Delayed gratification good for the game
The World Series of Poker shuffles up and deals the first hand of the $10,000 buy-in main event on July 3 and crowns a champion on Nov. 11 after a 117-day break.
To think, you were ready to eat glass because of the two-week wait for the Super Bowl.
But at least the Super Bowl is live. The final table won't be live, can't be live, because live poker is as painful to watch as Roger Clemens under oath. Even poker players can't stand watching live poker.
So the final table will be "plausibly live," similar to the way NBC aired some Olympic events. The WSOP and ESPN, which airs WSOP episodes, have been bugged by the problem inherent in crowning a winner in July but not being able to show it until November. The long layoff essentially ensures that everybody already knows who won -- even if the knowledge comes by accident -- considering that national news shows love to broadcast somebody pocketing $12 million or $8 million or whatever the ridiculously huge number that embarrasses golf and tennis prizes turns out to be.
The answer to this problem? Something just short of setting up in the parking lot at Caesars as if it were Ali-Frazier. (Betcha that's coming -- the parking lot at Caesars idea, not Ali-Frazier, unless the Nevada Boxing Commission approves the use of walkers.)
In the new scenario, the main event's field will play down to the final nine by July 14. Roughly a week later, ESPN will begin airing other bracelet events, selected Phil Hellmuth tantrums and Norman Chad's love letters to Phil Ivey. In September, ESPN will begin its main event programming that runs through October. On Nov. 4, ESPN will air a recap show; on Nov. 9, Harrah's will resume play at the final table, saving heads-up play for Nov. 10; on Nov. 11, ESPN will air the two-hour finale, with some quick, snappy editing from the previous two days. So even if the chip leader has a 10-to-1 lead when heads-up play begins, ESPN won't be stuck trying to fill two hours with two hands.
If you're Harrah's or ESPN, this change is a no-brainer. You want this. If a groundbreaking moment occurs, you want to be the one with the pickax. So what if the most famous poker tournament in the world pauses for four months before its conclusion? What could go wrong?
Well, plenty, if you listen to certain critics. The possibilities of collusion and cheating are stronger because there's more time to rehearse and refine such things. This fear is absolutely the biggest and the most legitimate criticism of the plan. Don't kid yourself: There's a nefarious underside of poker. The game has always had a romantic history of outlaws. And that's without the millions of dollars we're talking about now. You can easily imagine some of the chip leaders falling under suspicion of foul play, and we know suspicion can be perceived as reality in these days.
But here's the quickest way to eliminate that threat and quell any bad acting: Harrah's should station a tournament official inside ESPN's heavily guarded booth that houses the monitors for the hole-card cameras. It's one thing to guess about curious actions while watching live play. When you can actually see the cards, chicanery is much easier to spot.
OK, so now I've solved that for everybody. But hey, that's me: I'm a pleaser, not a teaser. I don't need money -- Jeffrey Pollack's thanks will be enough (that, and dinner at Buzios). Anyway, once you get beyond the specter of cheating, this whole plan is all about the No. 1 rule in poker and life: Follow the money.
There's little financial downside to the delay. This novel approach can only help the ratings, and corporate sponsors love being passengers for something with the potential to provide yet another spike for a game that might need a little boost after flopping trips five years ago: the hole-card camera, Chris Moneymaker and the rise of online poker.
This change of schedule alone guarantees a marketing boost -- look how we're writing and talking about it right now and for the next few days -- and that attention allows the WSOP to either charge more for broadcast rights or share the extra revenue with ESPN, which will promote the event the way only the worldwide leader can.
Look, somebody's final river card will come in the middle of football season. ESPN does "Monday Night Football.'' ESPN does Tuesday night WSOP episodes. Connect the dots.
The 117-day delay also benefits the players in several ways. Those who reach the final table have the leverage of additional time to hold out for a bigger payday for wearing the logo of an online poker site. You watch: The time and space that can be filled from July till November will spin some nice up-close-and-personal stories and give viewers a rooting interest like never before, thus raising the price of poker logos like never before. Enough publicity can make the difference between five and six figures.
What's more, the four-month buildup could bring more mainstream advertisers to the game. Online poker sites are one thing, but Porsche and Nike are another. (Michael Jordan is still a Nike guy, and the legendary gambler has been playing hold 'em, and, well hmmm.) I don't think you'll see Doyle Brunson wearing a Tide patch on his cowboy hat, but poker would love to see its players look like NASCAR drivers. I mean, my guy Jeffrey Pollack, commissioner of the WSOP, came to the WSOP from NASCAR. Again, connect the dots, people.
This July-November romance also allows some top players who didn't make the final table to cash in by providing coaching to what figures to be another group of unknowns. I'm not saying they won't be good players. No one makes a final table without being good, but no one makes a final table without getting lucky as well. That goes for you, too, Hellmuth. Good and lucky, no two ways about it. But even the great players look for ways they can get better, so think about this:
If you made the final table and were guaranteed, say, $1 million, wouldn't you be willing to spend $50,000 to have, yes, Hellmuth and his record 11 WSOP bracelets coach you for 10 hours or whatever? Seems like good pot odds to me. In fact, you'd almost be forced to seek that type of coaching, and here's why:
Players view poker broadcasts the way NFL coordinators break down tape. It wasn't a big deal previously because the main event ended long before people saw how it actually played out. But before this year's final table, ESPN will air nine main event episodes that figure to provide insight on every player's style because of the hole-card camera. This is a major point. It's one thing to sit at a table and feel that an opponent is reraising repeatedly with J-6 off suit, but it's a whole other thing to know for sure.
Case in point: Jamie Gold won the 2006 main event by bluffing with his chips and telling the truth with his mouth. Who knew? Well, nobody knew until ESPN broadcasted the episodes. Think accomplished pro Allen Cunningham might've figured out something if he had months to pick up Gold's physical or stylistic tells? Hel-looo.
So, this delay requires players to change their games to some degree, which is harder to do through self-scouting -- and far easier and more beneficial if Hellmuth is sitting next to you and whispering in your ear.
Just tell him to stick to the lessons on preflop reads and skip the ones on kicking chairs.
Steve Rosenbloom is the author of a syndicated column for the Chicago Tribune and a daily Rosenblog.