WSOP Circuit "Staff Appreciation" Scam Shows How Little Players are Appreciated

February 15, 2012 (updated 12:30pm PST)

I've written a lot on this blog about various scams and scandals related to online poker.

Perhaps that's driven you to give up online play and completely stick to live brick-and-mortar play. After all, how can you be scammed if you're seeing everything right in front of your face? When you set foot in a casino and play a cash game or tournament, you can be certain that everything is on the up-and-up, especially if the highly respected World Series of Poker has put its name on it.

Wait, maybe not.

Indeed, the same type of predatory behavior behind the various online poker scams can also exist in live play, even at events sanctioned by the WSOP.

The latest scandal isn't a new situation, but it was only made public recently. Jonathan Aguilar (aka "FatalError"), probably best known for being threatened last year by Joe Sebok, made this post on 2+2, about approximately $1,000,000 in undocumented fees taken out of the WSOP Circuit prize pools.

The Cliffs Notes of Aguilar's post are as follows:

Not surprisingly, the reaction to this has been highly negative on 2+2. However, the upper brass at the WSOP does not seem particularly outraged or interested in rectifying the matter.

This is just plain wrong, and in fact is a scam that skims money off the top of prize pools for the tournament staff.

Various arguments have been made defending these "staff appreciation fees". The arguments in defense are as follows:

  1. It's not a required fee. You can refuse to pay it and still play in the tournament. You'll just start with fewer chips.

  2. Mandatory staff tips are part of many tournaments, including the regular WSOP every summer in Las Vegas.

  3. It is not listed on the tournament info sheets because these are not mandatory fees. It is simply a way to get extra chips, in exchange for showing a little appreciation for hte hardworking staff, and is optional.

The above is all BS.

To answer these points:

It is a required fee, because refusing to pay it would put you at a major disadvantage (significantly fewer starting chips). Even novice players realize this, and figure they are forced to pay the extra $20 if they want to have a realistic chance at competing.

It is not the same as a required tip because a required tip is built into the price of the tournament. Reqiured tips are also disclosed on the tournament signup sheet, and you are automatically given documentation that you paid them. For example, a $1500 event at the regular WSOP does have a mandatory tip included, but that's part of the $1500 you paid and got a receipt for. Everyone starts with the same number of chips, and you know coming in that the tournament will cost you $1500 -- not a penny more or a penny less. In the case of the WSOP Circuit events, you get an unpleasant surprise demanding more money when you sit down in the seat that you think you already paid for.

What if someone shows up to the table with no cash? That isn't unusual, as you don't need cash to play tournaments -- only your tournament ticket. In such a case, the player is out of luck, and will start at a major disadvantage. The affected player definitely won't be getting his money's worth on his buyin amount. This cheats such players out of hundreds of dollars each of expected value.

Tournaments need to be up front with all costs to play. There should never be "optional" costs, aside from well-publicized and well-documented rebuys in tournaments that allow rebuys. Players should never be surprised when they show up to a tournament that they suddenly owe money that wasn't previously disclosed.

The most surprising thing is that the WSOP didn't put a stop to this a long time ago, and apologize to the affected players. This is a black mark on the otherwise respected and honorable World Series of Poker brand, and it appears to have been perpetrated by a greedy third-party company. The World Series of Poker is really dropping the ball on this one, given their inaction.

Oversight for Third Parties

A common error in today's business world, where farming out services to third party companies is increasingly common, is the fallacious belief that the other company doesn't represent yours.

Actually, it does.

When PTC people wear WSOP uniforms and name badges, and run events called "The World Series of Poker Circuit", everything they do reflects directly upon the World Series of Poker. Very few people know what Poker Tournament Consultants is. That company's rep won't take the hit if things at the WSOP Circuit are shady. It will be the WSOP brand that suffers.

For this reason, if the WSOP is going to farm out their Circuit events to third party companies, they need to put together strict rules and force the companies to adhere to all of them. They need to come down hard on any scam or semi-scam. They need to immediately outlaw shady practices like these. It's not only morally correct, but it's good business sense, too. Never let anyone ruin your brand name while wearing your company's uniform!

I sincerely hope that the WSOP puts a stop to this, and I hope they are classy enough to issue an apology to the affected players.

Mandatory Tips Are a Semi-Scam

A lot of players don't realize that they're paying mandatory tips. Even if it's listed on the tournament info sheet, often it's buried among a lot of other information, and the typical player misses it. In addition, many tournament players don't even bother to look at the tournament info sheet. It is important that every single player knows he has already tipped if the prize pool takes a mandatory percentage for staff tips.

When I first cashed in the WSOP 7 years ago, I was very unfamiliar with all of this. After winning around $116,000 for finishing third, one of the women processing my payment asked, "Do you want to leave a tip for the dealers?"

I paused, and didn't know what to say. I didn't know what was proper, and I definitely didn't know I had already left a tip! I declined, planning to go back the next day and tip after consulting more knowledgable people.

I inquired about this with a friend that was experienced with the World Series. She said, "Give them nothing. You already tipped 3%. It's taken out of your buyin." I looked it up, and indeed she was right. I was furious that this information was intentionally held back from me. I was simply asked if I wanted to tip the dealer, implying that I hadn't done so yet.

I don't have a problem with mandatory tips, especially in big-field events. However, all players must be informed what they already tipped before anyone asks them to tip more. That is, it should be against the WSOP rules to ask someone for a tip without first disclosing what they already paid. The solicitation for tips should be as follows: "You have already tipped 3%, which was included in your buyin. Would you like to tip anyting beyond that?" Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are tricked into double-tipping, incorrectly believing they hadn't tipped at all yet.

I am hoping that the WSOP cleans up its act. They need to come down hard on PTC for extorting an extra $20 out of each player, and they need to adjust their own protocols so people fully understand what they're really tipping. I won't hold my breath for either of these, but I feel it's the least the WSOP can do for its players -- the people who should MOST be appreciated.

Update: 12 hours after I wrote this blog, the following was posted to 2+2 by Mike Johnson, who is one of the hosts of 2+2's radio show: Props to Mike Johnson for following this story and aggressively pursuing resolution. However, I am still underwhelmed by Seth's response.

Seth explained to Mike that "attempts will be made to make sure the staff appreciation fee is not hidden", but then explained that it's difficult to police.

This is unacceptable. There is no reason for staff appreciation fees, and the WSOP should completely outlaw them. If the staff feels they are not being tipped enough, they should negotiate with the WSOP to get a bigger percentage of the buyin, and that should subsequently be disclosed to the players. There is simply no reason for this extraneous fee that essentially duplicates the built-in tip.

As mentioned earlier, the WSOP should be setting these standards and strictly enforcing them. The third-party companies and casinos running the tournaments should have ZERO flexibility when it comes to modifying rules or fees. The WSOP should be aggressively protecting its brand and respectability.

Seth's response (as reported above by Mike Johnson) seems to be of the, "We'll try, but no promises" variety. That is not the proper resolution. We need a promise that this situation will completely cease.

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