Thoughts on Poker: How to Grow Poker’s Popularity and Global Appeal Part 4: The November Nine

Keith Woernle : August 27th, 2016

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“The purity of old-time Las Vegas is gone. The antiquity and purity of the tournament have been liquidated into pure greed and capitalism.”

-Ylon Schwartz

I went back and forth about including this as part of the series. I don’t feel it’s quite as important as some of the other topics I’m covering. So with that in mind, this entry will be shorter. But there are a few things I feel that need to be said regarding the final table of poker’s biggest event played on poker’s biggest stage.

When the November Nine was conceptualized, poker as a whole was at a crossroads. After enjoying unprecedented growth for four bountiful years, poker was beginning to stall. The last two WSOP Main Event final tables had proved underwhelming (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DXSIv8b4KM). More importantly, the United States had passed the UIGEA, and the results were beginning to take effect. People were afraid to play online and this translated to less live players. The U.S. economy was beginning to spiral down out of control, and this meant people had less excess gambling cash to spend. Few people watched Jamie Gold win in 2006, and then even fewer watched Jerry Yang win in 2007.

So the powers that be at Harrah’s Entertainment decided to show the final table live (or as close to live as they felt they could). No longer would the winner be known ahead of time. And the finalists could do some press and generate buzz for the final table. You likely already know all this and know all the reasons for the November Nine’s inception. The WSOP always tries to be innovative. Whether it was playing the final table out on Fremont Street like in 1997 or offering the winner their weight in silver like in 1994, the WSOP has always sought new and exciting marketing concepts to attract new fans. The November Nine was one such concept. And while I feel it worked well for a time, I feel it has now lost its luster, and that a return to the traditional tournament would actually improve the final table experience as a whole. I feel this way for a few reasons.

1. Live poker alienates the general public

In my previous article, I wrote an entire page about the drawbacks of live televised poker. I won’t re-hash those arguments here, but I’ll echo their sentiments. Live poker, especially a poker tournament with two-hour levels, is simply too long to broadcast as one show. The Main Event final table essentially takes half a day to play, and few are the fans that can stomach that length of consistent viewing. I wouldn’t even watch all of the SuperBowl if it was eight hours long. And I feel that viewers new to the game certainly won’t stick around to watch live poker at four in the morning.

2. The November Nine doesn’t create the household names it sought out to

Originally, the idea behind the Nine was to create buzz about the players at the table. Build up the player names and their fanbases, so said fans could have someone to cheer for. But that didn’t really happen, did it? Part of the problem was the lack of dynamic players at the final table, and the other problem was the general public’s already waning interest in poker.

I can remember them talking about Jamie Gold on ‘SportsCenter.’ That sort of thing no longer seems to happen. I feel that any supposed hype for those at the final is only minimally increased by having the tournament in November. I think if the final table was played the next day or a week later that the players would still get basically the same amount of attention. Perhaps it’s simply a result of poker’s popularity at the time, but I certainly remember Tex Barch and Aaron Kanter from 2005 better than I remember Michael Esposito or Andoni Larrabe from recent years.

3. November Niners no longer acquire the sponsorship deals they once had

Similarly, since poker’s popularity has been in recession, the big online sites are no longer chomping at the bit to sponsor players. The past two years have bore witness to a number of players losing their sponsorship deals, and the same applies to the Main Event final table. At one point, Full Tilt and PokerStars and UltimateBet would be crawling over one another to get their patches and advertising dollars invested into whoever was the chip leader. But I think eventually sites realized that patching up many of these televised players didn’t generate enough new players and customers to justify that sponsorship. And now you only see a few patches at the final table. And you’re likely to see even fewer next year.

4. The players, already rich, seem less invested

This one doesn’t seem like a huge deal, and I’ve really only noticed it lately. The November Nine are all paid 9th place money in July, so by the time the final table rolls around, they are all already rich men (or women, hopefully). This didn’t happen before. You knew who was losing sleep. You knew who was thinking about the cash. But four months is enough time to “own” the money and to be comfortable with it. And since all the players at the final table are millionaires and have been for some months, some of the human drama is gone from their reactions. Their bust-outs aren’t as brutal and their double-ups not as extreme.

5. The November Nine changes the nature and narrative of the tournament

This always seemed to be the biggest problem to opponents of the November Nine at the outset. By delaying the final table, several things can happen in the interim that change the nature and the direction of the tournament. Weaker players get coaching and get better. Certain players that had momentum lose it, and players who were losing focus have time to find it again. Several players make deals or sell action or re-negotiate terms. The list goes on and on.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with players getting coaching or watching videos of their opponents or making deals before the new final table. Yet, it should be pointed out that all those things do happen and wouldn’t otherwise if the final table wasn’t played months later.

A friend of mine noted that delaying the final table also increases the chances that someone is hospitalized or dies – therefore ruining the final table. And while this isn’t not true, I think the chances of someone dying in the four month interim is so small that it’s not really worth considering. That and these days everyone at the table is 23 anyway.

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Thoughts, solutions and suggestions

The November Nine was great for a time. 46 percent more people watched in 2008 than they did in 2007. But since then the numbers have gone steadily down. The 2014 final table drew 1.15 million viewers, less than half of the 2.4 million that watched in ’08. And far behind the 5 million that used to watch.

As I mentioned in another article, the biggest thing live final tables have going for them is the mystery and allure of who will win them. But I truly feel that many fans watching at home either don’t care if they can find out who wins or actually don’t even know it’s possible to find out the winner.

Some opposed to the retraction of the November Nine think that it will mean the loss of the atmosphere of the Penn and Teller theater. I don’t think this will be the case at all. I love the Penn and Teller theater and think the final table should be played there. The atmosphere and fans are amazing in that setting, and it translates to television. I simply think playing the final table a week later creates almost the same benefits as playing it in November, but with none of the drawbacks. It gives those at the final table time to rest. It doesn’t really change the nature of the tournament as people don’t have quite enough time to get coaching or study the other players. And it gives the players enough time to arrange travel plans for their family and friends to come see the final table live (especially if the organizers are smart and hold it on the weekend).

In a perfect world, the November Nine or any final table would be played in a bubble. The audience could see the hole cards and see and hear the players, but the players would still be isolated. This seems to be the idea behind Alex Dreyfus’s the Cube. But until that happens I think a return to the days of a straight tournament are best for the World Series of Poker.

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As always, let me know what you guys think. I’m sure many of you will disagree as this seems to be a polarizing topic. But this final table is poker’s biggest advertisement, so we need to make it the best it can be. Thanks for reading, 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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