Award-Winning Executive Tournament Director Matt Savage on WPT World Championship ‘Elevating the Brand’
Over the past fortnight, the poker world has been absorbed by the World Poker Tour’s thrilling World Championship. Initially set with a $15 million guarantee, the eventual prizepool of over $29 million stunned poker fans around the world.
As the excitement around a tournament that will be talked about for a very long time continues, we sat down with the award-winning Executive Tournament Director for the World Poker tour, Matt Savage. Front and center during the action, the Global Poker Award winner spoke to us about the WPT’s plans to follow up on this incredible event as well as what it was like to be a part of poker history.
The Origins of the Event
“It couldn’t happen without the perfect partner. The planning started after the contract was inked with Wynn.”
The WPT World Championship’s attendance broke records and many poker players have heralded the event as one that should be repeated annually without hesitation. The event was actually a long time in the planning process and made a comeback after previously disappearing from the WPT schedule.
“Angelica Hael and Adam Pliska had the idea to bring it back after its demise in 2015,” says Savage. “It couldn’t happen without the perfect partner so the real planning started after the contract was inked with Wynn about six months before the event. It was a rapid ascent.”
Savage is clearly delighted with how many players flocked to Las Vegas to play in the event. At the time of the $15 million guarantee being announced, it looked ambitious. By the end of late registration, it seemed almost pessimistic, which says it all about how the WPTWC caught the imagination of the poker world.
“[We are] over the moon. I was confident we’d hit the $15,000,000 because the buzz was like nothing I’ve ever seen before leading up to the event, but I never could have imagined it would almost double it. In my 30 years in the industry, I have never seen this much positive feedback about a poker festival.”
Scheduling any event at the same time as a European Poker Tour Main Event used to be a no-no for many brands. But the strength of both festivals’ attendances is clearly an indication that live poker is thriving. Savage admits that at first, the timing ‘wasn’t ideal’.
“We would have loved not to overlap so that players could enjoy both because we know that is a very popular festival as well but when I saw they set a record attendance as well it made me feel very happy for them and the health of the poker economy.”
Making Dreams Come True
“I love those stories of the players that had a shot at the huge prize pool.”
The early stages of the WPTWC saw plenty of players taking part in their first $10,000 buy-in event, let alone their first WPTWC. Winning tickets by various means, there was a party atmosphere for dozens of first timers and Savage thinks this helped build the unique atmosphere the WPTWC enjoyed. We asked him his favorite moment of those initial Day 1s.
“Meeting the ClubWPT qualifiers and Stream Team members we came to know during the pandemic and seeing the excitement they had being a part of such an amazing festival at Wynn. I love those stories of the players that had a shot at the huge prize pool; there were so many great ones.”
Making the money is something that meant more to some players than others, but one player in particular was being rooted for by all at the World Poker Tour, their luminous on-screen presenter, Lynn Gilmartin. The Australian made her first cash on the WPT running deep in the event after so often being restricted to her work on camera rather than being able to take part at the felt.
“There was a huge sigh of relief for many that made the money as some were in on a freeroll and satellite wins. Lynn’s great run seemed like some icing on the huge cake that was the WPT World Championship Festival.”
The kind of attention a social media post can bring to big events is special. Hard to predict yet evocative of an event, a big hand on Twitter can send an event viral and this was true of the WPTWC. We wanted to know what it was like to be in the front row when Daniel ‘Kid Poker’ Negreanu was eliminated in such a cruel fashion, his full house eclipsed by his rival when a two-outer landed on the river.
“I was at the Ladies World Championship final table when Daniel busted,” reveals Savage “I saw the videos and it was gut-wrenching. It was nice to see how much the event meant to him because you don’t get that kind of emotion unless it’s meaningful.”
An Epic Day at the Felt
“Every player wanted to continue. It was a unique dynamic.”
That penultimate day was an exhausting one, not just for the players who were at the felt for 16 hours, but the WPT tournament staff too. Savage was between events and rushing to make the latter stages. He could have saved on shoe leather.
“I had just come off the Ladies World Championship final table and rushed back to the ballroom to see the World Championship get to the final six. As it turns out I didn’t need to rush back,” Savage says with a chuckle. “Conversations were had with Tournament Director Ray Pulford and Director of Poker Ryan Beauregard about suspending play and having them come back the next day since there was a day off, but every player wanted to continue. It was a unique dynamic as Benny Glaser was such a big chip leader and there were so many short stacks doubling up over and over. Jean-Claude Moussa finishing third was an amazing accomplishment!”
When Eliot Hudon won the event against Benny Glaser, the poker world stood still. After only 55 hands, the final table was abruptly at an end, a situation dictated by the lengthy preceding day.
“It was a little bittersweet for me. Of course, the staff were at the end of some incredibly long hours and weeks, but the Tournament Director in me would ideally like to have seen deeper and longer play. With 90-minute final table levels, if the play wasn’t so strange and long the day before then it could have gone much, much longer.”
Creating a Legacy
“The videos of Mike shown at the tournaments choked me up every single time.”
The WPT has shown so many times that the biggest moments can be broadcast with class and still provide incredible drama. It made this reporter think of the late, great Mike Sexton, and his lasting legacy on the brand and the poker world in general. I’m clearly not the only one.
“Yes, Mike Sexton is missed but Tony Dunst and the longest-tenured poker commentator Vince Van Patten definitely encompass the spirit and class that Mike brought to the WPT. Mike’s legacy will never be forgotten now that the Champions Cup is named after him, and the videos of Mike shown at the tournaments choked me up every single time.”
Every poker player and fan on the planet wants to know what might happen at next year’s WPTWC, and Savage is no different. He believes that its place on the poker calendar is assured and next year will be even more special.
“I said this many times over the last couple of weeks, but I believe the World Championship and the partnership with Wynn have elevated the entire brand,” He says. “I’m excited to see what Season XXI brings with all of our great partners and of course returning next December to a much bigger and better World Championship Festival at Wynn Las Vegas.”
There you have it – get playing as soon as you can. Consider joining ClubWPT to qualify early and when December rolls around next year, you could be in Las Vegas playing in the WPTWC at The Wynn. After its success in 2022, who on Earth would want to miss it?