Thursday, November 03, 2011

Talkin’ 2011 WSOP Main Event Final Table on ESPN

Yesterday afternoon I participated along with about a dozen other poker media in a conference call conducted by ESPN concerning this weekend’s resuming of the 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event final table. On the call were Doug White, Senior Director of Programming and Acquisitions for ESPN, Dan Gati of Poker PROductions (who took over the WSOP coverage for ESPN this year), and co-hosts Lon McEachern and Norman Chad.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, we’ll be getting “almost live” coverage of every hand from this year’s ME FT on our teevees (on ESPN2) as well as streaming online. I’ll admit I’m much more intrigued about this year’s November Nine than I would’ve been otherwise thanks to ESPN’s change in plans to offer more comprehensive coverage.

Here’s an overview of most of the topics covered in the call.

The last November Nine?

Please Stand ByOf course, with this move toward “almost live” coverage, the whole idea behind the November Nine -- i.e., to delay the final table four months in order to show the prepackaged, edited shows and build some audience interest before it plays out -- has been thrown into question.

On Tuesday there appeared an article over on PokerListings in which WSOP Communications Director Seth Palansky was quoted saying that the move toward “almost live” coverage was making it less needful to continue with the final table delay.

“If you’re doing something live do you really need to delay it four months and try to build this anticipation to get people to watch?” was the question posed by Palansky, who added that the November Nine idea -- first instituted in 2008 -- “doesn’t quite work” anymore. Thus Palansky says the WSOP is “going to have to revisit the concept after this November.”

We’d all seen that piece, so when Kevin Mathers kicked off the conference call with a question about it, we were all interested to hear what the response would be. Unfortunately -- unlike past years -- there were no WSOP representatives on the call this time, and so none of the ESPN guys could really address the question other than to say they hadn’t heard anything as yet from the WSOP about any changes in the works.

Later Matt Showell of PokerListings asked again if the format made sense anymore with the (almost) live shows, and Doug White said he thought it still did. He referred to the “the pomp and circumstance that you get around the final table in November,” and the “electricity and the excitement” there in the Penn & Teller Theater, noting how he didn’t “think you'd get that same kind of feel if you held the final table in July with the rest of the event.”

Going “almost live”

Hole cardsKevin followed up with a question about the 15-minute delay and whether having such a short amount of time between the hands’ completion and the world learning what players held might pose any problems.

“Not concerned about the 15-minute delay,” chimed in Gati, who said he believed shortening the delay “makes it that much more exciting while not really impacting anything that’s going on at the table.”

When I had my chance to ask questions, I got Gati to say a little more about what exactly we’ll be seeing come Sunday. He explained that like this summer they will only be showing hole cards after a hand is over (unlike, say, what we saw on that WPT live stream this week when we saw the hole cards from the start of the hand). However, unlike in July they will additionally be showing hole cards in hands that don’t go to a flop, too, essentially focusing on players who are involved in the preflop action.

Gati gave a few examples to clarify. Say it folds around to the small blind who raises and the big blind folds -- we’ll see both of the blinds’ hands afterwards. Same goes for a mid-position open that doesn’t get called -- we’ll see the raiser’s hand as well as the big blind’s hand (the last player to act).

Later Mark Mayer of Gaming Today asked about the difference between showing hands preflop and waiting to show hole cards after the conclusion of hands. Doug White noted how doing the former requires sequestering players, which would negatively affect the atmosphere by taking the crowd out of the equation. (Of course, as we saw with the WPT coverage this week, they were able to show hole cards preflop on a 30-minute delay while still having a crowd in attendance.)

What to expect Sunday and Tuesday

What to expect Sunday and TuesdaySeveral asked about the logistics of the Sunday and Tuesday shows. It sounds like on Sunday we’ll mostly have McEachern and Antonio Esfandiari in the booth with Chad coming and going. Then on Tuesday -- when the final three players return to play it out -- they’ll have all of them in place as a three-man commentating team.

