Monday, August 03, 2009

Prime Time Poker: “Face the Ace” Debuts

'Face the Ace' debuts on NBCGot a call early Saturday evening from my mother letting me know that she’d seen an ad for a poker-themed show coming on NBC that night called “Face the Ace.” She assumed I’d heard about it, but wanted to let know just in case I hadn’t.

Like you, I had been hearing about “Face the Ace” off and on for the last couple of months. Indeed, within the poker community it has been singled out as a somewhat landmark event -- a poker show in prime time on a major network. I ended up recording the show Saturday night and watched it later. I tried to watch not only as a poker fan and player, but also as someone like my mother who isn’t particularly interested in poker, but might have happened on the show and watched nonetheless.

Had sort of a similar look and feel to NBC’s “Poker After Dark,” with a somewhat glitzy opening sequence cutting back and forth between scenes of Vegas at night and slow-mo, stylized shots of the pros -- the “aces” (all Full Tilt folks) -- approaching the poker table. The host is the boisterous Steve Schirripa, best known for his role as Bobby Bacala on “The Sopranos.”

One could hear applause early on as if there were a studio audience, but that must have been canned as we saw no shots of any crowd. As on “Poker After Dark,” the atmosphere quickly turned sedate once the poker playing commenced, with just a little bit of mood music thrown in (à la “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”) whenever there was an all in.

“Most people have played a little poker before,” Schirripa began.

Indeed, I was surprised at how the show essentially assumed the audience’s knowledge of hold’em. There was no explanation early on about how to play. Nor was there much info about how the heads-up matches were going to be structured, although that was made clear enough as the show progressed. I know most of the readers of this blog wouldn’t need any of that stuff, but I sensed the non-poker person probably wasn’t going to be sticking around for long without some help along those lines.

How does the show work? Contestants qualify via Full Tilt, I believe, and are given the chance to play a heads-up match against one of the site’s sponsored pros (whom they choose at random). If the contestant wins the first match, he or she gets $40,000 and the option to play a second match against another pro. Winning the second match nets the player $200,000, but losing means going home with nothing. If the contestant manages to win the second match, there’s an option to play one more for a cool $1 million. Again, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition, as losing the third match means losing the $200K as well.

In addition to Schirripa, Ali Nejad comes and goes occasionally, serving as the “tournament director” and additional (perhaps a bit superfluous) commentator. Play-by-play is delivered by Matt Vasgersian (heard, not seen). And Megan Abrigo is the “hostess” there to open to doors to admit the entrance of the “aces” into the room.

Saturday’s debut featured two contestants playing three matches. If you’re planning to watch the show and don’t want to know ahead of time how the matches went, stop reading now.

The first contestant was Jonathan Nygaard who drew Phil Ivey. Nygaard seemed more than a little uncomfortable on camera -- making it all a bit uncomfortable to watch, to be honest -- though Ivey actually drew him out a bit with some table talk (asking him where he was staying in Vegas, what he was doing for fun, etc.). As far as poker goes, the match was hardly compelling. Players started with 20,000 chips (blinds 200/400). Nygaard picked up pocket aces on the first hand, and won a small pot. Then on the third hand he got pocket queens, Ivey drew an ace, they got it all in preflop, the board came jack-high, and just like that Nygaard had won.

Facing the ace hardly seemed much of a challenge.

Nygaard took the money and ran, and a new contestant, the much more sociable Don Topel, came to play. He ended up playing two matches, defeating both Erik Lindgren and Howard Lederer. We only saw eight hands for the E-Dog match, and seven for the Professor’s. It appeared that most of the hands were being shown, although whenever they went to a commercial break and returned, if one was playing close attention one could tell a few hands had been omitted.

Don Topel versus Erik LindgrenThe poker was slightly more interesting in these two matches, though in both they arrived at the all-in-or-fold stage quite rapidly. (Blinds appeared to increase every five hands or so.) As I say, Topel was amiable, and there was some pleasant banter between him and the pros. He asked Lindgren where he played, and Lindgren said the Bellagio and mentioned Bobby’s Room. They joked about Topel taking his million dollars over there afterwards, and Topel said “I’ll leave town with a barrel around me.”

It looked like the show must’ve been taped just after the WSOP ended, as Ivey referred to his hopes of winning the Main Event and Lindgren mentioned how he was getting better hands in the match with Topel than he’d gotten all Series. The show concluded with Topel announcing he was going to risk the $200,000 he’d won for beating Lindgren and Lederer and go for the million dollars in a third match, which will be shown next week.

