Trying to Make Sense of the "Poker Superstars"…and Failing

Tuesday, February 8th, 2005, 10:04 am

CORRECTION: While I always hate to admit I’m wrong, once in a great while/blue moon/lifetime I have to admit I made a mistake. As I did with this review of the Poker Superstars. Somehow I totally missed like 20 minutes of the show, I don’t know how I managed to do that, but whilst folding laundry I turned the tape on for noise and realized I missed like a half-dozen hands, including the one where Chip Reese’s aces beat Howard Lederer’s AK, and also the hand where Johnny Chan and Gus Hansen split a pot when the board showed a full house. And they also showed a chip count early on, so I missed that too. Mea culpa. Still, my basic opinon still stands, and is listed below.

With the WPT and WSOP in eternal reruns I was looking forward to the finale of the “Poker Superstars” that NBC showed before the Super Bowl. I had to tape it and watched the show last night, and as with the earlier installments I was left both bewildered and disappointed, though in far greater quantities this time. The show made no sense, which made sense because the previous episodes made no sense.

The series worked this way–8 top poker players play what amounts to a SNG, and the winner of each one builds up some extra chips to take to the table for the final event. OK, that seems reasonable. But for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how they were breaking up the tournament. In Pittsburgh the show wasn’t on at a set time every week, so you might see the same episode 3 times and then have it shift to a later show, and then back again. So keeping up with the flow was difficult.

Compounding that was a structure so complicated you need a Ph.D in logic to suss it out. At the beginning of each show host Chris Rose would say something like this: “Welcome to the Poker Superstars! At the end of section 2 of part 1 Howard Lederer roared back to take the win, and now in segment 3 of section 2 of part 2 its Johnny Chan who’s making a move, as he tries to build up extra chips to take into split 5 of segment 4 of section 3 of part 2…”

I had no clue what was going on. None. I mean, I understand that their position in each part factored into how many chips they’d take to the final table, but I was totally in the dark about how exactly that was being calculated. I can’t say I cared all that much, but I’m naturally curious so it irked me. Why so complicated? And, if so complicated, why no simple explanation?

Another thing that puzzled me was that in the first 2 or 3 episodes they never explained what the players were playing for. They didn’t tell us the buy-in was $400K (more on this in a bit) nor did we learn until much later (maybe the show before the final) what 1st prize was. I still don’t know what 2nd thru 8th received, although I have a theory.

So let’s get that right now. OK, they asked the top 8 poker players to play in this event…brief pause here. You think that every time the announcers mentioned this Daniel Negreanu stroked his dog Mushu, politely cleared his throat, and said, “Excuse me?”. You think those words weren’t like chewing tinfoil to Phil Hellmuth? Actually, if I could have made one substitution I would have removed Howard Lederer and put in Hellmuth. It’s not that I don’t think Howard is one of the best poker players in the world, but he is THE best poker announcer in the world and his presence would have dramatically improved the broadcast. And I would pay good money to see Gus Hansen roast Phil over an open flame. Its entirely possible that Gus could make Phil so crazy he’d spontaneously combust, and I for one would’ve enjoyed sitting tableside wearing oven mitts.

Back to the money. OK, so each of the 8 players put up four-hundred grand. I apologize for stating the obvious, but that’s a lot of money. Even for Barry Greenstein. Especially, and this is the part that makes NO sense, if first prize is a $1 million. I mean, do the math here–risk $400K to win $1 million? Not a lot of return for such a huge risk. Especially when you’ll have to beat 7 of the best players in the world to win. How many coin flips is that going to take?

The rest of the prize pool was never broken down (at least not that I saw), so I can only assume that the other 7 players equally split the remaining $2.2 million, meaning each of them was really risking about $85K to win a million, which is a bit more palatable. And I’m sure that these 8 players were attracted by the chance to be labled a “Poker Superstar” and get some big-time publicity by appearing on the show, so there are some serious intangible benefits to take into account. Still, I don’t know why they didn’t just announce this as a winner-takes-nearly-all, as they did for the WSOP Tournament of Champions. Unless they were just keeping with the unnecessarily complicated theme of the whole event.

Another thing that confounds me is that the final show appeared on NBC opposite Fox’s Super Bowl pregame show. This after all the previous episode were called the FOX Poker Superstars and appeared on local Fox affiliates. So, Fox produces and promotes and airs a show that is later going to be used as direct competition against the biggest event the network will broadcast all year. I’m bringing all my MBA-wisdom to bear on the question and I’m coming up blank. Makes no sense to me.

The final show itself was pretty awful. Matt Vasgersion and Erick Lindgren do not a scintillating announcing team make. Actually, even before that, we knew the show was gonig to suck royal. During the Fox broadcasts the opening credits rolled, and we saw scenes of the Strip at night with pictures of the players superimposed over Vegas’ biggest casinos, all while a peppy big-band played an upbeat tune (sounded to me a lot like the theme to Celebrity Poker Showdown). But for the NBC broadcast they showed the same graphics but played this GHASTLY country-western sound where this horrible, horrible singer drawled something like, “It was a real bad game of poker/Ah laahst it AWWWWWWL”. Horrible beyond belief, and that signaled that the show was in the hands of people who didn’t have a goddam clue what they were doing.

