Why It Can Be More Profitable to Play Cash Games Over Tournaments During the 2019 WSOP in Las Vegas

By Michael Stevens in Las Vegas on June 6, 2019

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Minute Read

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) celebrates its 50th anniversary this summer, and for six weeks stretching from May 28th through July 16th, poker players from around the world will convene to chase gold bracelets and bricks of cash.

If you make your way to the Rio All Suites Hotel and Casino for the 2019 WSOP, the assortment of 80 gold bracelet tournaments – ranging from $400 buy-in to $100,000 and covering every poker variant under the sun – can easily become your sole focus.

After all, the poker world’s greatest source of gold and glory is the WSOP, where icons like Phil Hellmuth (15 bracelets), Doyle Brunson (10 bracelets), Johnny Chan (10 bracelets), Phil Ivey (10 bracelets), and Daniel Negreanu (6 bracelets) all made their names.

And the most impactful moment in poker history – Chris Moneymaker winning the 2003 WSOP Main Event for $2.5 million as a rank amateur – sparked the poker boom that turned televised tournaments into appointment viewing for millions of Americans.

Over 120,000 tournament entries were recorded during last year’s record-setting WSOP, and that mark is sure to be smashed this year amidst the 50th anniversary festivities.

So of course, when most people touch down in Sin City to soak in the sights and sounds of the WSOP, tournament poker tends to be the first thing on their mind.

But what if I told you the biggest winners at the WSOP, year in and year out, seldom hit the tournament tables at all?

As it turns out, tens of thousands of poker players – most of which play on the recreational level – attending the same festival together creates the perfect conditions for lucrative cash games.

Just ask Barry Greenstein, the famed “Robin Hood of Poker” and a three-time WSOP gold bracelet winner. In an interview with Jonathan Zaun of PokerNews conducted in 2014, Greenstein told the tale of attending the 2003 WSOP and walking away with more cash than Moneymaker himself:

“I went there because that’s where the cash games were.

For instance, the year [Chris] Moneymaker won the World Series I won three times what he did in the cash games. Back then – until after Moneymaker, basically – the cash games were much bigger than the tournaments.

Some of them are now too, and I’m not playing them, but the tournaments weren’t that big of a deal money-wise.”

You’ll learn more about Greenstein’s annual seven-figure scores in the WSOP cash game arena a little later on, but sufficed to say, his story is far from an outlier.

Phil Galfond – only one of the most successful high-stakes tournament players on the planet – practically gave up the WSOP in 2016, preferring to grind elite cash games at the Aria. As he told PokerNews that year, the cash games were simply too profitable to pass up in favor of high-variance tournaments:

“I like playing tournaments.

But there have just been a ton of cash games around the clock.”

One year later, Gus Hansen took to Twitter and announced that he would be skipping the WSOP’s exclusive $100,000 buy-in One Drop High Roller in favor of cash games:

“Contemplating playing the 100K One Drop at the Rio – but for now it looks like I will stick with the comfort of Bobby’s Room.”

On June 14th of 2017 – right in the thick of WSOP tournament season – Hansen went on to post the following photo on Instagram showing Phil Ivey grinding the $2,000/$4,000 blind cash games in Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio.

And this preference for cash game play isn’t limited to nosebleed stakes tables dominated by top-flight pros. Every year, thousands of players pack up their gear and head out to the WSOP strictly to grind cash games. They might target the tourist-filled $1/$2 tables at the lowest end of the spectrum, or move up to match wits with semi-pros and more serious players in the $5/$10 games.

In any event, these players almost always head home with more profit in their pocket than tournament specialists. Sure, every year sees a handful of players from all walks of life bag a bracelet to claim life-changing six- and seven-figure scores. But when you compare how many individual entries were recorded last summer – 123,865 to be exact – to the 78 players who earned a bracelet win, just 0.06 percent of players summited the peak at the 2018 WSOP.

That’s not 6 percent either, that’s six-hundredths of one percent…

And even if you expand the scope to everybody who reached the final table – thus guaranteeing themselves a tidy return on their initial investment – the 738 fortunate souls represented only five-tenths of one percent of all tournament entries recorded.

