I burned out on poker watching a bit during the WSOP and haven’t made much use of my PokerGo subscription since then. Tuesday’s episode of Poker After Dark got me to tune in, however, due to the potential for drama. Titled “Voices Carry,” the concept was to put some of poker’s most notorious table talkers – including Will Kassouf and Mike “the Mouth” Matusow – at a table together to see what would happen.
As it turns out, the answer is “not much.” There was chatter throughout, almost entirely polite and uninteresting, and Kassouf made sure to fill up any silences by talking about himself. It never got loud, however, and that is – let’s face it – what people drawn to watch players like Kassouf and Matusow are tuning in for. Just like no one follows Mike Dentale on Twitter to read about poker, no one tunes in for Kassouf hoping to hear him chat about sponsorships and places he’s travelled.
Fortunately, there were a few entertaining moments along the way, just not the dramatic fireworks one might have hoped for.
At one point, David Williams shared a funny anecdote about Scotty Nguyen – someone whose presence probably would have gone a long way towards producing the sort of dynamic the show’s producers were presumably aiming for.
Williams had been railing Nguyen, who pulled off a big bluff against his opponent. After getting the fold, Nguyen showed Williams his cards, then mucked them. The opponent seemed upset about the hand, so Nguyen offered to tell him what he’d had if he paid him. He pointed out that Williams has seen the cards, so he couldn’t lie about it.
The opponent obliged, and Nguyen did in fact lie, naming a big hand and counting on Williams not to spoil the joke. The two later had a laugh about it, with Nguyen boasting “I robbed him twice, baby.”
It’s the sort of scene that doesn’t occur much anymore in modern poker, and not only because of the omnipresent hole cam. Now that the game has gone mainstream, everyone wants to be seated at a table of Daniel Negreanus and Maria Hos while telling stories about Scotty Nguyens and Sammy Farhas.
The closest thing to real drama occurred away from the table, as a drunk Jean-Robert Bellande claimed in his post-exit interview that he’d played too loose out of annoyance at Kassouf, who was sitting to his immediate left.
There was one good needle between Kassouf and Matusow, at least. Matusow, playing tight and complaining about his luck as usual, told Kassouf, “You’ve made the nuts more times at this table than I have in the past two years.” Kassouf, without missing a beat, responded, “That’s because I’ve played more hands at this table than you have in the past two years.” Alas, Matusow took it well and no further amusement was to be had.
Chatter as a weapon
One thing to note is that many of poker’s biggest talkers aren’t simply chatty and annoying by nature, or if they are, they play it up at the table. Almost all of them are specialists in live poker, and feel – correctly or not – that they can induce their opponents to give up more information by their responses than they themselves do through their chatter. The most irritating, like Kassouf, may also be attempting to cause their opponents to tilt.
Phil Hellmuth-style meltdowns after losing a pot may be a sincere display of emotion, but outside of that, the most ostentatious talking between hands, and virtually all talking during a hand, is an attempt to gain an advantage or one form or another.
Part of the problem, then, is that this advantage – and therefore the motivation to employ table talk – mostly vanishes when you put multiple such players at a table together. The game’s biggest and most entertaining talkers are at their best when seated at a table with a group of amateurs who can be baited into engaging in the conversation, not realizing that they’re giving information away and opening themselves up to be manipulated.
Variety is the spice of life
More importantly, it’s a fundamental principle of entertainment that contrast is vital. The straight man and the fool. The straightlaced cop and his rebel partner. The boxer versus the brawler. Bert and Ernie. Verse, chorus, verse. Chiaroscuro.
It doesn’t matter what form the entertainment takes: The attributes of any given character or element are generally defined in contrast to those of another. The fool is simply not as funny without the straight man there to act as a foil. Light without shadow is just a blank canvas.
This is a principle that’s all too often forgotten in attempts to make poker interesting as a spectator sport. Super High Rollers are often boring because the tough fields tend to produce uniformly talented final tables, with everyone playing a similar quasi-unexploitable style. Lineups consisting entirely of loudmouthed personalities are boring because there’s no one there to be hilariously annoyed with the loudmouths. And so on.
Cate Hall vs. Mike Dentale on Poker Night in America wasn’t only entertaining because “everyone in poker hates at least one of [them],” as Hall put it. The two are polar opposites on almost every axis, which makes them both look like caricatures of themselves when placed side by side.
That’s not to say that every themed episode of a poker show needs to be based off of some personal vendetta, just that an obvious contrast makes for a better theme than a commonality. Battle of the Sexes is more fun than Ladies Night. Veterans vs. hotshots would be another good one. Six hyper-aggressive players might sound like a recipe for fireworks, but three maniacs and three nits probably makes for a more interesting dynamic in practice.
Ironically, simply not doing anything special is often enough. People, even within the notoriously non-diverse poker community, have differences, and those differences will come out at the poker table if you let them. Attempting to create interest by selecting players for a shared trait may well turn out to be nothing more than a recipe for monotony.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.