Commentary

A life so inconceivable, it's beyond fairy tale

Updated: January 29, 2008, 4:42 PM ET
By BLUFF | Danny Aller

Whether he is at home in Los Angeles yelling at the TV or sitting in his New York hotel room waiting to be summoned to a sound studio, on almost any day, it's likely you will find ESPN poker announcer Norman Chad just as he likes it: all by himself.

Not pondering why -- once again -- he has watched a player at the final table of the World Series of Poker move all-in on just a draw, or where Freddy Deeb's lucky shirt or Greg Raymer's creepy glasses have been lately. But rather, how he has evolved into a 49-year-old man who actually gets along better with children and dogs than with adults of any age, or whether he can work a jab about his most recent wife -- No. 3 -- into an on-air conversation.

"I was George Costanza before there ever was a George Costanza, baby!" Chad quipped during a late September interview with Bluff Magazine. Chad loves comparing himself to the famous lovable loser from "Seinfeld" when asked to explain who the man is behind the now-iconic voice and wit everyone knows from the worldwide phenomenon that is televised poker.

Or, as Chad describes it, "One of the oddest pursuits ever in Western civilization."

Norman Chad
Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ESPNLove him or hate him, Norman Chad has left an impression on the poker community.

Love him or hate him -- poker pros, aspiring pros, ESPN viewers, Internet bloggers -- one thing is undeniable about the sports-reporter-turned-stand-up-comedian-turned-sitcom-writer-turned-poker-announcer who continues to be a mainstay in the game, despite its constantly changing cast of characters: Norman Chad's name, his face, his utterly distinct voice and his unparalleled sense of humor all are synonymous with the poker boom that hit in 2003, the boom that shows no signs of slowing down -- or moving on without him.

Yet, Chad -- nearly five years later, with ratings through the roof at ESPN -- still modestly believes he had little to do with any of it.

"I'm not being falsely earnest when I say this, but you could've put Pee-wee Herman, Pat Paulsen or Kato Kaelin next to [ESPN co-host] Lon McEachern, and the boom still would've happened," Chad said, laughing. "I'm just a passenger in the getaway car."

Yet, in plenty of corners of the world, there are 13-year-old kids, successful businessmen and even a few grandmothers who, upon busting their friend out of a home game, will follow with a one-line "Norman Chadism" like "You just got WHAMBOOZELED!" or "You can't bluff me … I'm Alan Cunningham."

While achieving the iconoclastic status of a "Seinfeld" character doesn't seem easy, it's actually not that hard when people love your work.

"Norm's been intricate in a lot of the success ESPN has had with poker. And to top it off, the guy's pretty darn funny," world champion poker pro Daniel Negreanu said. "Poker had never been on TV to this magnitude or presented like this before he and ESPN came along in 2003."

As for the story behind Chad's journey to notoriety and fame, it's something he still can't make sense of.

"The first time I walked into Binion's [Horseshoe Casino] in 2003, I took one look around the room at the cast of characters and realized this job was going to be everything I'd ever dreamt of. I swear I asked myself, 'Where has this been all my life?'" Chad said. "Then, after I watched the first show before it aired, I was so impressed at the gritty, real-life gambling feel these new producers had given it, it was just unbelievable. I watched about 15 minutes and then immediately called Lon, and said: 'Lon, it really is that good … and all we can do is [expletive] it up.'"

Lucky for the game, Chad's effect was quite the opposite.

'I was never cool'

There is one thing that has epitomized Chad's life from a young age: television.

When the school recess bell rang, Chad stayed inside and cruised the tube. In the evening, it was always "I Love Lucy" reruns and "The Late Show." And while other kids played sports, Chad preferred watching professionals play them on TV.

"I mean, my friends would come in all scraped up and dirty from being outside. Who wants that?" Chad asked in his trademark, high-pitched tone that lets you know he is on the verge of a mini-tirade. "Not me! I didn't wanna get hurt!"