We didn’t get a chip count to start the tournament (in fact, I don’t think we got a count until 2 people were out) nor did we get any info on HOW the players got their chips. Lindgren was introduced as the 2004 Player of the Year, which probably got his good friend Negreanu’s attention again (Lindgren won the WPT Player of the Year award, Negreanu the WSOP and Card Player awards). That was an opening for the sort of playful banter you heard a lot from the previous announcing team of Chris Rose, Michael Konik and Mark Gregorich–you know, Vasgersion says, “So, Erick, why aren’t you down there playing?” and Erick chuckles and says, “No thanks, I’ll stay up in the booth where its safe” and they laugh and the audience laughs as they both identify with the announcers and have their interest piqued by the fearsome players they’ll be watching. Well, no, there was none of that, as both announcers were as tight as Donovan McNabb was in the first quarter.

I am risking the wrath of the Poker Gods for saying this, but the game itself could have been titled “Gus Hansen and the Seven Dwarfs”. It was all Gus, all the time. He knocked out all seven players himself, and I’d be interested to hear what greater poker minds than mind have to think about how he played. I’m sure the producers of the show loved the first hand of the event when Gus went up against T.J. Cloutier and took about 17 minutes to decide whether to bet his pocket nines against T.J.’s eights. Gus may have been selected as one of People magazine’s 50 Sexiest people, but watching a guy THINK is not the best way to keep folks from flipping channels, Gus’s facial gymnastics nonwithstanding. “Sometime this century, Gus,” T.J. finally said, and all of America nodded in agreement.

I think Barry Greenstein went out first, when on consecutive hands he had Johnny Chan and then Gus dominated preflop and had both his opponents make flushes to win. More proof that there isn’t a God, since Greenstein would have donated his winnings to charity and instead went out first on back-to-back suckouts. I don’t know if Lederer went out next, but he pushed all-in against Hansen with A-9, figuring he probably had the best hand against the play-anything Gus, but this time the Great Dane had AQ and it was bye-bye Howard. It was odd, as Howard left Vasgersion said that Howard came in as the chip leader, yet that was the only hand we saw Lederer play and there was no explanation about how he came to be so short-stacked. Howard, we hardly knew ye. Unfortunately he didn’t move directly into the broadcast booth. Actally he gave a testy little interview to Evelyn Ng, who asked some pretty good questions in her brief appearances on camera. She’s sort of the jack-of-all-trades for poker shows–she deals, she interviews, she even plays on occasion. She’s everywhere she’s needed.

Doyle Brunson won some big hands early on and looked like he might become the force at the table, but he was dealt QQ when Gus was blessed with AA and Texas Dolly decided to shove in his entire $650K stack when the flop came 10-high, thinking that maybe Gambling Gus would pay him off. That hand pretty much killed the tournament. Gus had so many chips that he could call any raise just for kicks, and he kept getting cards and kept hitting flops and the players kept dropping. I don’t remember the hands, but I believe that when he knocked out Barry Greenstein, Chip Reese, Phil Ivey, and Johnny Chan he called their all-in bets with the worst hand (the Chan hand was especially odd, as Gus called a $500K raise with J-10). And won each time. Because Hansen had such a huge stack the other players’ only play was to push all-in, and I think that was many players’ strategy against Gus anyway. So what you had was coin flip after coin flip, nearly all of them going Gus’s way. It did not make for very compelling viewing.

So much poker on TV lately, and so much of it crummy. The Battle of the Sexes, Celebrity Poker Showdown, tho I did enjoy some of the Ultimate Poker Showdown. But the new season of the WPT is just 3 weeks away, so after a hiatus nearly as long as “The Sopranos” we will soon be hearing the mellifluous tones of Mike Sexton and the bubbly inanity of Vince Van Patten. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

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7 Responses to “Trying to Make Sense of the "Poker Superstars"…and Failing”

  1. TripJax Says:

    Good write up…I was just about to post about the Poker Superstars (I watched it last night too), but you pretty much summed it up. My Two Cents:

    1) I hate watching a tourney on TV where they don’t explain the prize pool. How hard is it??!!

    2) Gus is the coin flip master. He goes into most showdowns knowing he needs help…and he gets it most of the time. He creates a pessimistic table of people feeling like they will get sucked out on, which in turn helps him.


  2. JasonSpaceman Says:

    Boy am I glad I didn’t watch that show! Sounds like it royally sucked.

  3. Dr. Pauly Says:

    I watched the tourney. I opted for it because I couldn’t stand watching the SB hype.

  4. the wolf Says:

    Completely agree. Especially regarding the “preliminary” tables, which originally aired on Fox affiliates on Sunday nights…for the first three weeks anyway. Then it was weeks and weeks of seeing episodes at random times in random order. They never adequately explained how they were determining the final chip positions. All I could discern was that Lederer and Hansen had the most success in the prelims, but as you said you never would have been able to tell that from the final. While watching, all I could think is that this particular table will only reinforce the naive view that poker is all about luck, because every hand looked like a crapshoot. That’s what happens when you try to distill hours of play down to a single, edited hour.

  5. Sean Says:

    Great write-up. 5 years ago I’d never believe in a million years that I’d be disappointed with poker being televised. That battle of the sexes was the first poker game I ever turned away when I was in the mood to watch poker. I missed Poker Superstars and I don’t really care.

  6. DuggleBogey Says:

    Your original assessment is still valid. That entire tournament blew chunks.

    The death of poker on TV will be poorly produced and totally orchestrated garbage like this, instead of real games and quality competitions.

    Whey they try to manipulate how poker works in order for us to see “superstars” in ugly shirts, it will never promote the sport in a way that is needed.

  7. BadBlood Says:

    Nice write up Mean Gene. Summed up my thoughts pretty much dead on.

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