All things considered, playing tournaments at the WSOP is a crapshoot, even for the best players on the planet who call the Rio home for six weeks out of the year. Droughts of 20, 30, or even the full schedule are common for top pros because of the sheer statistical variance involved in tournament gameplay. And maybe they make the minimum money here and there, but between the constant stream of buy-ins, plus airfare, accommodations, and routine travel expenses, plenty of “winning” tournament players still fail to break even in the end.

But when you choose to bring your bankroll to the cash game pits in the Pavilion Room, you’ll be waging war against eight players at most. You can cash out winnings at any time, take a breather when the temptation to go on tilt arises, and buy right back in after a brutal bad beat.

On that note, keep reading to learn about seven reasons why it can definitely be more profitable to play cash games rather than tournaments during the WSOP in Las Vegas:

1 – WSOP Legends Have Always Cleaned Up at the Cash Game Tables

As the longest-running tournament series of them all, the WSOP is all about history.

And accordingly, that’s the first reason why grinding cash games should be considered your first priority during the summer season at the Rio.

Everybody remembers when Moneymaker turned a $39 online satellite entry into a WSOP Main Event seat, and then $2.5 million and poker immortality. But not many people know that cash game specialists like Greenstein more than doubled Moneymaker’s profit margin – all while playing an extremely limited tournament schedule.

In a subsequent interview with PokerNews, Greenstein revealed that it was him, and not Moneymaker, who won the most dough after the 2003 WSOP concluded:

“I jumped in, and I have drilled those guys so bad that it was just like Sailor said – a bloodbath. I was easily the biggest winner. I really just nailed them.

During the World Series in the year when Moneymaker won, I made more than $5 million playing in the cash games. I remember laughing when people said [Moneymaker] was the biggest winner. He won $2.5 million, and I said, ‘Well, I won twice that.’

I probably ran good, too. But the truth is that at that time I was the best player.”

Many things have changed in poker since that fateful summer, but 16 years later, cash games still run around the clock at the Rio – and all across Las Vegas for that matter.

2 – Grinding Cash Games Lets You Leave the Rio and Explore Sin City’s Poker Scene

Speaking of the Rio, home to the WSOP since 2005, this place isn’t exactly the luxury resort most poker fans envision when they think of poker’s most prestigious series.

No, for 320 odd days of the year, the Rio is just one of the dingier Off-Strip casinos locals haunt to score comps and deals. In fact, when the WSOP picks up stakes and finishes for the year, the Rio’s poker scene reverts to a tiny five-table room where $2/$5 cash and $50 nightly tournaments are the norm.

Of course, that all changes during WSOP season, when organizers turn the cavernous convention hall known as the Pavilion Room into the city’s largest poker room. Here you’ll find every conceivable cash game running 24/7, so players can spend six weeks at the Rio every summer and never leave.

They can do that, but why would they?

Las Vegas is the gambling capital of the world, and as such, the city is home to several dozen poker rooms ranging from the beautiful Bellagio to the old-school digs at the Orleans.

Just take a look below to see how Sin City’s poker room landscape stacks up:

Poker Rooms in Las Vegas

  • Aria
  • Bellagio
  • Binion’s Horseshoe
  • Boulder Station
  • Caesars Palace
  • Cannery Casino
  • Club Fortune
  • Excalibur
  • Flamingo
  • Golden Nugget Las Vegas
  • Green Valley Ranch Casino
  • Harrah’s Las Vegas
  • Mandalay Bay
  • MGM Grand
  • Mirage
  • Orleans
  • Palace Station
  • Planet Hollywood
  • Poker Palace Casino
  • Red Rock Resort
  • Rio Las Vegas
  • Sam’s Town Casino
  • Santa Fe Station
  • Silver Sevens Casino
  • Skyline Casino
  • South Point
  • Stratosphere
  • Venetian
  • Westgate Las Vegas
  • Wynn

A few of these places are bona fide must-see destinations for poker players who appreciate the game’s history.

