Sometimes American culture drops a present into our laps that's just so damn good, we not only can't ignore it; somehow it inherently changes who we are and how we live our lives. Chances are, no matter why you're reading this, discovering poker was yours.
Unlike all the pros, hustlers, and gamblers who will go to their graves bragging about how they were playing poker long before it was cool, I, like many of you, became obsessed, infatuated, even addicted to the game sometime around 2003. Coincidentally, this is the same year we were all introduced to a new reality show from ESPN unlike any before it: the World Series of Poker.
And while seeing the game on ESPN was familiar, the characters, the commentary and the backdrop -- as well as the tales of riches and woes and highs and lows -- was anything but. Granted, grainy productions of old tournaments that hardly featured anyone under 40 years old had peppered the network's late-night time slots for years before 2003.
But watching that 2003 broadcast, it was clear that those days were long gone.
Hole-card cams? Player profiles? Commentators who kept us awake … and laughing?
This was the new WSOP on ESPN. The show, compared to its previous incarnations, looked like it had been given so many performance enhancers it would have made the World Anti-Doping Agency's head spin.
"[The network] took a pretty big shot with this at the time," said Jamie Horowitz, executive producer in charge of ESPN's poker programming, a job he took in 2006 after successfully launching the National Heads-Up Poker Championship on NBC. "I don't think there were many out there willing to wager their career that this would work. I mean, no one knew if it would resonate."
Turns out it was a lock.
And of course, wherever there's a lock, there's always a key.
For the past five years, the method behind ESPN's ability to reinvent poker on television -- as well as those who are responsible for making it happen -- has been under a proverbial lock and key: a well-kept industry secret that, should its blueprint for success get out, could spawn competitors and copycats left and right.
Of course, now that five years have passed -- with plenty of shows having come and gone, and still none even comparable -- the network was willing to give Bluff magazine an unprecedented peek behind the scenes during the 2008 WSOP. Not just any old peek -- an all-access look at what goes into televising poker's Super Bowl every year: the main event.
How many cameras do they need? How is the feature table selected? What kind of manpower does it take to pull this off? Who exactly are Matt Maranz and Dave Swartz? And where the hell are Lon McEachern and Norman Chad?!?!?
Those are just some of the questions I had when I came in.
So while most came to the Rio the week of the main event in hopes of capturing the $9 million first prize, there I was -- as both a journalist and a fan who has wondered for years how it all goes down behind ESPN's bright lights -- hoping to find the $10 million story.
A story that began with two guys, Maranz and Swartz, who knew nothing about poker but somehow took an idea and formed an amazing collaborative relationship with a network giant that -- in all its years and all its glory -- had never seen anything like it. A story that, these days, has transformed a once back-room, underground game into a Broadway act. And, most of all, a story that's one of the most interesting in a game chock-full of them, though somehow has never been told.
"They're here, they're there … they're everywhere"
For those who have never been to the Rio's Amazon room -- where 90 percent of the WSOP is played these days -- it's a scene unlike any other.
No matter which one of the many doors you walk in, your ears immediately dance with the sounds of riffling chips, idle chitchat, and the occasional Rio employee who hovers over the microphone near the roped-off section for cash games in search of a chosen player, calling out "Chris B. for $5/$10 hold 'em … Chris B. for $5/$10 hold 'em. Your seat is ready."
Huge lights hover low above every table -- illuminating even more of an already spectacular scene -- while above them sit what seems to be miles of catwalk-like rafters holding everything from soft, flowing banner ads to security cameras watching every move. Of course, tucked away in the corner is the famous ESPN feature table stage -- the Milwaukee's Best Light Lounge -- where pretty much anyone can come and have a beer, grab a seat, and watch a final table. While the feature table looks scorching under the hot lights, the stage area itself is dimly lit, with rows of chairs and bleachers surrounding it. There are cameras everywhere and a mini-JumboTron of sorts with plasma TVs displaying the live action directly above the table. It's all backdropped by a long, flowing purple-velvet curtain broken up only by a bookcase-like structure displaying the Corum WSOP bracelets -- one per shelf -- and bundles of prize money stacked neatly into a pyramid. (What many don't know, however, is that the stacks of cash are nothing more than a prop used over and over again, year after year. In fact, each one contains just two $100 bills around the outside of every bundle, while $1 bills fill the void in between. And while it's certainly real money -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 -- it's nowhere close to the real amount a player takes home for any non-main event WSOP win. The only time the real denomination of cash is brought out is for the main event champion.)
