As poker has grown, so has the career of ESPN's Lon McEachern
6 Sep 2016
By Gary Trask
By Gary Trask
There have been plenty of ups and downs over the years for both the poker industry and Lon McEachern's career, but as ESPN begins its 2016 World Series of Poker telecasts this week, the two are both as strong as ever.
Along with his inimitable TV partner Norman Chad, McEachern has become as integral to ESPN's WSOP coverage as the players themselves over the last 13 years — something the 59-year-old never imagined when he took the job as a freelance gig back in 2002.
"No, I never expected it would become this big. In fact, at the time I was just glad that I was going to have a steady paycheck for the next couple months," McEachern told Casino City. "It's funny, but when you look back at it, my career has kind of gone as poker has gone. It's been a wild ride, but I wouldn't trade my life with anyone else's."
McEachern grew up in broadcasting family. Both his father and brother were in the business, and it's something that appealed to him at a very young age. After graduating from the University of California Santa Barbara in 1980, he worked as the local sports anchor in San Francisco and then began freelancing for ESPN, working a number of different unconventional activities such as bowling, X Games, World Cup Skiing, billiards, the U.S. Scrabble Open and kickboxing. When that work began to dry up, he took a job as a mortgage lender for Washington Mutual in Sunnyvale, California, to help pay the bills for a family that included his wife, Carol, and two children.
But in 2002, ESPN asked him to work with color man Gabe Kaplan for two hours of WSOP coverage. In 2003, Chad replaced Kaplan and an amateur named Chris Moneymaker turned the poker world upside down by winning the WSOP Main Event in dramatic fashion. The "poker boom" exploded, and McEachern hasn't left his perch in the ESPN WSOP booth since.
"It's extremely gratifying," he said. "I didn't really know much about poker back in 2002. I played some nickel five-card draw at friends' houses from time to time, but that was the extent of it. So it's been fun to watch poker evolve, and it's been fun to latch onto it as a broadcaster and be one small part of it all."
As part of the learning process, McEachern has also developed as a poker player and is a regular at cash games and tournaments as he travels around the country. He is the official Poker Ambassador for Stones Gambling Hall in Citrus Heights, California, and that role requires him to play several times a week. He said his game has improved dramatically over the years, to the point where he final tabled an Ante Up World Championship Event last month at Thunder Valley Casino Resort.
McEachern, also an avid golfer with a 12 handicap, said he's routinely noticed at the table by other players, which can sometimes draw some unwanted and unwarranted attention.
"Yes, people recognize me, and then they want to be in a hand with me just so they can say they took me out or scooped a big pot from me," laughed McEachern, who enjoys Omaha Hi-Low in addition to No Limit. "Sometimes when I sit down someone will say, 'Hey this isn't fair, you're a professional,' and I have to talk them off the ledge and explain to them that I'm not a pro, and, in fact, far from it.
"I usually get more credit than I deserve as a player. I just wish I was good enough to know how to use all of the attention to my advantage."
The evolution of poker has included a drastic change in the way ESPN handles its coverage. In addition to seeing the WSOP go to the November Nine concept for the Main Event Final Table in 2008, the network now also shows the the final table live (with a 30-minute delay, per gaming regulations) to a primetime television audience, in addition to its regular slate of weekly previously recorded shows.
The 2016 schedule begins Tuesday night with coverage of the WSOP Global Casino Championship final table from Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort in North Carolina on ESPN2. On Sunday, 11 September, the first of 14 Main Event shows begins, and it wraps up with a three-day live final table telecast live from the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas from Sunday, 30 October to Tuesday, 1 November that will see time on both ESPN and ESPN2. A two-hour Final Table Encore is scheduled for Sunday, 20 November at 9 p.m. on ESPN.
McEachern said both the preparation and execution for the live telecasts compared to the taped shows are quite different.
"They both have some very satisfying elements to them," explained McEachern, who, along with Chad, has a ubiquitous presence at the WSOP in Las Vegas over the summer as he roams the floor, taking notes, gathering info and storylines. "When we're getting ready for live shows, there are so many more things I have to prepare for and be ready to address. It's scary on one level, bit invigorating on so many other levels.
"Preparing for the taped shows is like getting handed a bunch of homework in college. My first inclination is that I can't believe I have so much work in front of me, but as I get into it I really enjoy it. I love the research. I love finding nuggets and I love the learning process."
McEachern added that the addition of Antonio Esfandiari in the booth during the live telecasts has been a huge benefit.
"He's just so enlightening," he said. "He understands how to present the information to our audience, and he takes us through the whole process of each hand and makes it all so edible for someone who is watching that may not have the appetite for poker. Sometimes it's great for Norman and I to just sit back and let him go. He's that good at it."
ESPN finished producing Tuesday night's Global Casino Championship telecast last week and as of late last week had four episodes of the Main Event Final Table in the can.
As for the Main Event coverage, McEachern thinks this year's November Nine class is as talented as any of the past groups, which should lead to some entertaining episodes as a run-up to the final table.
"We've developed some strong storylines," he said. "We had a very strong field this year, and we're highlighting a lot of the pros who are recognizable and entertaining — and a lot who aren't so well-known, but are just as compelling. Our job is to build a foundation for the final table and bring the November Niners to life as we get closer and closer, and so far I think we've done a nice job of doing just that."