Becoming a self-described shut-in early on not only fueled the cynical, sarcastic personality that poker viewers have grown to love, but all the hours spent watching TV told him a few things about himself -- and his future.

"Well, let's see. … I was never cool growing up," Chad said, "but sitting in front of TV all the time, I knew at an early age somehow my life would have something to do with television. As it turned out, here I am still watching TV -- now for a living."

Chad grew up in Silver Springs, Md., with a soft-spoken, clever father named Seymour and a mother named Perla who was Cuban-born and had a fiery Latina attitude to match.

"My father didn't really say a whole lot, while my mother was constantly yelling and swearing at us in Spanish, even though she never bothered to teach [my brother, sister and me] how to speak it," Chad said. "So we never really knew what she was saying."

No one in the family cared for sports or gambling, but that was OK -- Chad cared enough to go around.

While the gambling bug didn't bite until college, his interest in being a spectator, rather than a participant, at athletic events led Chad to become the sports editor of his high school newspaper. And it eventually led Chad to apply to several top-notch journalism schools like Northwestern, Boston University and American University.

"After I started applying, my dad tells me, 'Maybe you should think about going to the University of Maryland for a couple of years first, and then maybe you can transfer,'" said Chad, who graduated from high school in 1976. "I had absolutely no interest in going to Maryland, so I looked at him and said, 'Are you kidding?!?!'"

But unfortunately, says Chad, five and a half years later he became a Terrapin grad -- and has had a steamy love-hate relationship with UM ever since.

(Very little) Sex, (lots of) lies and (plenty of) parking tickets

For a guy who worked for the Washington Post while still in college, wrote a nationally syndicated NFL prediction column, penned his own book and had several sitcom scripts picked up by major networks before landing at ESPN, one would think something positive came out of Chad's experience at Maryland.

Think again.

"I went to my first two journalism classes, and I swear to God, I was like, 'What the [heck]! This is for fourth-graders!'" Chad said. "So I changed my major to something called American Studies -- because you had to pick something -- and I figured as long as I read good writing and practiced real-world journalism, I'd be fine."

He was right.

By his sophomore year, Chad was the sports and lifetime and leisure editor of the campus newspaper, and he was writing for a local weekly, tabulating results at the local race track and covering high school sports on Friday and Saturday nights for the Washington Post.

"I had so many jobs, I actually dropped out of school twice because I was working so much," Chad said. "At one point, my father called me up and said, 'I'm not paying for you not to go to school.' But because tuition at Maryland at that time was less than what it cost for books, I told him -- and he didn't like this -- 'Dad, it's $400 a semester … and it's Maryland! How about I just give you the $400 if it makes you feel better!'"

It didn't.

"My dad said it was more about the principle and the fact that I was running up more fees in parking tickets. 'How do you have so many parking tickets when you're never on campus?' he asked me, and I said, 'OK, Dad  don't be a smartass.'"

At age 20, another factor in Chad's declining interest in his classes was not the countless girls he was supposed to be frolicking with during his formative college years, but rather another vice: poker. (Although the beginning of his most public and seemingly impossible battle of learning how to make -- and keep -- a woman happy wasn't far behind.)

Guilty as charged

Chad admits that he hasn't pursued any woman he has ever dated or married -- rather the other way around. While he says he never was the guy with the rat tail, corny lines and bad breath who was constantly getting slapped, he was the first in line for a Sadie Hawkins dance.

"I'm not a social person and I'm not into one-night stands, so if a woman showed interest in me, I was hers until she threw me out the window," Chad said. "Once I got a girl, I would just hold on for dear life until she gave up. Hey, I might be a loner, but I'm not stupid! I know I'm no Brad Pitt or Warren Beatty."

Chad met his first wife at Maryland. The two began dating in 1979 and married in 1984, and by 1986, she had officially given up.

Much of it had to do with the fact the go-getter, super sports journalist his wife had fallen for at Maryland had given up his passion when he graduated in 1981 and was trying a new line of work that wasn't exactly stable: stand-up comedy.

