Lon and Norm continue to entertain
In the past decade, we've seen plenty of prestige on the World Series of Poker broadcasts on ESPN. Multimillionaire gamblers, world-famous professionals and celebrities mixing with the masses have been featured on television, each taking his shot at the kinds of fame and fortune the WSOP can provide. For the past few years, I've written episodic preview articles focusing on more of these people than I can count, and it was with that in mind that I was shocked to realize this week that I've never focused such on article on the two men who've received more airtime than anyone else in ESPN's WSOP history.
Lon McEachern and Norman Chad are as recognizable as any of the names they announce within the poker world. When Chad joined McEachern in the booth for the 2003 WSOP broadcasts that made Chris Moneymaker's name a household one, lightning struck. Poker on ESPN went from occasional filler to the ultimate television mortar and was here to stay.
"It's staggering that two announcers who appear on camera for less than a minute per show have become synonymous with the World Series of Poker," says Jamie Horowitz, ESPN coordinating producer for the World Series of Poker, "SportsNation" and "Winners Bracket." "But anyone who has heard them call a hand knows why -- they combine information with entertainment in the most natural way."
They'll do the same on this week's broadcast of the WSOP, Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN. The polished product you'll see there is the result of an evolution from humble beginnings.
"I had been doing some shows for ESPN and ESPN2 for a while, from the early '90s," McEachern said. "I produced my own shows and hired myself as the host. They asked me to do some other stuff, odd-ball sports like arm wrestling, wakeboarding, ice climbing. It eventually led to the X Games. One producer I knew had gotten a call when they were planning the 2002 main event. I flew to Vegas and did the voice-over with [poker player] Gabe Kaplan. That's how I got my toe in the door.
"2003 came around, and I'd given up TV because I lost all my freelance work in 2001. I was working in a bank when I got a call. I looked at my vacation schedule, had enough days available to do the gig, and the rest, as they say, is history. I juggled the bank and the show for the next three years, but poker got too busy, and I gave up my job at the bank. It's been all poker ever since."
"When they asked me, I wasn't sure I was going to do it," recalled Chad, a sports journalist who brought no broadcasting experience to the gig. "I loved the idea, but I never thought it would come to anything. I thought it was a good idea for ESPN. They had such a huge landfill they needed to put programming into, so, why not poker? I love poker. It was my favorite recreation, but I didn't know what ESPN would do with it, so I figured  was a one and out. I showed up in 2003, saw Binion's [gambling hall], called up a gambling buddy and said, 'Where has this been all our lives?' The atmosphere was crazy and wonderful. I remember saying, 'Can you believe what this looks like? All we can do is [foul] it up.' It looked really good in the screen. I still had no idea the poker boom was coming."
"I was familiar with Norm's work," McEachern said. "I was a big fan of his football picks column, which ran in the newspapers here in California. Every Friday morning, it was the first thing I opened up to. When I heard we were working together, I was excited. I appreciated the intellect that came through in his humor, and in the eight years since, that's never disappointed. He's one of the smartest guys I know and ethically driven. I've always said he's the backbone of the show because of his knowledge, his opinions a great friendship has built over the years. I have nothing but respect for him."
"He was tall," was Chad's first response when asked about his partner. "He was too friendly and he had one of those Columbia School of Broadcasting voices, so if he'd walked up next to me in a bar, I'd have probably walked out. We met in Binion's in 2003. [The relationship] is somewhere in between professional relationship and friendship. He'd say friend. I always tell people I don't have friends. I'm not social. I don't go out much. I prefer dogs. We've spent a lot of time together shared more meals than either of us would like. We spend a lot of time in confined spaces together. We'd better get along, and we'd better bathe."
"That is exactly Norman," McEachern said when read the previous paragraph. "I've spent a lot of time with him, and a lot of it is professionally based. We don't get together and talk about what we'll be doing in upcoming shows, so the spontaneity is human. He's not a social animal. It's just who he is. Once you accept what and who he is, things will go much better. If you take him the wrong way or expect more, you might be disappointed. He has to come out of his shell at the Rio. He's an old print kind of guy, so he loves walking the Rio and looking for stories. If he were anonymous, it would be the perfect job for him. I think we're better friends than he says we are."
Doesn't that exchange just sum up how well they know each other? It's that intimate understanding of each other that's made their interactions so fluid, part of what's allowed them to maintain their place atop the poker commentary world. "It's been a real pleasure watching their professional [and personal] relationship over the years," said 441 Productions executive producer Matt Maranz. "In some ways, they're like an old, married couple. They'll know what each other is going to say before they say it, or will finish each other's sentence. And both are extremely unselfish. Neither counts lines or worries the other guy is getting too much airtime or attention. Their goal is to make the show better and whatever it takes, they're willing to do."
Through their collaboration, Chad has become a broadcaster and McEachern a poker guy. Going with Maranz's married couple analogy, they've made one another more complete. It's an evolution that seems likely to continue with ESPN signed on for WSOP coverage through 2017.
"I'd love to keep it going," McEachern said. "As tired as we get right now we're in the middle of the season in terms of production. We look at the hump days as the most difficult. We're tired, there's lots of travel, long days in the booth and you just can't wait to get out of there like any other job, but then we look at one another and realize that five to seven years ago, if they said we could still be doing this in 2010, we'd have done it in a heartbeat. We know we're lucky, and I'd love to keep on going as long as they'll have me."
"Eight years ago I didn't know I'd be doing it eight years from now, but it's so much fun," Chad said. "If I'm doing it eight years from now, that would be great. The production team has become a family, and it's a better family than my own. My family doesn't invite me for Thanksgiving, but these guys do."
Just as 441 Productions opens its doors to the broadcasters, it opens the WSOP's doors to the viewer, with Chad and McEachern as the hosts who have given those WSOP broadcasts their identity. That's why they get the airtime; they're the show's real stars. You can remind yourself of what they do to make those shows so comfortable and memorable on Tuesday night.
Editor's note: Peter Popovich, a cardroom manager at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, died Saturday from surgical complications. Our condolences go to his and the Bellagio's family.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter via @GaryWise1.
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