The day I arrived there was more than just your average run-of-the-mill action.
It was July 1, two days before the start of the main event. Minutes after entering the Rio, I found Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi going for his first bracelet at the ESPN feature table in the $10,000 pot-limit Omaha championship, while Phil Hellmuth was at the final table of the $1,500 HORSE event -- going for historic bracelet No. 12 -- on ESPN's secondary feature table just outside the main stage.
While it would have been nice to buy a brew, plop down and see if history would be made -- or if The Grinder could finally win his first -- the primary objective once I got to Vegas was to immediately find the two guys who were responsible for most of what I saw in front of me: the founders of 441 Productions, Maranz and Swartz. ESPN has contracted their company every year since 2003 to film, edit and package the WSOP for broadcast, and this year these two men were going to show me how they handle that hefty charge.
The duo met in 1998 while both working for different companies during the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, then worked together the following year at the World Track & Field Championships in Spain. Both were already revered as heavyweights in the television field at the time -- Matt has won nine Emmys, while Dave has five -- and when they were paired up again in 2000 at the Summer Olympics in Sydney with NBC, their compatibility was clear. Matt formed 441 shortly after the turn of the millennium, put together a proposal for ESPN to televise poker, and made Dave "Hire No. 1," as he tells it, "and the rest is pretty much history."
Funny thing was, neither of them had ever really played the game.
"Dave and Matt are storytellers," Horowitz said when we first began discussing the concept of this article. "They may not have known poker when they started doing this, but they knew there were a lot of good stories out there embedded in the game that were just waiting to be told."
Unfortunately, once I walked on set and asked the first production guy I saw where I could find Maranz and Swartz, it became clear that locating either while filming was taking place wouldn't be easy.
"They're here, they're there… they're everywhere," laughed cameraman Mike Flanagan, who, like many on the crew, has been with the show since the first day it set up shop in Binion's Horseshoe Casino six years ago. "Those two guys never stop moving. But, believe me -- they're around."
Not only were they around, but they had been nonstop, working days that began at 10 a.m. and sometimes didn't end until well after midnight for nearly two months straight.
"So what do you think?" asked Maranz, a tall middle-aged fellow with a welcoming face whom I first met when the PLO table went on break.
"Pretty damn cool," I replied, before blurting out a few random questions about the things I'd seen so far and how they worked, only to realize I had suddenly become that annoying reporter trying to get the baseball coach to talk about how the game was going during the seventh-inning stretch.
"We'll get to some of that later," Maranz said politely. "Just hang out and enjoy yourself for now."
Shortly after taking my seat, however, the second half of the 441 team made himself known, scurrying about the main stage wearing a headset, looking just as calm, cool, and collected as his counterpart and communicating with everyone on set.
"There he is, right there," Flanagan said, pointing. "See that tall skinny guy talking to like four people at once? That's Dave."
And while I would briefly introduce myself moments later, by now I had realized patience was needed. After all, ESPN's coverage of the WSOP was a product that wasn't built overnight, and learning how each stone was laid wouldn't be, either.
"It never stops"
On Day 2 of the behind-the-scenes tour -- the day Maranz, Swartz, Horowitz and I all met in the ESPN production tent to discuss the logistics of how they pull this off each year -- Maranz remarked that all this talk about how the show was made actually had him curious about something.
"I wonder how many cameras they use at the Super Bowl?" he asked shortly after we began. "Because I would be willing to bet it's not as many as us."
Turns out ESPN brings quite a few cameras, to ensure they don't miss a moment of the action. Like 40 -- just shy of the 53 that Fox used at this year's Super Bowl.
"It's a lot," Swartz said, noting the 18 hole-card cams between the feature and secondary feature tables, the seven roving cameramen, the two cameras dangling from massive cranes that overlook the main table, two cameras that sit on what looks like a fiber-optic railroad track and rotate around the table, a spy cam, a flop cam and a half-dozen or so others positioned in various spots around the Rio.