The aforementioned Bellagio is home to Bobby’s Room, a separate high-stakes area where legends like Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, and Phil Ivey regularly show up to play the biggest games in town. While you’re waiting to get a $2/$5 seat, standing outside of Bobby’s Room and watching the real-life version of “High Stakes Poker” is a genuine thrill – especially when somebody like “Texas Dolly” or “Kid Poker” strolls by.

Over at the Aria, the poker world’s most creative staff has built a poker room like no other. Dozens of tables, high-end tableside cuisine, and dedicated service from dealers and chip runners combine to make the Aria a cash game heaven for the current generation of grinders.

And if you’re a fan of tradition, head Downtown to Fremont Street to scout out the Binion’s Horseshoe – where the WSOP was held from its inception until moving to the Rio. The poker room here has obviously seen better days, but there’s nothing quite like scooping a pot under the same roof where Johnny Chan famously defeated Erik Seidel to capture the 1988 WSOP Main Event crown.

When the WSOP comes to town, each and every one of these poker rooms can swell to capacity, as thousands of players get their name up on the big board. This means you’ll never find yourself waiting for a table to fill up, and thanks to the tourist-heavy crowds, you’ll probably be a shark swimming amongst schools of fish.

Between the glitz and glamour of The Strip, and Downtown’s unmistakable charms, summertime in Las Vegas is a cash game player’s dream come true.

3 – Cash Games Don’t Require Nearly the Same Time Commitment

The average WSOP tournament begins at 12 noon and plays until nearly midnight, meaning players must commit more than half their day – and that’s just for Day 1.

With all standard No Limit holdem tournaments – that is, events that don’t feature a sped up “Turbo” structure – you’ll be playing three days at minimum. That comes to 36 hours on the felt – not to mention more time spent on dinner break and walking to/from your room to the convention halls – in order to reach a final table.

And if you’re like hundreds of other unfortunate folks who are eliminated just short of the money bubble, a WSOP tournament can easily cause you to spend upwards of two days playing poker without producing a penny of profit.

On the other hand, the cash games offer a completely fluid experience, meaning players are free to sit down or walk away from the game whenever they please. If the marathon hours required to chase gold bracelets aren’t feasible for you, or they just don’t sound very fun, cutting your workload down in the cash game pits is a great option to have.

Just picture it…

While the legions of tournament players are taking their seats at noon sharp, you might already have a few hours of winning cash game play under your belt. Then, as the crowds are forced to stay in their seats for the next six hours or so, you can rack up, cash out, and hit the buffet for a quick pick me up.

Finally, refueled and refreshed, you can wander back into the poker room whenever you see fit to join the cash game fray once again.

That sure beats a strict tournament schedule that can often feel more like work than enjoying the game you love.

4 – You’re Never Stuck at a “Table of Death” Like You Can Be in a Tournament

Pay any attention to the continuous Live Updates coverage of the WSOP – historically provided by PokerNews or WSOP.com – and you’ll inevitably read about a “Table of Death.”

Despite thousands of players turning out for a single tournament, and seating assignments produced by a random draw, one particular table invariably winds up with several topline pros sitting together. And while this can be great fun for the reporting team tasked with covering the event, just imagine how you’d feel hitting the WSOP for a “one-time” tournament, only to see the game’s greatest players staring you down.

Back at the 2012 WSOP, that’s exactly what happened to the poor souls in Event #2, a $1,500 No Limit holdem event which wound up seating Phil Hellmuth, John Juanda, Vanessa Selbst, and Hoyt Corkins together.

All told, this fearsome foursome has collected 25 career bracelets between them, making for a miserable day for any amateurs unlucky enough to draw this Table of Death.

But while those tournament players had no choice but to test their mettle against top pros, cash game grinders never have to worry about such steep skill disadvantages.

When you happen to get called over to a table ringed with elite competition, you can simply change your mind and take a lap around the Rio. When you get back and put your name back on the list, odds are you’ll end up getting called to a much softer table.

