Monday, October 24, 2005

Poker On TV

As you may have noticed, I signed up for the Pokerstars Blogger tournament. Suffice it to say I did not perform as well as I had hoped. I finished about 1290th out of some 1473 players. As my old grade nine coach would have said "That's not performance." I had fun but it ended way to soon leaving me feeling as though I had played beyond my depth. Some careful analysis has led me to the conclusion that I was just unlucky in the hands I chose to make a stand on.

The fact that I was playing in such a tournament is testimony to the power of Television and the Internet.The influence of the Internet is fairly obvious. It allowed players to play the game, and new players to learn the game without having to go to a casino, a card room or to find or set up a game. More to the point millions of people who were casual players were suddenly able to pit their skills not just against their friends but against people from all over the world. The influence of Television is also obvious, although for less than obvious reasons. Television exposed people to the game, specifically No-Limit Texas Hold'em, and made it look easy. Perhaps the single most important event in the current Poker boom occurred not when a young accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker won $3.5 million at the World Series of Poker from a $40 Internet satellite tournament but when ESPN broadcast their coverage of the World Series of Poker. The World Poker Tour, broadcast in the United States on the Travel Channel had laid the groundwork, making poker players "famous" (or at least as famous as a cable channel can make anybody) but it was seeing Moneymaker win and in so doing proving that the old adage that the NFL sought so hard to sell - namely that on any given day anyone can win - really applied to Poker. Between 2003 when Moneymaker won and 2005 when an Australian mortgage broker named Joseph Hachem won $7.5 million, the field when from 839 players to 5,619, each paying $10,000 to play (or more often winning a tournament that provided the entry fee).

The bigger question is what makes Poker "good" TV. It didn't used to be. As late as 2000, when Chris "Jesus" Ferguson won the World Series main event, ESPN didn't even cover poker, the finals were shown on the Discovery Channel. The major change in the game for Television has been the adoption of cameras to show the player's hole cards. There are two varieties. The first, used by the British for their series Late Night Poker was a system of under the table cameras, shooting up through glass or plexiglass panels where the players have to put their cards. The system which is more commonly used in North America uses a more conventional table equipped with "lipstick" cameras placed along the edge of the table. This allows players to look at their hands as covertly as they wish while still showing their cards to the viewers. Being able to see what players have has increased the drama of the game because viewers can see when people are bluffing and when they've got the best hands.

Of course if all the game needed to generate interest was to show the players' cards, I wouldn't be writing this. Poker also needs commentators and colour commentators not just to sell the action but to explain strategy. I have my own favourites both as individuals and as broadcasting teams (my favourite broadcasting team may come as a surprise). What I look for in commentators and a commentary team is some humour but also a solid grounding in poker and the ability to explain to me why a move is good or not. A lot of this falls on the colour commentator. Probably the best colour commentator I've ever heard was professional Poker player Howard "The Professor" Lederer who announced on Fox Sports' Showdown at the Sands Tournament in 2003 however this was a one time effort and Lederer rarely does commentary. Another excellent commentator was Gabe Kaplan who for many years did commentary and interviews for the World Series of Poker telecasts. He had was not only experienced as a comedian and actor, but is also an extremely good poker player in his own right. His most recent job as a colour commentator was on NBC's coverage of the National Heads Up Championship.

Here are the commentary teams for the major TV Poker shows, and my opinion of them:

World Series of Poker and most ESPN tournaments hosted by Lon McEachern and Norman Chad - Not my favourite commentary team and I put a lot of the blame on Chad in the colour commentary seat. The problem is that he's not giving me a lot of information - at least not about the Poker. I'm finding out a lot about his ex-wives and a lot about what he finds funny (which is probably why he has several ex-wives) but not a lot of insight about why players are making the moves they do. McEachern is better as an announcer but when working with Chad (who is a columnist for the Washington Post and Sport Illustrated) he spends a lot of time as a straight man.

The World Poker Tour hosted by Vince Van Patten and Mike Sexton - I like this team better although not by much. The problem here is Van Patten. While Sexton is a good player and can talk with some knowledge about the game, Van Patten is frequently annoying and given to saying the obvious. Like Chad he has numerous one liners and frequently gives hands new names to suit his fancy. He's not a very good player either.

The Ultimate Poker Challenge hosted by Chad Brown - Called "America's Most Watched Poker Show" this syndicated series based out of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas takes a different approach to commentary. The show is hosted by professional poker player (and former actor) Chad Brown with a different colour commentator every week. In the first season commentators included Daniel Negreanu, Jennifer Harman and in the finals both Todd Brunson and his father Doyle. The resulting commentary is full of insight but on the whole the show comes across as having been done on the cheap,and very serious.

Celebrity Poker Showdown hosted by Dave Foley and Phil Gordon - yeah, I admit it, they're my favourite team mainly because Gordon and Foley work well together. They seem to have a bit of chemistry between them and the humour usually works. Foley knows enough about poker to know that he doesn't know a lot which means that he asks Gordon questions which allows the professional player to explain situations in terms a layman can understand. It doesn't hurt that they aren't talking about pros which means that Gordon can take the opportunity to be critical when someone makes a bad move (he once said a play that NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon made in a tournament was "stupid") and explain not only why the move was poor but also what a pro would do.

There are a number of other Poker shows out there, including the Canadian Poker Tour, but these are the main ones. All have their strengths - even Celebrity Poker Showdown, and all are part of the Poker boom. How long the boom will last is a major question , but there's no argument that right now there's a wealth of opportunity to watch and learn on TV, even if some of the lessons are the wrong ones.

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