The manpower to pull it all off? A staff of nearly 80 is required -- 55 in Las Vegas (producers, directors, assistant producers, production assistants, cameramen, sound techs, and feature table crews), along with 22 back in New York who log and edit the footage as it comes in daily. (That's right, every night after a final table is shot, the Vegas crew boxes up every piece of footage and ships it overnight, then the Big Apple team begins processing the hours and hours of tape -- yes, they still use tape -- to create rough cuts of shows ready for Maranz, Swartz and Horowitz to make final edits to once the series ends.)
"Logistically, this is a pretty complicated thing to pull off. Even this year, some of our new people on staff walked in and were like, 'Man, I didn't realize how massive this operation is,'" Maranz said. "I mean, we're covering a sporting event like no other -- because it's one that lasts two months. Most competitions -- like a football game, for example -- you show up, you cover it, and you know that no matter what happens it's not going to last longer than three or four hours, and then you're done. You can go home.
"But with the World Series of Poker we don't stop filming until the players stop playing, which can last 13, 14, 15 hours sometimes. So it's not an event where you just show up and do it, or even the Olympics, which only lasts two weeks. Now, no disrespect to the Olympics, but it's two weeks. This is day after day; long, long hours for six to eight weeks -- and it never stops."
When he says it never stops, Maranz isn't exaggerating. The year-round process begins once they leave Vegas in mid-July after taping the events. The next two months are spent editing, followed by the first production meeting about next year's show shortly after. They used to sandwich covering WSOP Circuit Events in between, though ESPN is no longer airing those.
"I think we had our first meeting about the 2008 [WSOP] like September or October last year," Swartz said, and he and Maranz laughed. "It's a year-round thing. Communicating with ESPN, Harrah's, the poker players, the crew -- everyone has to be on the same page, so when we get to Vegas, we're all ready to go on Day 1."
Then, of course, there are the stories -- the show's bread and butter.
"The stories we find and are able to tell is what defines our show and makes us different from everyone else. Because that's what we do: We're storytellers," Swartz said. "Yet because we're doing it during a live competition, it becomes so much than just a show about poker. It's a documentary about poker -- and just like the characters, it changes with every year."
The credit for finding those stories is something Swartz gives to Maranz, saying "No one is better at finding and telling these stories than Matt." Maranz, meanwhile, heaps piles of praise on his partner, calling him "the most important piece of what we do."
"When we meet for the first time about the next year, Matt's already got a list of players compiled whose stories we have to cover," Swartz said. "Then we resolve the stories of characters from the year before. Like this year, we'll be following every move of Jerry Yang. Or what about Scotty Nguyen and the roller coaster he went on last year? Has he been able to shake that off? And of course we'll follow the guys who had good years in 2007, or ones like Kenny Tran who made a deep run in the main event. Each time, we just try to build."
That's exactly what has happened.
Outside of setting up interviews and making sure everyone's on the same page before the WSOP, the guys also begin carefully examining the upcoming year's schedule of events, deciding well in advance which final tables -- outside the main event -- they want to film. The first year, they filmed just the main event, for a total of seven one-hour shows. In Year 2 it was expanded to 22 total hours -- 10 for the main event. In 2005, that number jumped to 26 hours (12 for the main event) and then each year forward, because of the show's phenomenal success -- the WSOP on ESPN is currently the highest-rated and most-watched poker show on TV -- the network has continued to not only order more shows, but also more total hours of programming.
This year, however, a change was made to that five-year-old plan: ESPN will now air only six non-main event tournaments, though the kicker is this: Each show will last two hours.
"In previous years, a one-hour show has handicapped us because we're forced to knock out nine players in 60 minutes and what you end up with is a lot of all-in situations," Maranz said. "This year, poker fans will get to see a lot more sophisticated play and a larger variety of hands within a two-hour show."
The delayed final table led to a record 20 hours of main-event coverage, with a preview show profiling the final nine players.