She wasn't laughing.

"I decided in 1981 that I'd had enough of sports writing and I wanted to get out of it, so I became a stand-up comedian. But there was only one problem: I simply wasn't funny," Chad said with a twinge of embarrassment. While his wife enrolled in law school, Chad continued to work on his set of observational humor, political puns and one-liners.

"There were just nights when I would bomb, and it had nothing to do with the crowd and everything to do with my jokes," he said. "I mean, when I go back and watch a tape of it now, I cringe when I see what I tried to pass off as comedy. It was awful! To give you an example, I tried to close each of my shows with an impression of a Siberian Husky! Let me say this again: a Siberian Husky! Unless you're Robin Williams or Don Rickles, you were pretty much guaranteed to fail."

His wife talked Norman off the stage and back to the Post, where he wrote a TV sports column called "Couch Slouch." But by then, the marriage was beyond repair. During his wife's second year of law school -- a year Norman paid for with $10,000 of his poker winnings from a local game with lawyers and car dealers -- she left him.

"It's bittersweet these days, because she went on to be a great lawyer," Chad said. "But looking back, I definitely was the first person she successfully prosecuted."

Undoubtedly, Chad pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, because not long after, he'd do it again.

Hello, ESPN. Goodbye, old life

From the time he got divorced from No. 1 in 1986 until the time he got the call from ESPN in 2002, there was a period of Chad's life he simply refers to as "pretty [bad]."

He left the Post in 1989 to join a new newspaper, The National Sports Daily, which was supposed to be a competitor to USA Today. But the paper went under in 16 months, and instead of returning to the Post, he decided to infuse his love for writing with his passion for stand-up comedy.

The result? A rash move to Los Angeles, where he became a struggling sitcom writer who sold just five scripts during the next ten years, although they were respectable gigs: two episodes for ABC's "Coach" and three for HBO's "Arli$$."

"Even shows like that, those were scrambling times, and I think my father is still mad at me for leaving the Post," said Chad, who supported his cross-country trek to L.A. with his salary from a weekly Sports Illustrated column. He was so unhappy with the multi-layer editing at SI and the way he felt his work was butchered, he compared its editors to "Olympic figure skating judges. One's Russian, one's Yugoslavian -- you don't know what they want!"

As a result, Chad didn't renew his contract, and these days, he calls his time with SI "my worst career decision to date."

However, that poor decision would rival his next one: wife No. 2.

"I met [my second wife] when I was working at the National Sports Daily," Chad said. "As with the last one, she asked me out first. But unlike the last one, which I thought would last forever, I knew 15 minutes into the marriage I'd made a horrendous error in judgment."

This time, Chad was the one to call it quits, ending the marriage after less than a year and mentally noting experiences from wives No. 1 and No. 2 -- experiences that became infamous for finding their way into his work.

"Whether I was on the radio or writing my NFL picks column, which I still did during that time, I was always taking a shot at my marriages," Chad said. "One time, when I was doing a radio interview, the guy asked me, 'So, Norm, I hear you got remarried. How's that workin' out?' And I replied, 'Well, I've always said I wanted to get married three times in my life, and I figured I needed to get No. 2 out of the way so I could hurry up and move onto No. 3.' Let's just say it didn't score me any points."

And that was OK, because he was about to score big with ESPN.

Divorced for a second time and doubting his future in Hollywood, Chad got a call from former ESPN executive Mark Shapiro in 2003. At first, Chad was skeptical.

"I was like, 'Huh? Televised poker? Yeah … I'm gonna have to get back to you,'" Chad said. "I thought they were crazy, and I was pretty sure they only called me because I was the only guy they knew with a gambling problem." Chad would be paired with McEachern, an accomplished sportscaster in his own right, who actually was a fan of Chad's long before they met.

