s a recent Tweet from Ari Engel, one of the nicest and most respected players in all of poker:

Engel speaks truth. This is an outrageous money grab. Major online sites offer trophies and bracelets and rings and still manage to keep the event rake around 9%, while here the WSOP jams their rake up into the high teens. I know what those gold bracelets cost and about how much they weigh, and yeah, it’s not close to that much. Given all the live-series expenses that don’t exist online -- venue, dealers, directors, chips, cards, and much more -- this is just a ripoff. A WSOP bracelet is a sought-after item, but this rake is way, way excessive.

I could go on regarding WSOP.com, but GGPoker has had its own issues. Though GGPoker’s issues have been smaller in incompetence or intent (with one exception), its issues have had much larger impact. Having to suspend play in two bracelet events to fix major software issues is a big, big problem, yet that’s where the international slate is today.

Despite being the third largest online poker network following a couple of years of massive growth, GGPoker found itself woefully underprepared for the traffic the WSOP events would bring. Following numerous crashes, freezes, and failed attempts to resume play, GGPoker suspended WSOP Online Bracelet Series Events #32 and #33 for a full week in order to buy time to install needed software and hardware fixes.

GGPoker initially claimed the issues were caused by a single “critical” bug, but as British poker-business reporter Nick Jones detailed on Twitter, there were actually at least five major issues:

The external outage was caused by a 27-minute service outage at Cloudfare, which provides infrastructure services to GGNetwork. However, the other four issues and bugs were all at GGNetwork, and declaring it all to be “ridiculously unlucky” is just a whitewash by a GGPoker affiliate. It’s the way the business works and it’s been that way for many years.

In Jones’ partial defense, he did publish the link to GGNetwork’s internal summary of the weekend’s disastrous string of events. It turns out that GGPoker rightly anticipated a traffic surge but wasn’t really prepared for it and blundered its response in several ways. Between a rush of legitimate fan and rail traffic and a DDoS attack that was primed to take place, GGPoker’s services collapsed.

The DDoS attack could’ve and should’ve been foreseen. Hackers and extortionists have targeted online gambling sites for most of the industry’s two-decade history. High-profile gambling events draw out the online vermin like flies to a ripe corpse. The days before American football’s Super Bowl and global football’s (soccer’s) World Cup always bring surges in DDoS attacks, and every major online poker site has dealt with them as well. (The unlicensed America’s Cardroom, which has no authorities to complain to, is a frequent target.)

GGPoker, though, seemed to have DDoS mitigation services in place. Those services generally involve installing an umbrella service that sniffs the incoming data traffic to search for the type of frequent and invalid data requests that mark a DDoS attack. The identified data requests are then tagged and dumped before reaching and slowing down the actual gaming servers.

GGPoker had all this in place, but when it brought on extra servers to handle the increased WSOP traffic load, its technicians blundered by not applying the DDoS mitigation protocols to the new servers. Then once they got that issue sorted out, the techies blundered again, failing to overlay all the other network protocols across the entire expanded network. This caused protocol mismatch issues that foiled all attempts to restart the paused events.

Let’s be clear, though: This wasn’t just a technical-level fail; it was also a failure on the executive level regarding risk assessment and management. GGPoker has been around long enough to know both the DDoS and WSOP-interest traffic risks, and it dropped the ball.

The poker industry rumor pipeline suggests that GGPoker paid the WSOP somewhere between $3 million and $4.5 million to host the international portion of the series. I can’t confirm the number but that range is believable, as the WSOP rarely gives away anything on the cheap. Continuing performance issues would naturally impact any chance GGPoker has of co-hosting similar series in the future.

GGPoker has attempted to make amends to affected players by offering tourney-ticket refunds and, in the case of the suspended charity event, doubling the amount of money it’s donating. However, the site cannot easily find a way to properly compensate hundreds of players who simply cannot be on hand to play when the suspended events resume this coming weekend. Many players have real-life commitments and allocated a block of time to play one or a few online bracelet events. How that issue plays out remains to be seen.

The WSOP and GGPoker must do much, much better. Strip away the fancy brand images and it’s easy to see that to date it’s all been a second- or third-rate clown show. Poker in general deserves better than this.

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