"That's one of the big changes this year, having to put together a show on the fly like that," said Maranz, who added that they had come to expect at least one major change each year since the show began. "After the first year ESPN wanted more hours, so now we were filming more events. While in Year 3 it was the location change from Binion's to the Rio, then back to Binion's for the final table -- so we basically had to tear down and set back up overnight. Then in Year 4, we decided to air the main event first, which meant we had to edit and get the show together a lot faster than normal because it was the last thing we shot. And last year, it was the show going to [high-definition], which meant new graphics and [a] new look, including everything from set design to graphics, to editing and budgeting."
Just as Maranz finished his sentence, Swartz -- who had left intending to interview 2003 main event champion Chris Moneymaker on the interview stage across from the Amazon Room, only to be stood up -- returned to hear his friend winding down about the challenges the show has experienced.
"You want a wrinkle that happens every day?" Swartz asked as he fell back into his seat. "Getting blown off by poker players."
Of course, the unexpected -- when dealing with a unique competition like the WSOP -- is expected. Which is why the ESPN crew sticks to the same game plan every year. Or not.
"Every bit of planning, seriously, throw it out the window once you get there," Swartz said with a laugh as he, Maranz, and Horowitz all shared a smile and an empathetic glance. "Every year, we say the same thing: You can plan all you want, but the second we land in Vegas, it never goes down the way it was drawn up."
The curtain of Oz
After more than two months of talking, watching, eating, sleeping, and filming poker, the biggest day of the season has arrived for the ESPN crew: July 3, Day 1A of the main event. I'd been invited to attend the 10:30 a.m. production meeting to hear what kinds of things the team is supposed to look out for when play begins; what makes for good TV.
As I walked through the Rio, however, I thought about how grueling it must be for all those 55 employees involved in taping the WSOP and the hundreds of hours they spent in this very building day after day -- all culminating with today.
"During the main event, if you're here, you're working," Swartz said earlier, "and probably a 16-hour day."
Of course, while July 3 also marked the beginning of the end, it was also the beginning of the toughest stretch yet.
The grind began more than sixty days earlier when the crew first touched down and began working on the most minor -- yet crucial -- details of the operation.
The primary objective upon arrival becomes setting up the feature table, which takes about five days. Once that's finished, the stage and its look remain the same from the first tournament through the end of the main event.
As for the look of the Rio's Amazon Room, the hotel crew takes care of arranging all the poker tables, while the only tweak the film crew makes is hanging the giant "balloon lights" over each table, which makes for better-quality shots by the roving cameramen.
And remember that long, flowing purple-velvet curtain I mentioned earlier that backdrops the feature table?
Well folks, pardon the cliché, but that's truly where all the magic happens.
Outside of ESPN personnel, who guard the entrance to the left of the feature-table stage like their firstborn, not many know what actually goes on back there. It's a proverbial curtain of Oz, if you will, and a part of the show most will never see.
"Yeah, there's no shortage of things back here to keep track of," said Jeff Christian, a renowned technical wiz in the TV business, who has been the director of photography for the show since its inception and is responsible for designing the ESPN feature table set and arranging the cockpit-like scene that exists behind it -- a massive collection of electronic devices consisting of 15 monitors, a half-dozen sound boards, an instrument that measures light and enough wires to hang yourself if you tripped and fell.
"It's probably a little overwhelming to someone who's never seen it before, but after so many years, it feels like home to me," Christian said.
To Christian's immediate right sit either Swartz or Maranz, calling the action to the cameramen. The day I was there Swartz happened to be the one directing traffic; he wasn't necessarily telling anyone what to do, but rather what to be aware of.
"Dave's not really having to give them instruction, because our cameras are set and we've told them ahead of time who to watch for," Christian said, as Swartz told one of the cameramen circling the table: "We got a big pot brewing here. Seat 6 and Seat 2 squaring off. Maybe the biggest pot of the day so far."
One seat over from Christian sits Sari Bickford, who, like Christian, has been there from the start. Bickford's primary job during play is to manually -- yes, manually -- log each hand as it plays out.
"Every hand, every bet, every raise, every check-raise, every all-in, every fold -- I make note of it," Bickford said as she showed me her journal, which -- despite new technology that can electronically log the hands on a computer -- she still keeps with a pen and paper. "That way, we have a note on each hand and can [put an asterisk] next to the ones that we think we'll want to show."