"I used to look forward to reading the paper every Friday for his NFL picks column," said McEachern, who was equally as skeptical as Chad about TV poker. "So I knew he was funny, I just didn't know he was like that without even trying. I've probably shared more laughs with Norm than anyone my whole life, and we've only know each other five years. It's rare, but with him, whatcha see is whatcha get."

Chad and McEachern eventually began discussions with 441 Productions, a freelance company headed up by Matt Maranz and Dave Swartz that ESPN hired to produce the show. Maranz and Swartz immediately felt the duo was exactly what they were looking for to give poker a makeover.

"I say this in all seriousness: [Matt and Dave] deserve every bit of credit," said Chad, who wrote a memo to ESPN before meeting Maranz and Swartz, detailing everything he felt needed to be done to make the show a success, including introducing the hole cam, telling the players' background stories and miking the players up. "I found out later that the producers never even saw my memo, but all those things happened, so I felt good about my analysis."

Of course, the idea taking flight also had a lot to do with a guy named Chris Moneymaker, whose magical run in the 2003 main event captivated audiences worldwide, with Chad calling the action every step of the way.

"This is beyond fairy tale -- it's inconceivable," was the quote Chad used to describe Moneymaker -- a quote that arguably put Chad on the map.

Right away, others, especially pro players, began taking notice, even if they didn't always like what they were hearing from Chad.

Phil Hellmuth
ImageMastersPhil Hellmuth entered Day 4 with $495,000.

"Sure, Norman's attacked me, and the things he said about me even in the first year were brutal at times, but I'm gonna be honest: I loved it," said notorious "Poker Brat" Phil Hellmuth, who has taken more on-air ribbing from Chad than anyone else. "My parents hated it and still don't like him. My dad even said he was gonna pop him, and it bothered me that the other players constantly teased me about it. But, hey, what can I say? The guy has probably made me $10 million, all while turning me into the bad boy of poker, and I love being poker's bad boy."

Perhaps the biggest uproar he has caused was with Josh Arieh during the 2004 main event, when Chad berated Arieh for his unsportsmanlike antics, at one point quipping he hoped the third-place money Arieh won would go toward buying the player some manners.

"In the poker world, that whole thing was a pretty big deal," said Negreanu, who, despite being known as both a gentleman and gracious loser at the table, takes Arieh's side. "But Norm was new, he wasn't an accomplished poker player or analyst and he was learning. So, I think after a few of the players explained that, 'Hey, we're owed a little more respect than that. We put up our own money, there's a lot at stake here and we have a right to act how we want, to a degree,' I think he realized he crossed a line. And it hasn't happened since."

Negreanu then laughed before adding: "But I love all the wife jokes. I hope he keeps doing those."

The Arieh incident not only drew ire from players and fans, but a Web site called firenormanchad.com suddenly appeared and T-shirts were printed with the same slogan pasted across the front.

Chad's response?

"A lot of the criticism I received was legitimate. I didn't discuss strategy; I didn't go into which plays were correct and which weren't. I avoided those things because I tended to sound stupid, rather than informative. Sometimes, the producers will tell me to go back and talk about why a player limped with J-10 off-suit under the gun, and I say, 'Why don't you go back and do it?' Why? Because I sure as hell don't know, and I really don't care!" Chad said. "I had my own idea of how I wanted to do this, and it was going to be more about things like which player had the best haircut, winning with grace and losing with grace, all while poking fun at myself. And two years in, there had been very little direction or changes given to us by the producers, other than to tell me things like my joke about Mussolini in Episode 3 was no good.

"Otherwise, it was pretty much, 'We like what you're doing. Keep doing it.'"

Doing his thing, however, turned Chad into an overnight celebrity -- something he still isn't comfortable with.

"I've done a lot better work in my life than poker on ESPN. Yet, it seemed to be a carnival everywhere I went at first," Chad said. "It's calmed down since, but to think I was suddenly someone important because I was on TV, talking about the color of some guy's shirt, seemed ridiculous. TV fame is stupid, and I struggled with that intellectually for a while. I was suddenly more important than I used to be because I was on TV. I mean, it's not like I came up with a cure for polio!"

