On the Rail

Saturday, November 8th, 2008, 1:27 pm

Tomorrow is the final table of the 2008 World Series of Poker. At. Last. When the final table delay was first announced I thought it was a good idea. Or, at least I thought that trying something different was a good idea. And it’s quite possible that the delay will prove to be wildly successful–if the ratings for the final table and the live heads-up battle are through the roof, then this experiment will have proven its worth. The whole point of the delay was to get more people watching, and if more people DO watch, there you have it.

But whether the ratings will skyrocket is hardly a sure thing. The months of avalanching hype and buzz have failed to materialize. I haven’t seen Ylon Schwartz on Letterman; I haven’t seen Dennis Phillips on Oprah. In fact, four months along the idea of one of the final tablers making an appearance on national television seems silly.

The other day Pauly wrote a post where he asked (and answered) the following questions:

Does mainstream America really care about poker?

Does mainstream America really care about tournament poker?

Does mainstream America really care about a made-for-TV event?

Does mainstream America really care about poker during an Olympic year and in the middle of an election year?

The short answers are… no, no, no, and no.

I respectfully disagree. The short answers are "yes, yes, yes, and yes". The long answer would be, "But not that much". Poker is very popular. People like to play it, and they like to watch it. I think a lot of people will be interested to see who wins the Main Event, even people who aren’t hardcore poker fans.

But that’s just it–not many people ARE hardcore poker fans. Poker hasn’t found a way to turn casual but interested observers into fanatics. And I don’t see any way for that to happen. Look, lots of people hate Phil Hellmuth. They want to see him lose and blow a gasket. But I don’t think there are many people who hate Hellmuth the same way I hate, say, the Baltimore Ravens. I mean, I hate them. I want to see them lose, lose horribly, see their dreams of glory trampled into the mud. I want to see their fans weeping, hands to their faces, inconsolable in their despair. Is this rational? Is this healthy? I’m sure that many members of the Ravens are perfectly acceptable human beings. I’m sure the great majority of Baltimorians are decent folks, just as they are in Pittsburgh. No matter. I hate them. They hate us. And hardcore sports fans wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s fun. And it’s not good, clean, wholesome fun. Oh no. It’s dirty, and it’s vicious, and it’s petty, and it’s mean. Like I said, fun.

I don’t see how poker makes that leap. You might be a huge Mike Matusow fan, but if Mike only makes one televised final table a year, how are fans going to become attached? And without those emotions and loyalties being established, I’m not sure how poker is going to lure big-time corporate sponsorship to the game. Especially in today’s political and legal climate, where poker exists in a regulatory limbo where millions of Americans think playing the game is illegal.

But people do like poker, a lot. They like playing it, they like watching it. Even people who don’t know a flop from a river can appreciate the drama of watching people playing with millions of dollars on the line. The fact that the Main Event was able to attract 6,844 players and build a prize pool so huge that first prize is NINE MILLION DOLLARS proves that poker isn’t some fad that bubbled up and is slowly sinking away. Early in the Main Event I was wandering around the floor and stopped to chat with Flipchip. The room was jammed that day, not an empty seat in the house. It probably looked something like this:

Oddly, I found myself thinking about Vietnam, and how the group I went with on my trip there was hoping to raise about $50,000 to build a school for it’s next project. And I looked out at the crowd and as far as I could see there were poker tables, and every table represented a $90,000 investment in a dream.

"It is amazing, isn’t it?" Flipchip said, and I agreed. He said, "You don’t see NFL players paying $100,000 apiece to have a shot at winning the Super Bowl". When you stop to think about how many people play in the World Series of Poker, and how much money is at stake, it is truly staggering. Especially as every penny comes from the players’ own pockets. Amazing, indeed.

What suggestions I have to improve poker’s popularity are hardly original. The final table HAS to be shown live. You say people will be bored watching 13 hours of blind steals? I say, make it interesting. Get insighful commentators. Have interviews while play is going on. You’re telling me that nine hours of first-round coverage at the Masters is uninterrupted drama? Make it interesting. It can be done.

The Main Event is poker’s biggest stage, but we don’t get to see many of the most dramatic moments. Nor do we get to see much of the players who create that drama. Why show so much action from the first week (the four Day 1s and the two Day 2s)? The Main Event goes on for nearly two weeks and so far as I know no player has ever won the Main Event by taking down a 15,000 pot on Day 1. Does it make sense that we saw Scotty Nguyen play ten times as many hands during the Main Event as Peter Eastgate? Why devote time to Clonie Gowen’s bustout hand on Day 1 when we didn’t have a single mention of Alexander Kostritsyn’s wild ride on Day 5 (or was it Day 6)? Perhaps my memory fails, but Kostritsyn (who is at the vanguard of the Soviet Russian invasion of the poker world) made a big impression on me with his play.  He was among the chip leaders and from the hands I was reporting he was playing with an extraordinary blend of kamikaze fearlessness and Jane Austenesque discretion. He was making sick calls, sick laydowns, sick shoves. Through the fog of blog I thought to myself, "If I was a betting man, this is the guy I’d pick to go all the way".

I’m too lazy to confirm the facts, but I think Kostritsyn was crippled in a three-way hand where all the money went in before the flop and he held pocket Aces. If he’d won that hand he would’ve been the chip leader or right up there. Instead he lost the hand and most of his stack, and he was eliminated 84th. And we didn’t see a single hand he played the entire tournament. True, 84th isn’t really all that close to the November 9, but if you cut out all the coverage from the first week of the tournament there might’ve been time to introduce the poker world to this budding superstar. And other superstars, like David "Raptor" Benefield, who got knocked out by Brandon Cantu in a hand I totally butchered when I reported it. And then the seething Benefield cranked out a pissed-off post on his blog where he ripped PokerNews (well, me) to shreds for screwing it up, which kicked off a huge thread on 2+2. All because of my brain cramp. Well, nice to know people were reading. The fact that I screwed up that hand only bothered me for, oh, a month.

I won’t be covering the final table–no, not because of the Raptor hand. At least I don’t think so…anyway, I thought about flying to Vegas to just BE there, to see the thing through. It bothered me when the final table was set that we were done, without really being done. But I’ll be in Vegas in December, and what was I gonna do during the final table? Even if I could get credentialed I probably couldn’t take pictures (at least not good ones), I couldn’t live-blog it…what was the point? And so, like everyone else, I’ll be following along with the PokerNews live updates. I thought about trying to keep myself in the dark so I could watch ESPN’s coverage with an innocent’s eyes, but that would mean going on a blog blackout for two days. And I’m too much of an addict for that.

Well, this has been a rambling, incoherant mess. You probably understand now why I’ve started and stopped a half-dozen WSOP posts before now. Why not end with some pictures? I don’t think I posted these before, but the day after the Main Event went on hiatus I stopped by the Amazon Room to take a look at things. A guy tried to chase me as I took pictures but one of the ESPN guys recognized me and he didn’t care if I took a few shots:

What the final table looked like just before the end:

Last, and certainly least, Tiffany Michelle’s leftover French fries. Finally tracked the picture down. Don’t look as tasty as I remember them:

Tomorrow’s the big day, Tuesday the bigger day. For those who are covering it, I offer you the traditional poker reporter’s blessing, "I hope it’s over fast".

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One Response to “On the Rail”

  1. Alex Says:

    Do you know if there has ever been any talk of putting the entire final table for tournaments on DVD? Or is it already there? Don’t need the commentary but it might be interesting to just be able to watch everything. Of course I might change my mind after the first hour of a 12 hour table.

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