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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

I Want to See Ring Games on TV
Taking quick stock of the poker-on-TV phenomenon, at this point I think we have two kinds of events.

1) High-profile multi-table tournaments editied and televised for TV. Obviously, the WPT and the WSOP dominate this category.

2) Single-table tournmanents edited and televised for TV. FoxSportsNet's Late Night Poker (which I haven't caught enough of) falls into this category, as does Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown, the WPT Celebrity Home Game and other single-table events, ESPN's recent Tournament of Champions (the one Annie Duke won), and Fox Sports Net's Superstars Invitational Tournament.

The main attraction of category #1 is a certain degree of realism, what I'd call the "sporting event" element of a poker tournament: You are watching an actual contest that people have paid to enter and which is being played for real money; ostensibly it is being held to try and determine who the best player is.

But as we all know, the WPT likes to play up the personalities of the players at the final table, in the hopes of making it more interesting and generating more viewers.

Category #2 arose from the simple realization that, rather than just hoping that interesting personalities make the final table, TV producers could simply have a single-table event and invite only players who the audience wants to see. At first these personality-players were celebrities from music, movies, and TV; now that poker players are becoming celebrities, we have events like the Tournament of Champions.

I'm not going to argue about the pros and cons of each type of event, or which I prefer to watch. Instead I'm more interested in the question of what is next for poker on TV.

I should say that my approach to this question is colored by a personal opinion that I know not everyone shares: I'm not very big on tournament poker and much prefer ring games. This hasn't stopped me from enjoying all the poker that is on TV, but more and more I find myself watching for the personalities and the banter rather than the actual poker play.

To some degree I have become bored by the pre-flop all-in, which dominates poker on TV. The thinking seems to be that this is where the drama is: A player has committed all his chips, someone may be eliminated, and isn't the suspense just killing you? And I can't argue that it's a very dramatic moment in a poker tournament. But even many very casual poker-on-TV watchers must've realized the truth by now: Once both players are all-in, there is no more skill involved and you are just watching a dealer flip cards. I worry that poker on TV cannot survive on the preflop all-in alone.

Fortunately the preflop all-in is far from the only dramatic moment in a poker tournament. You've also got bluffs, traps, post-flop all-ins, and other situations. Bravo's extension of Celebrity Poker Showdown to 2 hours and ESPN's extended coverage of the WSOP main event seem to indicate that TV producers are getting better at finding those other moments.

My other problem with poker on TV is a problem I have with tournament poker in general. When Mike Sexton says, "Folks, let me tell you, it is not that easy to bet $400,000 when you're only holding second pair," I always have to suppress an urge to say something to the effect of "Yeah, but he's not really betting $400,000 of real money, is he, Mike?" (Mrs. Cheap Thrills has heard me say things like this a lot when watching the WPT, and now finds it quite annoying.)

Every poker player knows that tournament poker and ring game poker are not the same thing. One huge difference is that in tournament poker, your risk is limited to the amount of your buy-in. The producers of poker on TV seem intent on downplaying this fact.

As well they might. It's much more shocking to say that a player "lost" $600,000 in single hand, when really that player has already made the final table, is guaranteed $100,000 in prize money, and now is just making a strategic decision about how he might move up in the prize pool. To say that he "lost" $600,000 is more dramatic. (And if TV producers downplay the fact that real money is in fact not being wagered, they certainly don't want viewers to know about final table deals.)

I am not trying to bash tournament poker. Let me reiterate that I realize tournament poker is incredibly popular, and not everyone share's my view that tournament poker is not "real" poker. Tournament poker on TV is obviously widly successful. But couldn't ring games be just as popular -- or even more so?

For a lot of people -- I have no way to prove it is a majority, and I would agree that the proportion is probably shrinking -- poker means ring games. When I go to Vegas or to Foxwoods, I don't usually go during tournaments, but the poker rooms are filled anway. When I play with my friends at home, we play regular poker much more often than we bother to organize a tourney.

So I want to see ring games on TV. I want them to be the next big thing for poker on TV. The clear attraction to ring games on TV would be that Americans really do want to see people succeed or fail in the most dramatic fashion possible, and in poker, that means winning and losing large sums of real money. As Iggy recently wrote about the Andy Beal and his high-stakes ring game with the "Corporation": "They should put THAT freaking game on TV. Screw this WPT stuff."

Yet I still sometimes hear or read objections to ring games on TV. Stuff like "Ring games are boring." See above: People losing and winning large sums of real money, America fasinated with poker. Or the objection that "Pros would not want to their hole cards revealed in big-money games." Yeah, that's also what they said about televised big-time tournaments. Or, "Pros don't have any incentive to play in televised ring games." Four little words, people: To be on TV. Publicity has become king, even for many in the poker world.

The best objection to televised ring games is the simple fact that without the structure of a tournament, there will be no single winner. And isn't having a single winner, with everyone else busting out, really nice and dramatic? What enables TV to put a beginning an end on what we all know is really one lifelong game?

Well, let's not forget that the first World Series of Poker in 1970 consisted of Johnny Moss and other top professionals playing ring games in public, for publicity for Binion's. At the end of a specified period the players simply voted for who they thought was best (Mr. Moss, of course).

That concept could translate really well into the modern realm of reality TV and televised poker. Some ideas that I think could either be great or awful, depending on execution:

--Get 6-8 pros together and have them play for a few hours, or maybe play for several sessions over a few days. Donate some money to the pros' favorite charities or something. Edit out the boring stuff, keep all the banter and all the great bluffs and confrontations, all of it for real cash that the players really win or lose. Maybe keep the players' final cash totals a secret; have a national audience -- or a panel of fellow pros -- vote on who played best.

--Get 3-4 pros together with 3-4 amateurs and televise the "fish" trying to hold their own with the big boys. Have pros comment on the action; Howard Lederer could give lessons afterward. Have that same voting on which amateur plays best. Maybe the amateur voted best wins a prize; or maybe he just keeps his winnings.

--Forget the pros altogether. Get one of the card rooms in Vegas to dedicate one or more of their middle- or high-limit tables to a TV show. Folks entering the card room would be informed that by sitting at that table they agree to be televised -- you just know that folks would be lining up around the street. Record all the craziness that happens at one table in a Vegas poker room in the course of a week -- fights, drunkenness, bad players losing their shirts, everything -- edit it, and air it. Maybe ask the most entertaining players back for some kind of battle of the amateur champs.

Hey, it could happen.

Update: See my February 4, 2005, Live at the Bike post.

Great post. Ring games on TV -- I think I'd like to see that too; however, I wonder if it would improve the quality of our online opponents. Seeing the pros go all-in with a pair of 8s on the flop causes casaual poker players to play (and sometimes bet, or even raise) that hand all the way to the river...even if the flop comes JQK. Seeing play dictated by ring game pot odds might actually clue some of these casual players into the fact that tourney play is so much different than ring game play.

I may be drastically overstating the actual effect of exposing the casual poker-playing public to "good" ring game play given the insane popularity of poker, but I figured it was an interesting point to add.
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