Thoughts on Poker: How to Grow Poker’s Popularity and Global Appeal Part 3b: The TV Producer

Keith Woernle : August 19th, 2016

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“No Limit Hold’em. Hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror.”

- Tom McEvoy

Why the Television Producer’s Job Has Gotten More Difficult

Amateurs are having less success and making fewer deep runs than they used to. Why is that? Well, the average poker player is so much better now than he or she used to be. And the elite poker player is downright amazing. Because of this, pure amateurs are making big final tables less often. Pros make most of the final tables and win big money and very deservedly so, but the pure amateur’s story is so much more captivating.

Because the amateur is always the underdog. And we’re suckers for underdogs.

Poker is the only thing on TV where you can truly have David vs. Goliath. It can be the hometown hero you relate to versus the millionaire rockstar you dream to become.

In my opinion there are two appealing types of players to watch: the rockstar pro (someone cocky, chatty and entertaining like Negreanu, Nguyen, or Farha) who not only outplays his opponents but outtalks them too. Or the guy next door, the relatable underdog. So many more viewers can relate to a 28-year-old accountant (or to 2014’s Scott Mahin, who finished 18th in the Main Event), than they can to Phil Ivey. The amateur’s story is our story. It’s our dream. And while Martin Jacobson is probably better than Scott Mahin will ever be, Scott Mahin’s raw emotion, vulnerability, and realized dream are simply more entertaining to watch. Watching fist-pumping and screaming and tears are so much more enjoyable than shrugs and mumbles of “it’s standard.” But you can’t focus the camera too long on those eliminated. After they walk from the stage to the cage, the focus has to be on the remaining players (who more often than not are professionals).

But not only are there fewer Cinderella stories than there used to be, there are less rockstar pros playing as well. The far less entertaining players (i.e. the too cool, unemotional robot pros) seem to dominate today’s big final tables when what viewers and producers really want are characters like Tony G and Jamie Gold or lovable underdogs like Steve Dannenmann.

Also, larger field sizes and a limited production crew do not a good story make. I know a little bit about television production and about the budget allotted to help you tell your story. It’s not a lot. If you read Eric Raskin’s story about the 2003 WSOP, you learn just how lucky the crew got in that they were able to put a camera on Chris Moneymaker early. We the audience were able to follow him through the battlefield – to see his triumphs and take his journey with him. But he (and we) got so lucky in the fact that he was at the tables with the big boys early on.

Howard Lederer and Johnny Chan had cameras on them from the get-go. Moneymaker was stuck in the crossfire and managed to come out cleaner than all of them. But plenty of other players weren’t provided with that luxury. If you go back and watch, you will see basically no coverage of David Singer and Young Pak – other members of that year’s final table. Now of course the producers likely edited their coverage out as those two didn’t end up being the story. But had Young Pak won, there likely would have been no early coverage of him unless he had been lucky enough to be at the feature table – the way Chris Moneymaker was. Let me explain that a bit. Had Chris lost his pocket eights to Humberto Brenes’s aces for a crucial pot on Day 3, he would have had a considerably shorter stack and likely would have not made the final table. However, it’s not as if ESPN’s edited coverage would have been the same up to that point and then different from there on out to follow the story lines of Brenes and Ivey and Hellmuth.

Chris Moneymaker would probably not have been the focus of any episode. The producers would have seen that Ivey or Farha or whoever would have won, and they would have allotted more coverage of them in the episodes leading up to the final table. Similarly, Dutch Boyd was featured very early on in the coverage because he was a chip leader, but had he not almost made the final table, the producers would have instead filled that early coverage with another player that was about to make a deep run.

My point being: the winner’s triumph is less impactful when he only enters at the end of the book.

When I worked for the WPT, we had two cameras for all the preliminary coverage. And as much skill as there is in this game, it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s going to win the LAPC in a given year. You have to point your camera at a few names and hope.