5 – You Can Always Ask for a Table Change if Somebody’s Being Rude

In 2014, poker fans worldwide met Curtis Rystadt, the stereotypical “trash talking” tournament player.

You can get a glimpse into Rystadt’s verbally abusive routine here in this lowlight reel but sufficed to say, we’ve all met a player like this a time or two before.

Berating opponents after a win or a loss, chatting to players who are currently contesting a pot, and generally acting like a college frat’s lamest buffoon, Rystadt is the reason many players prefer the calmer confines of online play.

But while Kyle Keranen – the target for most of Rystadt’s invective during that year’s Main Event – had no choice but to cope with the circumstances, cash game players aren’t forced to suffer fools.

The minute some random stranger starts harassing and haranguing you in a cash game, feel free to rack up and leave the premises immediately. There’s always another game nearby, either in the Rio or elsewhere, so there’s simply no reason to stick around and weather a barrage of verbal insults.

6 – Squeezing Out Profitable Sessions Is Far Easier When Playing Cash

For the majority of “everyman” players out there, to cash in a poker tournament – let alone win the damned thing – everything must go perfectly according to plan.

You’ll need to dodge disastrous bad beats while putting a few on unfortunate opponents along the way. Aces and kings better be flowing steadily, and flopping a few sets never hurts. Don’t hit an extended drought of playable hands either, as the blinds constantly eroding your stack offer no mercy. Drawing a soft table is quite helpful too, but eventually, the cream rises to the top, and every table left in play provides a deadly lineup.

And all it takes is one mental mistake, one fatal misstep to end days’ worth of inspired play in an instant.

Yeah, tournaments are the toughest way to make an “easy” living you’ll ever come across.

Cash games, meanwhile, aren’t subject to escalating blind levels or random table draws. As the player, you control much more of your own destiny than the tournament format allows for.

Accordingly, spinning up a $500 starting stack in $2/$5 and cashing out for $2,000 isn’t some Herculean task requiring everything to go right. Sure, you’ll still need to catch some cards here and there, but anybody with a basic grasp on cash game strategy – coupled with patience and bankroll management – can eke out a profitable session.

7 – Cash Games Provide the Perfect Pressure Release Valve for Tourney Grinders

Let’s face facts… if you travel to the WSOP, you’ll wind up firing a few buy-ins for a chance to capture that elusive gold bracelet.

Poker immortality can only be achieved by winning tournaments on the WSOP’s grand stage, which is why so many players make their way to the Rio each and every summer.

But when you find yourself stuck in a tournament downswing, or you’re still smarting from a bad beat on the bubble, changing your focus to cash games can be a great way to blow off steam.

The opponents won’t be nearly as tough, the pressure can never match what you’ll feel deep in a bracelet event, and if you play your cards right, you can easily recoup your lost buy-in through a winning cash session.

All in all, cash games serve as a safety net of sorts for many tournament players.

By day, you can chase bracelets to your heart’s content, mixing it up with famous pros, and putting yourself to a true test.

But by night, why not give the cash games a shot to balance the scales? Play against fellow recreational players, put your poker brain on cruise control, and do your best to subsidize the day’s tournament expenses with an efficient, productive cash game performance.

Conclusion

Competing in a WSOP tournament is a rite of passage for every poker enthusiast – recreational, semi-pro, and all-world players alike. There will never be another prize as coveted within the poker world as the WSOP gold bracelet, so it’s no wonder millions of people have made the journey to Las Vegas in search of tournament triumph.

Nonetheless, succeeding in poker is a matter of cold financial calculus, and tournaments simply don’t provide the same sort of opportunities as a juicy cash game. While others are patiently grinding their way through three-, four, and even five-day events – all to lose a few thousand bucks – cash game players are content to squeeze out a few thousand bucks of profit on a daily basis.

By all means, enter a few tournaments during your next trip to the WSOP, but do your best to add as many cash game sessions as you can to your personal schedule. When you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see just how rewarding the experience can be – for emotional balance and bankroll sustainability alike.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016.

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