Televised Poker is the Worst, but Whose Fault is That?

Alex Weldon : November 12th, 2015

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I think it’s safe to say that most people without some personal skin in the game – be it emotional or financial – found this year’s November Nine to be a bit of a disappointment. There are many reasons for this, and part of it is simply that poker is, on some level, kind of boring.

The nature of no-limit poker is that exciting moments are few and far between, even as a player; there’s a famous but hard to attribute quote which describes war as “hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” a line which has been applied to many other things over the years, including No-Limit Hold’em. The majority of hands are won preflop or on the flop, and once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, a lot of the decisions are fairly automatic as well. Furthermore, many close decisions are also kind of subtle, while most of the obviously dramatic moments are kind of formulaic. The classic preflop coinflip, for instance, is poker’s equivalent of a penalty shootout in soccer: Exciting if you already care deeply about who wins, but otherwise pretty much a case of “seen one, seen ‘em all.

Of course, in the case of the Main Event final table, the naturally slow pace of is exacerbated by the frequency of ESPN’s commercial breaks. But even compared to previous years, this year’s finish seemed lacking. Much speculation has been done as to why that it, but the general trend seems to be for people to blame the players themselves.

Stern’s tanking

The least popular man at the table on the first day of final table play was Israel’s Zvi Stern. It’s unlikely he would have been a crowd favorite however he played, as with his hoodie, sunglasses and stone-faced expression, he was archetypical of what you might call the non-presence of the post-boom, internet-bred pro. Most players who came to poker in the internet era understandably see the live game’s physical and social aspects as one of the weaker parts their game, so they focus primarily on avoiding giving anything away, rather than on picking things up from others. It’s an understandable strategy, but even as such a player avoids revealing anything about his hand, he also avoids revealing anything of himself as a person, leaving a void at the table from a spectator’s point of view.

Stern wasn’t just seen as a void, however. On the first day, his play – specifically, the pace of his preflop play – was pointed to as the greatest contributing factor to the overall boredom experienced by the viewers. As with his attire and demeanor, Stern’s preflop stalling is not a problem unique to him; discussions about excessive tanking and the possible need for a “shot clock” of some sort have been going on for years. He was the latest and most visible example of the problem, however, and in conjunction with the commercial breaks, managed to slow the overall pace of play to a dismal dozen or so hands per hour.

Interestingly, of all the players, Stern was the only one who seemed to respond to the public’s reaction to him. Although his pace of play had been criticized by the poker community back in July, it was only televised coverage that made him an unpopular figure in the public eye. On the second day of play, even as ESPN itself got onboard the anti-Stern bandwagon, the man himself was already making an effort to play more quickly and even smile a bit between hands.

McKeehen the anti-hero

Once Stern began to speed up – and was eventually eliminated – the next target for ire was the chip-leader and eventual victor, Joseph McKeehen. The criticisms of McKeehen were many, and even prompted a poll thread on Two Plus Two, asking “Which of Joe McKeehans [sic] mannerisms annoy you the most?

Some people hated his Mike McDonald-esque stare, or the angry way he thumped the table to check. Others hated his personal appearance – chubby, scraggly-bearded, dressed in a sports jersey. Still others objected to his bizarre and sometimes arrogant behavior, playing the fool one moment and talking about his victory as an inevitability the next. Some even complained about the lucky hands and flops he was getting, as if this was somehow his fault.

Whatever the specifics of the complaints, their fundamental nature was universally the same: everyone knew that McKeehen was going to win, yet no one but his friends and backers wanted him to, because he simply didn’t come off as interesting or likeable enough to be king of the poker world for the next year. Whereas many other players had their charms – Steinberg’s suits, Neuville’s age, Blumenfield’s fedora and unorthodox play – McKeehen came off as, well, an angry nerd.

McKeehen actually showed up in the Two Plus Two thread about himself, in order to explain that most of the things people objected to were in fact an act, intended to get an edge. He said that he wanted to seem cocky, so that others would be intimidated, dislike him a bit, and possibly get a little bit tilted over it. Whether that strategy worked on anyone at the table is anyone’s guess, but it certainly worked on the television audience and the Twittersphere.

Everyone’s general style of play

Despite Phil Hellmuth opening the televised broadcast by assuring the audience that McKeehen was not “Tiger Woods, in his prime, with a seven-stroke lead,” it did seem that the other players felt that he was, particularly after he gobbled up three of the short stacks on the first day of play. There were times that Blumenfield seemed to be shooting for the win, rather than the pay jumps, but even he proved prone to intimidation at others.