As I touched upon earlier, the producer’s job is harder because players are less emotional and less varied these days, and therefore less dynamic. I have seen a few poker journalists talk about bringing back the fun in poker. As the game has gotten harder and harder, professionals have had to dig deep to find their edges. Every edge has to be maximized. And thus we entered into the world of stone-silent, deeply-focused, tanking-for-every-decision poker. Is it more profitable in the long run? Absolutely. Is it more interesting to watch and does it attract new TV audiences? Obviously, not.

Donnie Peters once wrote an op-ed for PokerNews entitled What Happened to Poker?, and a lot of my thoughts echo his own – not just in this article but in my whole series.

In that article he mentions how there are fewer boisterous characters, extreme outbursts, and players in chicken suits. He says the game has gotten less fun and he’s absolutely correct. But what are the producers to do? Poke Prahlad Friedman and ask him to get in a shouting match with Jeff Lisandro for the cameras? Sadly (for me at least), watching Jorryt Van Hoot, Felix Stephenson, and Martin Jacobson battle three-handed just wasn’t very exciting. Same for when Jesse Sylvia, Jacob Balsiger and Greg Merson played three-handed. It had nothing to do with the quality of their play, which again, was excellent. It’s simply less fun than watching Steve Dannenmann with his little globe card protector giggling after every bet.

Furthermore, today all the pro players are kind of the same player. By that I mean basically the demographics of final tables themselves make them less exciting. In 2003 we watched an amateur battle a 44-year old Lebanese veteran pro. In ‘04 a semi-pro patent attorney battled a young African-American internet kid. In 2005 the Australian masseuse went heads up against your next-door neighbor, Steve Dannenmann. Then Jamie Gold. Then Jerry Yang. That’s a diverse, eclectic group of winners and runner-ups. But now? Now it’s a 24-year old white male poker genius battling another white male poker genius. And both are already professionals with swimming pools full of money.

As James McManus pointed out in a Bloomberg article, “beginning in 2008, when 22-year-old Peter Eastgate won the World Series of Poker’s Main Event, the winners have been Joe Cada, 21; Jonathan Duhamel, 23; Pius Heinz, 22; Greg Merson, 24; and Ryan Riess, 23.” Add 27-year-old Martin Jacobson to that list. And now Joe McKeehan at 24.

Can the producers do anything to change this? Of course not. I’m not saying anything can be done about the demographic of people that play and excel at poker. It’s majority white, male, and young. It’s probably going to stay that way for a long time.

I’m simply saying that from a viewer standpoint, it would be pretty great for sassy, old grandma to win the World Series of Poker.

Finally, poker is simply not the new kid in town anymore. Mainstream poker has been around for over a decade now, and everybody knows about it. It’s not new or sexy, and for many it was only a fad. Many poker players tried their luck, found out just how hard the game was, and stopped playing forever. And when they stopped playing, they stopped watching.

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. I know Phil Ivey vs. Darvin Moon heads-up would have been the most exciting match-up in 2009. And you and I and ESPN would love to see Aaron Paul get heads-up next year against Johnny Chan for the bracelet. But we don’t get to pick. Skill is going to win out. But whoever gets heads up, following their journey there can still be made into riveting television once again.

*Miscellaneous Notes About Televised Poker*

My friend Kevin and I have recently begun watching old episodes of the United States Poker Championships that aired on ESPN during the Golden Years. And after every one we comment on how much more we enjoy watching those old episodes than today’s new poker coverage. Part of the intrigue and entertainment of watching those old events was the diversity of both the players and the playing styles. All walks of life were represented at feature tables and even final tables. Now however, your typical final table, especially in the Main Event, is comprised mostly of professionals.

The Jerry Yangs and Darvin Moons seem to be a thing of the past, albeit a very recent past. So I think that when non-traditional players present themselves, the producers need to film the hell out of them. One the most fascinating aspects of poker is that so many different walks of life come together at the felt. And it would be wonderful to see that on television again.

Many people will disagree with me about a return to “Highlight Hold ‘em,” but I think there are a couple things to keep in mind. Namely, televised poker on the WPT, EPT, etc. is already mostly highlights. These guys play for such a long time that we are still getting mostly the top layer of hands. I would personally just trim it down even more. Nor do I think there is no place on TV for every hand revealed. “The Big Game” and “Poker After Dark” were perfect for the diehard fans that wanted to watch every hand. Those were shows with low budgets that received very little competition in their time-slots. But they were perfect for poker players who stayed up late anyway. I know neither show comes on right now, but that doesn’t mean that each is gone for good.

