The biggest show on Earth just got bigger this year. While most serious poker players would admit that ESPN's coverage of the WSOP is not even close to the best poker on TV, there's something to be said for its bombast. Ever since 2003, the theatrics have grown exponentially and now the tournament is shown as a mix of circus freaks and tragic heroes.
ESPN is not going to corner the market on thoughtful, experienced poker play -- they know their shows don't match the purity of a High Stakes Poker or the skill level of a Poker After Dark. But that isn't their goal. ESPN is out for ratings and popularity, and the way to get that is apparently by showcasing character. And with each passing year, the producers have found a way to focus more and more on the people of the World Series of Poker, not just the hands. And for better or worse, we do get a lot of character.
Structured more like a reality show than a poker tournament, the typical WSOP episode this year would clearly identify heroes and villains, then focus heavily on those characters until one of them was eliminated -- I almost expected Matt Savage to show up wearing Jeff Probst khakis and snuffing out the torch of Mike Matusow, saying "Patrik Antonius has spoken. You must now leave the felt." And in many episodes, the hero-villain dichotomy made for entertaining drama. In an early $1500 NLHE episode, we saw Theo Tran and Mike Ngo go at each other with dueling egos; a $5,000 mixed holdem event showcased a snarky Roland DeWolfe going at Magic players like David Williams ("Two outs and it comes hobgoblin-hobgoblin. So sick"); and a lot of the Main Event shows centered on feuds between an increasingly intolerable Phil Hellmuth and a rotating cast of foils such as Christian Dragomir, Adam Levy, and Brandon Cantu.
But the most noteworthy story of this year's WSOP coverage was the $50,000 HORSE event that came down to an epic battle between Michael DeMichele and Scotty Nguyen. So clear was the distinction between hero and villain at this table that ESPN hardly had to pump it up in editing. But props to Norman Chad for pulling no punches in his commentating. He appropriately upbraided Nguyen at every opportunity, refusing -- as the tournament staff evidently did in not giving Scotty any penalties -- to cater to a celebrity pro and instead verbally attacking Nguyen's classless display of drunken profanities, wholesale abuse, and immature braggadocio. This was one of the best (in terms of unfettered exposure) or worst (in terms of its portrayal of the poker elite) episodes of TV poker I've ever seen. Any casual viewer not familiar with the behavior of poker professionals might come away thinking the sport is loaded with greasy slimeballs who spend their nights spitting insults at humble young opponents.
In past years, tournament coverage was often worthless when compared to the character exploration, as each final table would get only 60 minutes of TV time, resulting in viewers only getting to see the all-in races. But this year ESPN expanded its coverage and dedicated two 60-minute episodes to many of the events, giving us a bit more post-flop play to go along with the "plot" of the final table. In this regard, while the poker coverage is still slightly inadequate (they don't show all the hole cards, chip counts and blinds are often woefully missing), ESPN did improve this year from 2007.
All that said, the single biggest change to the broadcast is the most obvious one: the Main Event final table was delayed by four months. As has been covered to death in poker journalism, the field was reduced to the final 9 in early July, then everyone took a break. ESPN aired all of its Main Event coverage week after week, ultimately revealing the 9 characters that will reunite in Vegas this weekend for the Biggest Day in Poker for 2008. The pros and cons of this move by Harrah's and ESPN has been debated to death, so I won't get into it here. But from a poker on TV perspective, it's hard to see the downside. The majority of viewers will watch the Final Table this Tuesday not knowing who won (since it's a lot easier to avoid spoilers for 2 days than it is for 4 months), giving us actual suspense. And while some final tablers got more exposure than others (Chino Rheem, for example, has become a much bigger star than, say, Ylon Schwartz), nobody can deny that this group of players has benefited from the delay strictly in terms of celebrity.
It's difficult to cover such a sprawling event like the World Series of Poker without missing a lot of the nuts and bolts, and ESPN will probably always suffer from their pathological dedication to personality over sport. The face of the WSOP this year became a cavalcade of douchebags and donkeys, from Joe Bishop to Tiffany Michelle to Nikolay Losev to Paul Snead, leaving the quiet experts smothered in their wake. You really can't learn how a tournament is won by watching ESPN's coverage, and you can't spot the plays that make good players great. You get a lot of loud all-ins, a lot of races, a lot of bluffs, and a lot of celebration. And if that's what it takes to get ratings, the network is doing their job. We can read Harrington or watch Poker After Dark if we want a lesson. The WSOP is a document of poker in our times and the circus it has become. Like it or not, at least we got a front-row seat. And that's worth *** out of *****.
See also our previous review and How To Fix The World Series Of Poker Broadcasts.
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