If the no-limit nature of poker’s currently most-popular game contributes to its dullness, the tournament format likewise bears a share of the blame, especially at final tables, and most especially when there is one clear deep stack and several short stacks. Under these circumstances, players are rewarded more for not losing chips than they are for winning them, so a tight style of play is inevitable. McKeehen, meanwhile, felt he had the skill as well as the chip advantage, so he had no cause to force the action if the others were not.

Although everyone understood the need to stay balanced by mixing in some preflop bluffs, most of the postflop action consisted of pots being won by a single bet on the flop or turn, usually by the player who actually held the best hand. This is not compelling television, especially when you’re only seeing a dozen hands per hour, but neither is it the players’ fault; everyone was simply doing what they could to maximize their expected profits.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game

So, what’s the lesson in all of this?

Stern evidently felt bad that everyone felt he was ruining their television-viewing experience. He adjusted so as to be more fun to watch, and went out in 5th. That’s not to say that his failure to think for a minute before folding obviously unplayable hands was a direct contributing factor to his elimination, but it is a reminder that karma does not exist, at least not at the poker table.

Blumenfield, having made the final three, opted to go for the win rather than the second-place finish, and possibly cost himself a million-dollar pay jump because of it. Even those most supportive of him and critical of the others’ conservative play have pointed out that his bust-out hand was a terrible spot to get his chips in. But at least he was fun to watch, right?

McKeehen, on the other hand, has openly said that his off-putting behavior was deliberate. He knew he was annoying the viewers, and actually hoped he was annoying his fellow players as well, because he felt it would contribute, at least in some small way, to his odds of walking home with the full $7.7 million.

To me, the lesson is that poker, in its current form, is not suitable for public consumption. The game hasn’t changed, but players have gotten better at it since the early boom years, and it turns out that being good at poker often requires being boring, and sometimes actively obnoxious. I’ve compared poker to a combat sport in the past, and in fact I think here too, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the perfect analogy.

The early days of UFC were fun largely because no one really knew what they were doing. You’d put a kick-boxer in the ring against a judo specialist, or a karate champ against a sumo wrestler, and no one knew what was going to happen. Then people noticed that the grapplers seemed to do unusually well, so everyone took up Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the sport fell into its “lay-and-pray” dark ages, where a great many fights were won by one fighter simply taking the other to the mat and holding him there for round after round to win a decision, with very little actual fighting going on.

And yet, poker is not the UFC

The UFC made adjustments to remedy the problem, such as standing fighters up and separating them if a ground position or clinch is held too long without significant strikes or submission attempts being made. Even now, though, most of the top fighters in all but the heaviest weight classes have realized that it’s easier to win by decision than by finishing, and tend to adopt a more conservative style when they reach the top of their division. The fans complain, but the fighter’s job is to win the fight.

There is one other thing that the UFC does have going for it, though, which is that the decision for arranging fights ultimately lies with its central authority, which means that exciting fighters can be given preferential treatment over boring ones. No one is ever going to be cut for winning a fight in a boring manner, but defensive fighters are given considerably less slack for the occasional loss than aggressive ones. There are also additional financial incentives for putting on a good show, in the form of fight-, knockout- and submission-of-the-night awards. In the boom years, there was some incentive to be exciting, interesting and popular because of the number of sponsorships that online poker sites were handing out, but that particular well has run dry in recent years as sites have turned their marketing dollars elsewhere.

If the UFC’s solutions sound a little bit familiar in the context of poker, that’s not surprising, because there are a great many parallels between what the UFC did and what Alex Dreyfus of the Global Poker Index has recently been talking about doing with his Global Poker League (GPL), and explicitly points to the UFC as one of his sources of inspiration. The fundamental problem with poker as a spectator sport is that it is in fact not a sport, even if Dreyfus would like to make it more sport-like. Poker pros are in the business of extracting as much money from their opponents as possible, not of putting on a show. If the best way of doing that is to be boring, then they will be boring, no matter how much we berate them for it.

Poker in its current form will always have a place in the world, but that place is in the eternal twilight of the card room or casino, not under the blazing lights of television. There’s nothing there which is interesting or uplifting enough to bother illuminating in that way, not anymore anyway. That said, the game of poker is quite separate from the business of poker, and the game may one day find its way back into the public imagination. Whether that happens through the GPL, some other initiative, or not at all is anyone’s guess, but I feel confident saying that it will never again happen with player-funded tournament-format poker: that ship has long since sailed, bound for ICM Bay and the Game Theory Islands.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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