Over on the NBC site, they have listed a full schedule for the all of the episodes of “Face the Ace.” I suppose this is all subject to change, but it appears this coming Saturday’s episode will mark the last time the show will appear during prime time. Here’s the schedule:
  • August 1, 2009 -- 9:00 p.m. ET
  • August 8, 2009 -- 9:00 p.m. ET
  • September 12, 2009 -- 2:00 p.m. ET
  • October 31, 2009 -- 3:30 p.m. ET
  • November 14, 2009 -- 3:00 p.m. ET
  • December 12, 2009 -- 3:00 p.m. ET
  • January 2, 2010 -- 2:30 p.m. ET
  • Doesn’t really appear NBC has big plans for “Face the Ace,” other than to use the show to fill empty blocks here and there over the next few months. Would like to see the show succeed, of course, but can’t really imagine that happening, especially with this schedule. Of course, making it to air at all is still somewhat of an achievement.

    I’m reasonably sure my mother didn’t watch the show Saturday, though like I say she was at least aware of it. From that I’m concluding that “Face the Ace” did perhaps help a little in the broader effort to “legitimize” poker (whatever that means). That said, the show certainly didn’t do much to emphasize the skill component in poker -- really what we saw was not too unlike “Deal or No Deal” in terms of the game play. And while Topel is a likable enough guy and easy to root for, I can’t imagine any non-poker player (or even many poker players) getting invested much at all in following his journey to the possible million bucks.

    All of which is to say, if you missed the show and were thinking of watching -- which you can do over on the NBC website -- well, it’s mostly harmless fun, I guess. Sort of like picking up a small pocket pair and getting to see a flop cheaply, then missing your set and letting your hand go without taking much of a hit. A small investment, a minor thrill, all quickly forgotten.

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    Anonymous BJ Nemeth said...

    Curiously, the show seems to have been taped over two days -- July 9th and 10th. July 9th was the WSOP Media Event (and an off day for the players), and July 10th was Day 3 of the Main Event -- when most non-Ivey Full Tilt pros had already been weeded out and were available to tape the show.

    Based on Twitter messages and TwitPics from Ali Nejad, Ivey taped that premiere episode on July 9th -- and made the claim that he would win the WSOP this year with six more days of Main Event play before they'd reach the November Nine.

    I agree with your assessment regarding the hosts. I would much rather see Ali Nejad joking around with the contestants and the players, because I think he would be *far* better at it than the Sopranos actor. Nejad knows the players well, and knows how to get them to open up making the entire situation less awkward.

    8/03/2009 6:51 PM  
    Blogger seymour:cards said...

    nice idea, hope it has legs. Seems a bit strange to open the show with the nygaard vs ivey match if it was that lame!

    who are the top five poker players of all time?

    8/03/2009 6:55 PM  
    OpenID veerob said...

    There was indeed a small studio audience. You can see the amateurs looking back at their fellow amateur poker players for support.

    8/04/2009 2:29 PM  
    Blogger Kevin Mathers said...

    There was a shot of the audience at the start of the last segment. I thought it was canned as well until seeing that moment towards the end of the hour.

    8/04/2009 6:18 PM  
    Blogger kelly said...

    I've heard in the poker world a lot of hype that it's the first poker show ever to be shown in prime time, but that claim is obviously a lot more definitional than reality. I didn't think weekend evenings even qualified as "prime time", as that claim is usually reserved for M-F. And it's even less impressive since the first two episodes are being shown over the summer. And as you mentioned, moving the show to Saturday afternoons scattered throughout the rest of the year with what I'm sure will be no "upcoming shows" advertising, shows a big lack of commitment to the show overall.

    8/06/2009 2:21 PM  
    Blogger Wolynski said...

    Why doesn't NBC just pick up the WPT? It's by far the best televised and most exciting poker show.

    The ESPN coverage of the WSOP is appalling - I'd like to shoot both the smarmy hosts. I just watched the opening tournament - we go to commercials, come back and Vitaly Lunkin has doubled his stack. So WTF happened during the break? And what's this idiotic game show they keep cutting to featuring famous players?

    I'd be more worried about ESPN buggering the WSOP into oblivion than Schirrippa's ill-fated new meal ticket.

    8/07/2009 10:52 PM  
    Anonymous Cadmunkey said...

    I'd still be interested in the outcome of the $1 mill HU match if you remember to update us non-US viewers Shamus :-)

    8/10/2009 6:44 AM  
    Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

    I was also curious to see how Topel's match turned out, Cadmunkey, and so watched over the weekend. I will say the second episode was more engaging and entertaining than was the first.

    You can see it online on the NBC site -- ( Look under "Watch Video" & choose "Face the Ace."

    8/10/2009 6:51 AM  

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