Next to Bickford is one of the show's rotating producers who monitors the feature-table chatter and logs each conversation. This is done for the same reason as Bickford's hand log, so that key confrontations, showdowns, or can't-miss, good-for-TV moments can easily be found later when the show is being edited and voice-overed by ESPN announcers Chad and McEachern back in New York. (Another little-known fact about the show is that while Chad and McEachern attend the WSOP, their sole responsibility during that time is to walk around the Rio, talk to players, watch the action, and find the great untold stories. They're not in some booth calling the action as it happens, like it would otherwise appear on telecasts. It's not until weeks after the WSOP ends that the duo sits down to watch the action in a sound studio in New York, and Chad's witty quips and McEachern's distinctive voice are attached to the broadcast.)
Finally, to Christian's left, behind an even more mysterious curtain, sits someone whose sole purpose is to watch the hole-card cams in play each round and ensure that they're all working properly. This is the only member of the crew in the Rio who has knowledge of what the players' down cards are.
"[This backstage area] is basically where this part of the team stays during the course of this entire event, and while it's a lot of work no matter what side you're on, the finished product and how successful it's become is something you feel proud of," said Christian, who later told me he, unlike some, didn't have to be convinced to join the TV poker business in 2003, solely because he believed in Maranz and Swartz's vision. "It's really become so much more than a poker show."
Horowitz couldn't agree more.
"The first time you see everything and how it all works, it's awe-inspiring. There's been a bunch of articles and press out there about what allowed poker to take the lead. Henry Orenstein's invention of the hole-card cam is one. They mention that ESPN decided to televise it. But lost in the shuffle is the influence of its historical rise to popularity, and that was provided by Matt Maranz and Dave Swartz," Horowitz said. "They set the direction of where poker is these days."
"Shuffle up and deal"
With exactly an hour and a half to go until the first camera starts rolling on Day 1A, I slid into the ESPN production tent and found every member of the film crew listening intently to Maranz as he held court in the day's only production meeting.
He began by dissecting exactly how the opening scene on Day 1A needed to be captured.
"Okay, so after we get the first shot on the ladder in the hallway of everyone flooding in, we want to try and get those players heading to their tables to talk to us. Ask them a question, 'Ready to win that bracelet? Feelin' lucky?'" Maranz said to his staff. "Then [WSOP Commissioner] Jeffrey Pollock will say a few words and introduce Wayne Newton, which will cue the UNLV marching band to walk in behind Wayne and play 'Viva Las Vegas.' Showgirls will follow that, and just as the song reaches its crescendo, Wayne Newton will welcome everyone to his city and tell the dealers to 'Shuffle up and deal!'"
Maranz paused before adding: "Of course, as some of you know, chances of this working out exactly like we plan are slim to none."
As the staff had a chuckle and Maranz moved on, I was handed what the crew calls a daily "WSOP Cheat Sheet" -- a list of well-known players and their seat assignments. It also contains the names of those at the main and secondary feature tables on Day 1A, which happened to be highlighted by Scotty Nguyen on the main stage and bracelet winners Bill Gazes and Ciaran O'Leary on the secondary. Those two feature tables, as was later explained to me, are not hand-picked by ESPN; rather, ESPN waits for the computer to generate the table assignments and then the crew looks down the list for an "interesting" lineup. If that lineup ends up being a dud or loses its star player, the producers then look at replacing the entire table with another one.
"Once we find the table that looks the best, we move that entire table to the feature table," Swartz said. "We don't hand-pick who we want. You have to remember, this is a competition -- a sporting event -- with a lot of money at stake, and we would not do anything to make that setting [contrived]. We just find a table and watch it play out for that day."
Soon, the theme for the first day of the main event was revealed to the staff.
"Looking down your list, you'll notice we have several couples, married or otherwise, playing in Day 1. That includes Phil Laak and Jennifer Tilly, Vanessa Rousso and Chad Brown, Katja Thater and Jan von Halle, David Benyamine and Erica Schoenberg and Maureen and Bob Feduniak," Maranz said. "These will all be featured in a piece we do later, led off with the Feduniaks. If Bob is in a hand today and Maureen comes over to watch it, or vice versa, you'd better be rolling. And if one of them gets involved in a big hand or gets knocked out and you miss it, you'll have some explaining to do."
