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Top-10 reasons why we like the new WSOP Main Event format

5 May 2008

When World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack announced last week that they were "pausing" the final table of the Main Event to build interest in the final nine players and broadcast final-table coverage virtually the same day as the champion was crowned, the poker community erupted in a firestorm of criticism.

To be fair, some (and only some) of the criticism is legitimate. And we'll address those concerns next week (so don't get too comfortable Mr. Pollack). But there is much to like about this format. So we decided to devote this week's Top-10 list to what we like about the new WSOP Main Event format.

10. Watching poker forums blow up Regardless of whether this final-table experiment works, watching the poker forums blow up with a bevy of complaints that ranged from insipid to petty (with a few legit ones thrown in) was worth the price of trying. Let's see if I can address the most of the concerns raised in the forums....

What happens if someone dies during the final table hiatus Really? That's the biggest complaint you have? Unless the final the table includes Eskimo Clark or Vinnie Vinh, this is not going to happen. So stop worrying about it. And in the unlikely event that it does, the WSOP final-table broadcast will get even more publicity, the now deceased player will get a nice video tribute, and his money will be blinded off. And if Vinh decided to pull a no-show, at least he had time to re-upholster his chair.

It's too inconvenient to make a second trip to Vegas? Time to call BS. Contestants are not traveling to Vegas on the Pony Express. They're flying there. Harrah's is picking up the tab. And since when is it a punishment for poker players to go to Vegas?! In addition, there isn't a boss, spouse or significant other out there who would object to this trip.

Just picture this conversation....

"Honey, I need to go to Vegas again to play in the Final Table of the Main Event."

"Really Walter, I can't believe you want to go to Vegas again and disrupt the lives of our entire family. That's so inconsiderate. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"But sweetie, I could win another 8 million bucks by going back. Think of how much the money could do for us. And I'm not even paying for the trip."

"Walter, the $500,000 you've already won is more than enough. Johnny has band practice that night and we already invited the Smiths over to dinner."

"But honnnneeeey,"

"That's it Walter. You're not going. End of discussion."

Trust us. That's one conversation you won't hear about.

Now final-table players are going to have to hire security to make sure something doesn't happen to them between before the final table begins.

There are hedge fund managers, lawyers, doctors and CEOs who make more money in a year than these players. Yet they're hiring security left and right to protect themselves. Shouldn't the same principles apply?

The audience for poker is poker players. They're already watching the coverage, so there isn't a need to change it. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Let's work through this one step at a time.

The WSOP, and by extension, the WSOP Main Event is not a game. It's a product. So is the NFL, NBA and NHL. They're all products, not games. As a result, they occasionally feel compelled to make changes to the game in order to grow the product. In this case, the changes are designed to boost casual and new interest in the WSOP without harming the game of poker. It's NOT designed to increase the interest of hardcore poker players.

The best example of this is Olympics coverage. The common complaint about Olympics coverage is too much time is spent on feature stories about athletes, and not enough time is spent on actually covering the event. The calculus behind this decision is simple (if annoying). The assumption is that sports fans, regardless of how much you annoy them, are committed enough to watch the broadcast. So in order to maximize audiences, it become as matter of attracting casual fans.

Casual fans are generally drawn to two things -- big events and storylines. The Olympics is already an event. So broadcasters build up the storylines to snare casual fans. And since they already have the hardcore fans, they get their maximum audience. The same calculus is at play at the WSOP. By pausing the Main Event, you create an event with built in storylines. With these two elements in place, the hope is that the television audience will increase.

9. "Celebrity" coaches

The possibility of each player at the final table working with a different pro coach during the hiatus is intriguing. Which professional players will prove to be the better teachers? Which players will learn their lessons well? Will a player tutored by Phil Hellmuth send Mike Matusow packing? The potential lines for intrigue are amazing.

8. "Same-day" final-table broadcast

Part of the charm of watching any game or sporting event is knowing that the events are either live, or just happened. Watching a tournament that happened four or five months ago just doesn't have the same feel to it. It's definitely not appointment television. But same-day broadcasts are.

7. Party atmosphere

Part of the fun at any big-time event is star gazing. It turns average fans into crazed paparazzi and helps create a buzz in the room. And with a 117-day break in the action, the WSOP should have no problem lining up A-list celebrities and turning the Main Event final table into the biggest poker party ever held.

6. Norman Chad with less of a script

Chad, who serves as ESPN's color analyst on WSOP broadcasts, is very funny when he has time to prepare a script. He's even funnier when he doesn't. And that is going to make this final table broadcast brilliant. The sometimes dry, sometimes acerbic and always funny Chad isn't going to have as much time as usual to prepare material for the final-table taping. And that's going to make for brilliant television.

5. A rested Nolan Dalla

Dalla, the media director for the WSOP, is the best in the business. But keeping journalists happy while running his own virtual newsroom isn't easy, and by the time the Main Event rolls around at the WSOP, Dalla is one tired person. The 117-day break in the action will give Dalla a well-deserved break and a chance to recharge his batteries and get ready to handle the final-table media crush.

4. Wondering who is going to win

At the beginning of any tennis tournament, most fans have a fairly good idea as to who are the three or four players who are most likely to win. As a result, it's easy for them to follow event and talk about it. Did any favorites win or lose today? Who did they lose to, or who did they beat? Until this year, the exact opposite has been true at the Main Event. No one had any idea who was going to reach the final table. So instead, people watched to see popular players eliminated. Pausing the final table gives poker fans a chance care about who wins again. During the hiatus, people get some time to wonder about which among the final nine are more likely to win and debate the merits of each player without knowing the final outcome. And that's a good thing.

3. Vegas in November

We've been to Las Vegas in January, February, March, April, June, and July. But never in November. And we're looking forward to Vegas in November. Actually, we always look forward to Vegas. But it starts getting cold around in Boston come November, and some time in the desert will do us some good.

2. Getting to know the finalists

In previous events, the "relationship" audiences developed with players at the final table was completely dependent on how ESPN (or your favorite poker news outlet) framed their tournament play. If someone was shown going all in just once, then you had no relationship with them. If they were discussed frequently, then you had more of a response to their actions. In this year's Main Event, we have an opportunity to get to know all of the finalists. How did they start playing poker? Who are their idols? What was the road to the final table like for them? What does their family think about them now? In essence, poker fans get the opportunity to learn about the players and build up a rooting interest before the final table begins. And that will only enhance the experience of everyone watching the final table.

1. The $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. Championship

Because the Main Event won't be decided until November, the $50K H.O.R.S.E. event is now the premiere event this summer. This five-day event has been gaining prestige because the buy-in in so high, only professionals (and really rich people) play in it. As a result, the final table, which will be played this year on June 30, is generally a who's who of the poker world. And its mixed-game nature tests a variety of disciplines, which allows the eventual champion to convincingly declare himself the best poker player in the world.

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