As I have mentioned before, increased television viewership causes a spike in the Tournament Virtuous Cycle and better ratings. So I feel that creating a better televised product would also trickle down to creating larger tournaments themselves. There has been some criticism in recent years that ESPN was making their broadcasts too analytical. Too many stats, VPIP numbers and so forth. They have recently scaled back on that and their color commentary reflects that as well.

They tried Olivier Busquet, who probably has the best analytical stat-collating mind of any commentator the show has ever had. But he was not brought back in favor of Antonio Esfandiari. Maybe people were more familiar with Esfandiari or maybe people just prefer hearing Antonio say ‘weeeee’ compared to listening to Olivier’s insights on bet-sizing. Either way it speaks to the fact that the producers sought to provide entertainment over education. While Olivier Busquet understands Texas Hold ’Em better than Norman Chad, he certainly can’t say ‘wamboozled’ with as much enthusiasm.

In a previous article I wrote in depth about required-entry satellites. A revival of these also leads to more compelling television in my opinion. In the past, television coverage was that much more interesting because of the nature of those playing the tournaments. When required-entry satellite winners were making deep runs, their once-in-a-lifetime expressions were painted all over their faces. We loved watching Chris Moneymaker win the Main Event because he was an amateur, because we knew exactly how much the money meant to him. It’s the same reason we love game shows. Chris Moneymaker is us. Unfortunately, Greg Merson is not us. Martin Jacobson is not us. And it’s not so much that they’re young; it’s that they are so successful already at such a young age. And they aren’t enamored anymore by the prospect of winning.

My concerns about live poker have little to do with the November Nine (which is another subject I’ll address later). I actually love the Penn and Teller theater. If I had my way, the table would be in the middle of a room with stadium seating around it like Wimbledon. I think the atmosphere of the November Nine can still be captured while creating edited coverage of the final table.

I think the average fan, who plays poker for play chips and sometimes $5-a-hand blackjack, wants to see the game at a basic level. I don’t feel he or she wants to know about VPIP, agro factors, and 3-betting percentages. I think if you want that kind of analysis, then live streaming (on WSOP.com or Twitch) is perfect. And I do think live-streaming absolutely has a place in poker broadcasting.

Let’s say Kevin, my aforementioned friend, makes a final table in some televised event. I would love watching him on a live-stream if I couldn’t be there to watch him in person. I feel the same way towards some of my favorite pro players. I love watching Ivey or Negreanu when they make WSOP final tables. However, without a personal connection, I have little desire to watch live poker whether it’s streamed or televised. And I think a vast majority of fans feel the same way.

Let me close by saying that I think the team at Poker Productions does a pretty amazing job at turning out their products. I think basically everything at PokerStars TV, from their EPT coverage to their original programming is top notch as well. And as someone who knows firsthand how much time and work goes into the WPT broadcasts, what they are able to produce is also pretty impressive as well.

Some Thoughts About Live Streaming

Jason Somerville and Jamie Staples get huge numbers for their broadcasts and rightly so. All that I’ve written isn’t to say they don’t have a market or an allure for viewers. They obviously do, and their steadily increasing subscribers and view counts show that. This particular entry is to show that for an average fan, poker is easier understood and viewed in the television format. Again, I think live-streaming and televised poker can work in solid harmony. I assume those watching Somerville already have a great grasp on the game and are fans of his. But few, I imagine, accidentally stumble upon his streams. They seek him out whereas someone can be casually flipping through the TV channels, suddenly stop on a final table, and become a fan of the game.

Good televised poker can pump some energy back into the game. So can live-streaming. They can work together to build this game up to something bigger than it’s ever been.

- -

Thanks for reading, guys. As you can probably tell I feel strongly about poker’s finalized televised product. So let me know what you think. I always appreciate the feedback and discussion. And as always, good luck out there.

Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.

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