Each producer -- seven of them total -- headed out to the floor after the meeting that morning, taking with them a cameraman and sound guy. Each is given a map of the tables separated into what the crew calls "vectors", or coverage sections. During play, each vector will have one producer, one cameraman, and one sound tech in it at all times, making for a total of seven such crews roaming the Amazon Room. Each mini-crew is responsible for watching over and filming the most compelling action spanning the forty to fifty tables in their vector.
"Now get out there and go find us the next Jerry Yang," Maranz told the group.
And with that, the meeting was adjourned and the crew scrambled to take their positions.
It was now 11:40 a.m. -- 20 minutes before cards get in the air. Surprisingly, once noon hit things went fairly smoothly. The halls were packed with eager players and an ESPN cameraman balanced on a ladder in the Rio's hallway, filming the players as they arrived. Shortly after taking their seats -- just as planned -- Wayne Newton, the UNLV marching band and the Vegas showgirls paraded into the room to the delight of everyone.
"Good luck, everyone -- I hope you win lots of money while you're in my city: Las Vegas, the greatest city in the world!" Newton exclaimed. "Now, shuffle up and deal!"
With that, the chips began riffling, the first hand was dealt, and the cameras wouldn't stop rolling until the last one was complete.
"Basically, what we start out with is the players you know. But as they bust out, it becomes about the players you don't know," said producer Sarah Krieger, whose vector on Day 1A contained such notables as Brandon Adams and Gavin Smith. "And that's really where we have to pay attention. We all have different jobs to do to get the shot, but at the end of the day, we're all reporters just out here looking for the best story."
Kriege, who had a relatively small section of about 30 tables, later showed me a pedometer she was wearing for this year's WSOP. The device counts how many steps you take and converts them into the approximate number of miles you've walked. By the dinner break on Day 1A she had walked 5.8 miles, and with four hours left after dinner, she anticipated breaking 10 miles each day.
Of course, holding a camera for that amount of time ain't so easy either.
"You basically become numb," said cameraman John Ackernina of the 30-pound monster he lugs around all day. "You bring two pairs of sneakers, rotate your shoes every few hours and drink plenty of water. You have to. You do whatever it takes to ensure you don't miss a second of the action."
Ackernina's sound tech this year is Mark Orzel, who added, "It's probably the coolest job I've ever had, but it can be brutal sometimes. And when the day's over, you go home, pass out and then come back and do it all over again. It's like 'Groundhog Day'."
As Day 1A wound down, I caught up with another producer, Erick Barchie, who's been with the show for two and a half years and calls it "probably the greatest project I've ever worked on."
"The best part about the job is being able to turn on the TV and see this segment that you helped find or film and know it made a great piece of the show, while the hardest part is simply keeping up with the sheer volume of action. You just feel bad if you miss anything," said Barchie, who proceeded to show me a clipboard of player profile sheets he'd given to interesting-looking characters to fill out during the day's action. The sheet included a questionnaire that Barchie would study that night, trying to identify players with interesting stories and get them on camera the next day.
"Like the year Jamie Gold won it -- here was this guy who came up to me and was telling me he had a lot of chips and I should come to his table and check out the action," Barchie continued. "So I took down his name and we started following him. Nine days later, he still had the chip lead -- and I think we all know how that ended."
Speaking of ends, the conclusion of Day 1A of the main event would also mark the end of my trip. After all, I'd asked every question and seen everything. Besides, beyond Day 1A, the crew process was essentially rinse and repeat.
As the final level of the night wound down and I wrapped things up in the Rio, I knew that in less than two weeks, someone from in that room would be perched to take home over $9 million. I also knew that when I saw the broadcast this time, I'd be watching it in a whole new way.
Toward the end of the day, I bumped into ESPN's Chad, who was scribbling a note about a player on a piece of paper.
"Find any good ones out there yet, Norm?" I asked.
"If you're wondering if I found anyone with 11 fingers and 11 toes yet, the answer is no," Chad replied. "But there's good stories out there. You just gotta find 'em."
Well, I found mine: the story of the No. 1 poker show on TV.
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