Top-10 things to look for in ESPN's live WSOP coverage
By Aaron Todd
There have been dozens of hours of live action poker available for viewing in this new (at least for ESPN) live format. If you haven’t watched any of the coverage, here’s a top-10 list of things to expect, should you decide to tune in to watch the live coverage.
10. Slow play
To be clear, this doesn’t mean “slowplay.” This is real tournament poker. Players may take more than five minutes to make a single decision to call, raise or fold. While the preflop action generally doesn’t take that long, it can take a long time for a player to think through a decision on the river that could mean the end of their tournament life.
9. No hole cards until the hand is over
Poker fans have become accustomed to knowing what players hold right from the start of a hand. And while they will discover what players held on most hands that reach a flop, the hole cards won’t be displayed until the hand is complete (and sometimes not even then, if the players didn’t show their cards to the hole camera properly). It gives the viewer a chance to “play along at home,” and try to guess what all the players are holding and think about what they would do if they were in the same situation. As commentator Lon McEachern said at one point, “It’s the Jack Links Beef Jerky Wild Card Hand every hand.”
8. Complaining about being at the featured table
There has been a great deal of debate about the idea of the featured table “live” broadcast, and the players have taken that debate to the featured table, especially at the beginning of each day, as players adjust to being on camera. Not everyone complains, but some of the biggest names in poker most certainly have.
When Daniel Negreanu and Jean-Robert Bellande were at the featured table on Day 5, Negreanu brought it up early on, informing the players of some of the rules that are specific just to the featured table.
“You have to wear a mic, and you have to show your hole cards, and you can't use your phone,” said Negreanu.
After cutting away to a graphic, the broadcast returned to Bellande in mid-thought.
“… limiting us to two logos, they're not allowing us a logo on the hat,” said Bellande. “That's one of the main ways we can make some money at a table.”
“Well that's the one way to make this close to fair, with the disadvantage that you have competitively about being here,” said Negreanu. “Because clearly it's a competitive disadvantage to be here.”
“Exactly,” Bellande agreed. “Give us a chance to make some money out of it at least if we're going to do it. That's how I feel. You don't care because you're a millionaire. Those of us whose bankrolls are at zero, it used to be a nice little $20,000 to sit at a table like this.”
Of course, the $20,000 that Bellande referred to was a payment players could receive for wearing a patch for an online poker room when they played on a featured table. But after Black Friday, PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and UB.com, which had been the most aggressive in advertising through player patches, were no longer allowed to place patches on players. Caesar’s Entertainment is not permitting patches from online poker rooms that accepted bets from U.S. players after the UIGEA.
Negreanu also spent a good deal of time complaining about a rule that does not allow players to inquire about the strength of their opponents’ holdings when the hand reaches heads-up play.
“This might be my last World Series ever,” said Negreanu. “I can’t take it.”
7. Terminology-heavy commentary
If you don’t know what a three-bet, a C-bet, floating or a squeeze play is, you’ll learn. Commentators David Tuchman, Olivier Busquet, McEachern, Antonio Esfandiari, and Phil Hellmuth (there may be more … I haven’t been able to watch every second) are quick to use poker terminology that some viewers may not be familiar with. Fear not, however, because if you watch the broadcast segment from the beginning, the commentators are quick to define and explain the terms that they are using. Once a term has been explained once, however, it is unlikely to be defined again. So if you aren’t familiar with some of these terms, make sure you tune in right from the beginning.
One of the unique aspects of the live broadcasts is that the commentators have just as much information as the viewer. They can only see what’s on camera, and they don’t have access to the hole cards during the hands, unlike the post-produced shows, where commentators have to feign surprise when a card is revealed on the river, since they already know what has happened. The result is that the poker pro is constantly guessing what players are holding, and there’s none better at defining player’s hands based on what he’s seen than Esfandiari. You have to wonder if his reads are as good when he’s sitting at the table, because how could he possibly lose when he knows so much?
Slickly post-produced poker shows can eliminate confusion about whose turn it is, what the bet size is, whose cards are whose, and whether specific people are still in the tournament. The folks producing the live broadcast will likely improve and see a reduction in the number of mistakes and unknowns, but they’re much harder to eliminate. The live broadcast on ESPN2 has seen a few awkward moments, such as when a graphic appeared showing Jason Alexander’s chip stack, with McEachern saying he was pretty sure he’d already been eliminated (he had). On several occasions, hands were revealed and the commentators were unsure who had what. And at the start of the Day 5 broadcast, the cameras cut to Tournament Director Jack Effel, who was waiting to start the play for the day. There was an awkward pause, and Effel looked at someone off camera and asked “Ready?” before announcing the traditional shuffle up and deal.
4. How the stages of the tournament affect play
As the tournament goes through multiple stages, the style of play changes. It is hard to capture the changing phases of a tournament in a post-produced broadcast. But with ample time to talk about how the flow of the tournament is changing, and plenty of hands to show how, a live broadcast can capture those changes. Perhaps the best example of the change in flow was the episode where the tournament was nearing the bubble. Viewers got to see Mattias Much fold 10-10 when Martin de Knijff put him all in with a 110,000-chip bet holding just 10-9 on a board reading K-7-6-5-K in a 180,000 chip pot. The hand was a great illustration of how big stacks can take advantage of the small stacks when play is nearing the bubble, as the small stacks are looking to sneak in to the money, and the big stacks are looking to accumulate chips.
3. Very little comedy
When you watch McEachern paired with Norman Chad on ESPN’s post-produced broadcasts, Chad does his best to insert some humor into the events. Whether it’s with canned features like “The Nuts,” or jokes about his multiple ex-wives, Chad does a good job providing some levity. But the professional poker players aren’t as funny as Chad. While there are some light moments during the broadcast (Hellmuth repeatedly begging Bellande to fold a hand from the booth comes to mind), there are very few jokes to be told during a live broadcast.
2. Subdued celebrations
If you’ve watched footage from the past few years’ November Nines, you’re used to seeing players jump into a crowd of their friends and supporters after they win a hand or knock out an opponent. There has been very little of that to see in the live coverage so far, because it’s been non-existent. There are several reasons for this, most notably that they’re still not at the final table. But the tournament in general has also been a bit more subdued than in previous years.
Much as live play has increased the viewers’ ability to see the difference in play during different stages of the tournament, it has also given viewers a chance to watch the momentum swing back and forth. When a player makes a bad decision, you can see the effect of that decision on how they play the next few hands. Or if a player makes a great decision, you can see how his confidence grows and he’s able to make a stellar read later on in the day. Many of these hands would end up on the cutting room floor in a post-produced broadcast, so getting to see them allows viewers to gain an understanding as to why players are making the decisions they make. And it presents a real educational opportunity for anyone watching, which is great for poker, and great for the World Series of Poker.