Commentary

PCA making poker fun again

Updated: January 15, 2011, 1:43 PM ET
By Gary Wise | Special to ESPN.com

There was a time when the word "specialist" was not part of the poker lexicon because players knew that the secret to success was exploiting weaknesses. Every player was expected to play every game and a rotation of games at any one sitting was the norm. With the boom and the popularization/culturalization/explosion of no-limit hold 'em, that all changed. Suddenly, there was only one game to play, producing players who would whip the game's biggest players at that discipline while having never played a hand of draw, stud, high-low, Badugi or what have you. Now, the pendulum seems to have started its swing back.

We've seen the online world's biggest games take a turn from hold 'em to eight-game as poker players, not to be confused with hold 'em players, seek their edge and refuse to give an edge to players whose overall games lack diversity. That, however, is the cash game. Tournament play, as epitomized by the invention of the $1,000 hold 'em event at the World Series of Poker, hasn't seen a similar transformation … until now.

The PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, the world's second-largest poker event on the calendar, has turned the page. There's hold 'em, sure, but there's also a mix of other games you've heard of. More notably, there are games you haven't heard of. It's enough to get players excited for something besides TV events and gives those who feel the fun and the edges have been stripped from the game a reason to be excited about poker again.

"It's kind of like the WSOP, getting to that level where there's so much to do at all times," said pro Sorel Mizzi. "I think there's so many people in the fields that there's a lot of equity in the side events to come just for them. There's so much to do here too. It's not like a Dortmund, Germany, where, if you get knocked out, you just stay in your room."

"These side events are too damn good," said Adam Levy, who's seen the sides eat into an old PCA tradition. "I've played Magic here with Dave Williams, Justin Bonomo, Jimmy Fricke, Isaac Haxton and those guys for the last four years, but won't be this year. The side tournaments are just too good, so no one's ever available."

"They're very good tournaments," said Allen Kessler, well known throughout the poker community for finding something to complain about in everything. "I just play the 6:00 or 8:00 mixed game tournament every day."

That was the end of the usually-cantankerous Kessler's statement. This may be the highest praise of all as his common complaints regarding structure and composition of tournaments were nowhere to be found.

The shower of accolades comes mostly from the variety of buy-ins and formats. Tournaments ranging from $100 to $100,000 in buy-in have been running here, going on through the main event so as to give players a reason to stay once their life in that tournament has been snuffed. With plane tickets booked through its end regardless, it makes for a more complete event experience.

"We've had great interest, participation and excitement for all of our side events," beamed Jeffrey Haas, PokerStars' global director of live events. "Look, the PCA is known as the greatest poker festival on the planet and that's because we cater to all players of all interest levels. We've put together some really interesting tournaments in addition to the standards. every evening we have a $200 or $300 turbo running, we've run six $5k events … we're really embracing the community and offering a wide mix of games that you might not find anywhere else on the planet."

Amongst the offerings are a couple of games you've never heard of, Binglaha and Fiple draw. They've never been played in tournament format before this event.

Binglaha is a creation of poker consultant Dan Goldman, his wife, Sharon, Nolan Dalla and friends. It sees a die decide after the flop whether a pot-limit Omaha hand will play high-low or straight high. "We threw an element of chance into the game to decide if it would be pot-limit Omaha high-low or just straight pot-limit. Finally, someone pulled a craps die out of their pocket and decided this is how we'll do it. It's been gaining popularity ever since."

The 2+2 forums, given a forum choice tournament for their patronage, chose $600 Binglaha. Most of the tournament's participants had never played before. "We went over to the tournament and asked the 25-some players there how many knew the rules of the game they were playing," said ESPN's Andrew Feldman. "Nine of them didn't know what they'd signed up for. Neither did any of the three dealers."

"Binglaha, is that a Bohemian phrase?" asked Mizzi. "It's like … meh, I'm confused. It has a die? Wow, I want to play. I played Fiple Draw yesterday. I had no idea what I was doing there. it was like fixed triple draw. It was like six games, I had no idea how to play it. It was fun and I picked off Shaun Deeb for like $8,000."

Neil Johnson, PokerStars' Live Poker Specialist, invented Fiple Draw. "Last year we had 2-7 and Badugi and it was a really popular tournament," he said. "We started looking at other variations, so I merged all the draw games together. We put a $25,000 guarantee on it so people would have something to shoot for, charged $1,000 and we got 27 people."

It's all reflective of Haas' poker origins. "I grew up playing home games with my buddies," Haas said. "Games like Fiple Draw, newfie death, fiery cross, deuces, jacks, man with the axe, pair of natural sevens beats all. Poker should be fun. When we create the PCA schedule each year, I really push our team to create the kind of schedule we'd want to play in."

They seem to have done it. Few players have left Atlantis despite the main event's survivors numbering in the low double-digits. The action is strong and the games keep going. With this kind of variety available to poker players, the hold 'em specialist may find a paucity of games to be played. Poker's more than just hold 'em again.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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