A writer by the name of Clare Fitzgerald posted an interesting article earlier this week at Casino City Times about her experience watching the World Series of Poker Main Event for the first time this year. There are a couple of reasons that ESPN – and anyone else interested in marketing poker as a spectator sport – would do well to listen to her take on things. For one thing, women are a large and mostly untapped market for poker, both as players and as spectators. Furthermore, although she doesn’t make a big point of it, she’s a hobbyist gamer – citing Settlers of Catan and Gloom as among her favorites – and lovers of other games should be easy recruits for the poker world.
She has a lot to say about various aspects of ESPN’s coverage – and you should read it for yourself if you haven’t already – but through it all there were two important threads which I can discern: That the people involved and their interactions were more interesting than how individual hands played out, but that she resented being told (or strongly prompted, rather) by McEachern, Chad et al whom she was meant to be rooting for, and whom she was meant to be rooting against.
Bullying is unprofessional
Fitzgerald describes ESPN’s approach as having a “certain unprofessional streak,” and I’m inclined to agree. If we didn’t live in an era of media monopolies – if ESPN did not insist on exclusive broadcast rights for the Main Event – then I think biased coverage would be more acceptable, because it would be possible for viewers to find an outlet giving a fair shake to the players they care about. As it stands, though, a monolithic broadcaster like ESPN taking sides means that a large number of potential viewers are left with a choice between listening to their favorites being criticized, or watching something else.
Drumming up hype for a few popular players is one thing, but openly criticizing the supposedly less-marketable ones is off-putting. In particular, criticizing people for their mannerisms and fashion sense, rather than their play, just doesn’t seem like something that has a place in the world of mainstream broadcast commentary; certainly, it’s not something you’d expect to hear in coverage of sports and other competitive activities.
Moreover, the pattern of who the broadcasters decided to talk up – the successful, the well-dressed and the old-schoolers, for the most part – and who to put down – the young, the nerdy and the the awkward – bears an uncanny resemblance to a high school popularity contest. It’s an angle more befitting of Jersey Shore than coverage of a mindsport like poker.
For some, the nerds are the heroes
Aside from being a little bit elitist, that approach probably actually isn’t in ESPN’s interest in terms of ratings. Choosing that slant sees to suggest that ESPN believes its audience consists largely of people of the “jock” archetype. That may once have been the case, but the world has changed, and sports fandom along with it. One look at Nate Silver’s team’s approach to sports coverage over at FiveThirtyEight is proof enough of that.
As I said, gamers of the non-poker variety are an important demographic for the future of poker, and guess what: a lot of gamers self-identify as “geeks” or “nerds.” I certainly do, and it seems Fitzgerald does, or did at one time; she says she feels she “may have fallen into a pit of defensive nerd pride during the final table coverage,” sympathizing with Joe McKeehen and the way his appearance and mannerisms were portrayed.
It’s not only people into geek culture who pull for the less slick, less charismatic players either. Fitzgerald’s comments reminded me very much of those of a friend of mine who I introduced to poker. Despite being neither particularly geeky nor particularly progressive, he remarked that he liked watching Vanessa Selbst play, because most of the players “reminded him too much of guys he’d gone to school with.”
Do we seriously have no one but Negreanu?
This was Fitzgerald’s first time watching a major poker event on television, and even she was sick and tired of seeing, listening to and hearing about Daniel Negreanu by the time he busted out. As she puts it, much of the edited, pre-final-table broadcast is not so much Main Event coverage as the “telling of Daniel Negreanu and the Final Table, an inspirational tale of the most awesome person to ever bless poker with his existence.”
If she’s tired of him after a dozen or so episodes, what about all of us who have been following poker since 2003? I thought he was as great as everyone else back then, but how is it that poker has not found anyone else to lionize in this way in twelve years? Yes, there’s also Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Hellmuth, but that’s about it, and even they’re not elevated to quite his status by the media.
There’s also the fact that none of them has even been doing particularly well lately. Sure, they make more effort to promote themselves than anyone else, but if we’re covering poker as if it were a sport, we need to look at sports coverage elsewhere. Breakout performances get covered in other sports regardless of how personable the athletes are; why then did the feature table follow Hellmuth and Negreanu around through the early going, rather than focusing on players who’d actually had a good run through this summer’s WSOP? It just seems like pure laziness.
You can contrast personalities without taking sides
None of this is to say that we should ignore the personalities at the table and focus only on the play. That would be boring. But it’s possible to discuss the players as human beings without passing judgment and attempting to instruct the viewer on who they’re meant to be rooting for. It’s this second thing which most bothered Fitzgerald, and which bothers me as well.
I can understand the temptation to do so, because most of the faces will be new to most viewers. It’s not like a professional sports league where the same teams play year after year and the fans have a chance to develop loyalties. It’s a fair concern that viewers won’t be engaged if they find themselves indifferent to who wins.
They won’t find themselves indifferent, though. Even as homogenous as the poker world can seem, there are contrasts at every table. Given a choice between rooting for an older gentleman or a young woman, a smooth-talker vs. a strong silent type, or a professional vs. an amateur, most people are going to come down one way or the other without prodding. Consider Moneymaker’s victory in the 2003 Main Event; even without the coverage playing him up as an everyman hero, his personality and image were in such stark contrast to Sammy Farha’s that anyone watching would find themselves rooting for one or the other.
There are also tons of personal rivalries in poker, and those can be played up as well without needing to pick sides. Fitzgerald says one of the more compelling storylines she found was the bad blood between Negreanu and Justin Schwartz, but wishes more attention was given to establishing that backstory than simply casting Schwartz as the villain to Negreanu as hero. Brian Hastings vs. Fedor Holz would also have been a compelling story to follow, given the controversy surrounding the former and the history the two have of clashing on social media and negotiating crossbook bets against each other.
“Bad for poker” is a self-fulfilling prophecy
Shortly after the Main Event reached its conclusion, I pointed out a number of things that were unfortunate about how it played out and how it was covered. Reading Fitzgerald’s account of her experience as a viewer, however, I realize that one of the biggest ways the poker world shot itself in the foot this year was by deciding in advance which potential scenarios and winners would be “good for poker” and focusing on those rather than on what was actually happening.
Would Daniel Negreanu vs. Justin Schwartz heads up for the bracelet have been the most epic way for the Main Event to end? Failing that, would it have been cool to see Blumenfield win? Sure, on both counts. But poker being the game it is, no one gets to decide that’s what’s going to happen, not even the players themselves.
Joe McKeehen’s victory was not the most interesting way the final table could have played out, it’s true. Many in the mainstream public likely would have found him off-putting no matter what the commentators’ attitude towards him, and of course it’s never that much fun when an overwhelming favorite goes on to win something. But as Fitzgerald points out, final table dominance is a story in its own right, and one that would have been much more interesting for the viewership if it hadn’t been treated as implicitly boring and undesirable by both ESPN and the rest of us in the larger media community.
Ultimately, what’s bad for poker is not a predictable final table or an uncharismatic winner, but for the media to frame the result as a disappointment. Any result is going to be disappointing for some and exciting – or at least satisfying – for others. If we want to promote poker, both as a game and as a spectator sport, then perhaps we should focus on the positive and keep it a secret which narratives we wish had played out instead.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.