Maybe not, but because the highest-rated poker show happened to be the one Chad helped birth, few would argue his impact. And certainly not the guy Chad says has the "toughest job in the world because he has to sit next to me for eight hours a day for four straight months."

"Norm is about as unique as it gets, and I applaud anyone who can do something new and fresh in this industry. It's rare," McEachern said. "As much credit as the producers and ESPN deserve, there's no doubt in my mind he's the backbone of the show."

'I needed some new material' (sponsored by wife No. 3)

Five years after Norman Chad made his debut on the television airwaves, he's a bit older, hopefully wiser and, as of recently, married for the third time.

Chad's new love's name is Toni, and he promises this one will be his last.

"I just got remarried, Lon," Chad said during a recent 2007 WSOP broadcast. "What can I say? I needed some new material."

Toni doesn't seem to mind.

"I've tried to impose my will on him, but it doesn't matter: He refuses to listen," she said, laughing. "I tell him all the time that one day I'm going to bind and gag him, write his column how I want to see it, and then throw on my Norman Chad mask and go down to ESPN and do some of my own material."

Norman and Toni, who have known each other for years, got married at the RIO All Suites and Hotel Casino the day before the main event started. The couple now lives in L.A. Toni runs a catering business year-round (she caters for the ESPN crew during taping sessions), while Chad spends more than half the year in New York sitting in a sound studio where 95 percent of the WSOP is produced, with a pair of headphones and a mike in front of a massive movie screen, calling all the final table action.

"On average, a final table is 140 hands; we'll show about 15," Chad said. "We've seen the tape of the full action beforehand, but we don't see the final cut until we sit down to tape, so nothing we say is rehearsed or scripted. It's a grueling process, sometimes with 10- or 12-hour taping days, but the final product is always worth it. And even today, there are times when we stop, and Lon and I will just look at each other and just say, 'Can you believe we get paid for this?'"

How long Chad gets paid, however, is up in the air at the moment. His contract with ESPN expires "in 2009 or 2010," he says, meaning there's no guarantee of a return. Many pros are quietly calling for new blood in the ESPN booth, saying now that the viewing public has been educated on how to play poker, it's time to turn it over to a pro who can take the show to the next level.

"I think everyone was surprised when they found out that ESPN had hired two guys to call poker who knew very little about it," Hellmuth said. "Of course, then we found out that ESPN's coverage wasn't all about poker, but instead it was also about the characters and the stars of the games. After all, you can't have a sport without stars. But at this point, I think people are ready for more analysis, which also means you lose a lot of your audience. So it's a double-edged sword."

But for Chad, it's really not.

"Hey, I've had a wonderful ride, and if it ends, it ends. For all I know, this poker schtick the last five years has prevented me from accomplishing something great or better," Chad said. "About every five years, though, I do like to challenge myself again to keep from getting stale, because it diminishes your return on creativity. Because chances are, you're not going to get better, and likely a little worse. Right now, I'm just going to enjoy the next few years and reevaluate after that."

Until then, he plans to savor life with the new missus, travel from coast to coast and continue to amuse and enlighten poker viewers around the world.

Unfortunately, he's a little too busy to entertain any possible speaking engagements at Maryland in the near future -- if they would even have him.

"I've been asked by education institutions all over the country to come and speak to journalism and broadcasting classes, but never once has anyone from Maryland contacted me and invited me back for so much as a homecoming parade," Chad said. "I only hear from them when they want me to clear up some old parking tickets."

Speaking of tickets, where Chad's next one is punched remains to be seen.

"If the Home and Garden Network called me tomorrow and told me they wanted to do a new reality TV show on gardening and they wanted me, I might say, 'Cool, let's go!'" Chad said. "I don't know much about gardening, except make sure you bring a light set of jewelry!"

Should that happen, chances are that even George Costanza would be proud.

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