Season 6 of the World Poker Tour moved off of the Travel Channel and headed over to GSN, home of the beloved High Stakes Poker. One would hope this shift would breathe some life into what's become a fairly stale, inert series. Unfortunately, the opposite happened.
Aside from a couple of good tournaments and some scattered great plays, the most recent season of the WPT was an ignominious beginning -- and merciful ending -- to the show's brief stint on GSN. (Now it moves over to Fox Sports for Season 7, where we all hope it will improve).
To begin with, the production is becoming tiresome. The same set as always, the same swirling blue lights, the same canned applause, and the same commentators. About the only things they've changed in 6 years are losing the "how to play Texas Hold'Em" intro and the rotating cast of interchangeably bland hostesses.
Mike Sexton is a great ambassador for poker, a hell of a nice guy, and has even proven himself as a serviceable player. But when compared to the insights one gets from hearing analysis from Howard Lederer, Daniel Negreanu, or even Phil Hellmuth, Sexton's poker knowledge feels shallow and reduced to pithy one-liners based on the occupation of the player. He often refuses to consider plays made due to stack sizes and blinds, showing a general lack of understanding of tournament strategy, and he dumbs down a lot of his analysis to what he thinks must be amateur viewers. ("He only has 4 'outs,' as we say..."). This likable, appeal-to-the-masses streak he has also hurts his commentary in that he simply won't criticize bad play enough. He's always trumpeting the great poker of the WPT, so it's against his nature to really tear into the godawful plays we see weekly. It's hard to imagine someone getting much better at poker listening to Sexton.
But compared to Vince Van Patten, Sexton is Howard Cosell. Van Patten is more and more worthless as the seasons go on, providing virtually nothing to the broadcast. The ratio of hits to misses on his jokes is staggeringly low, and when he starts talking poker you just want to cringe. Some of his most searing insight comes when he follows the wondercam rabbit-hunting a turn and river, then praises the player for making a "smart laydown" when he sees that the draw would not have come in. Fox Sports would be wise to shake up the announcing booth for the next season.
Luckily, Layla Kayleigh will not be returning as hostess. As the third woman in as many seasons to try to fill Shana Hiatt's notoriously popular shoes, Kayleigh failed to strike a chord. Here's to hoping that Kimberly Lansing -- the reporter who has shown some actual poker savvy and improvisational personality -- will replace Kayleigh as hostess next season.
Something the WPT can't do much about regarding its production is the actual tournament play itself, but Season 6 provided some extremely weak entertainment in terms of poker skill. The nadir of this was the Turks and Caicos tournament, won by a donkey of titanic proportions named Rhynie Campbell (the co-owner of the casino in which the tournament was played) after luckboxing beyond belief. Furthermore, the set of the Turks and Caicos show appeared to be a wooden bathroom in the middle of the jungle, cooled by creaky ceiling fans -- the kind of place you expect Haitian gangsters to take someone they need to whack.
The Legends of Poker final table had some brilliant play from Dan Harrington and David Pham, and the L.A. Poker Classic had Phil Ivey mowing down Hellmuth on his way to his first WPT victory, but these tournaments were the exception to the rule. Despite a revised final table blind structure, there still were too many times when the play was reduced to all-in shove-fests. Sexton did his best to pretend there was strategy in these moves, but when the average stack size is about 12 BBs (the worst offender was the Celebrity Invitational at Commerce, won by Van Nguyen), we're really just watching coins flip for 2 hours.
A few other things to nit-pick: while the graphics do a good job showing most of the cards folded preflop, they stumble when calculating pot size. If Ivey is sitting on 2 million in chips and he puts short-stack Hellmuth (sitting on 600,000 in chips) all in, the pot size should be 1.2 million because of the shorter effective stack. But the stats show the pot being over 2 million because of Ivey's shove. It's irritating because we often see impossible pot sizes. And we also don't get a good grasp of the changing stack sizes, because the chip counts aren't shown often enough -- and when they are, they disappear too fast, so I often need to pause my DVR just to remember who's got what. And since so many hands are edited out, it would be nice if they quickly re-capped the pots we missed that might have caused a major shift in chip counts.
TV poker has gone through some incredible changes in a short amount of time. With the poker boom only 5 years old so far, viewers have had to learn the game and adapt to the changing play due to the influx of young online stars and aggressive counter-strategies. Poker shows need to keep up with these quick shifts, and NBC's Poker After Dark and to a lesser extent GSN's High Stakes Poker are the only shows taking advantage of what viewers want to see. A great poker player once said, "The day you stop getting better at the game is the day you start getting worse." The WPT could stand to listen to that advice, since their stale format and lazy production is, by nature of not getting any better, clearly getting worse. For Season 6, WPT drops below average in my opinion and receives ** out of *****.
Feel free to post your comments below, whether you agree or disagree. See also the World Poker Tour Season 5 review.