Why play down to three instead of two (as in past years)? So asked Howard Stutz of the Las Vegas Review Journal. Doug White referred to the “excitement factor,” but it sounds like the change was made mostly to ensure they’d be able to show more than just a short heads-up match on Tuesday.

Kara Scott will be there to interview players when they bust as well as others in attendance. There will probably be a number of guests in the booth (especially on Sunday, I imagine). And they may at times show hands from earlier in the 2011 WSOP ME and abridged versions of player profiles, although Dan Gati said they will “focus really on the competition.”

As far as what to expect from the players go, the general sentiment was that all nine have a reasonable shot at winning the sucker. As Lon McEachern said in response to my invitation to handicap the final table, “anyone is dangerous.”

What to expect in the future

The FutureJesse May (The Poker Farm) asked about whether any of the players have voiced concerns about the quick turnaround and showing of hole cards.

McEachern noted he’d heard an interview with Matt Giannetti in which he had said “as long as it's a level playing field, it is what it is.” It sounds like the players are mostly accepting the fact that this extra info -- including what they will no doubt gather from friends during breaks about opponents’ hands -- is now part of the game.

May then asked a logical follow-up: Why not just remove the delay altogether and show the players the cards right after each hand, too? Doug White said that was certainly a genuine goal for ESPN. “We would love to get to that point,” said White, “to be able to show this ‘live-live’ to the fans.”

As May has written about before, he believes this is a direction we are headed with poker on television, a move toward a “perfect information” game that becomes a true “spectator sport” (see here for more).

Rating the ratings

Rating the ratingsPokerati Dan asked Doug White about the ratings for the shows leading up to the final table. Without going into specifics White admitted they “haven't been as strong as they were last year," adding that “there could be several reasons” for the drop that they were “looking into.” (I wrote a bit “On the WSOP Ratings” last week.)

White is “optimistic and bullish” about the final table, though, for which they are expecting a “good final rating.”

Dan then asked Dan Gati of Poker PROductions to address the drop in ratings, though couched his question in a judgment that “with all due respect... the non-live shows leading up to this November Nine have kind of sucked this year, in my humble opinion.” In other words, the question wasn’t really about the ratings, but rather to explain why the shows weren’t as good -- was it because this was a “first go” for Poker PROductions, or perhaps was poker TV “evolving” and “needing to be reassessed” in order to satisfy viewers’ expectations?

With a chuckle Gati noted he couldn’t accept Dan’s premise -- and so couldn’t really answer his question (i.e., why the shows “sucked”) -- but did nonetheless address the challenge of satisfying various types of viewers, e.g., both casual and “hardcore” poker fans. He also noted how some who watched the live shows in July found their enjoyment of the prepackaged shows lessened somewhat since they’d seen hands previously.

Doug White jumped in as well to compliment Poker PROductions and to say how they’d addressed various viewer concerns this year, including showing more hands as well as the whole move toward the “almost live” coverage.

International feel

International feelThe fact that among these nine players no less than seven nations are being represented was brought up more than once Wednesday afternoon. That’s a record for a WSOP ME final table, and Dan Gati suggested it will probably translate into some “rowdy crowds” from all the different countries there at the Penn & Teller Theater.

McEachern and Chad noted how the final table’s “international flavor” (as one questioner put it) indicates how the game has progressed over recent years.

“We’ve got poker’s United Nations happening this coming week,” said McEachern.

“It's where's poker's going,” added Chad, conceding that it was certainly a good thing unless you were an American who didn’t like seeing the U.S. “export” its favorite card game. “If we did this with the space program I don't think we would have been the first on the moon,” he cracked, though added that it was “great to see” so many countries represented among the final nine.

Relatedly, ESPN will be airing the coverage on several of its international networks, apparently, so those folks can watch, too. Also, those outside of the U.S. will be able to watch the coverage streaming on as well, which is great news for them. Unfortunately here in the U.S. the only way we can see the coverage online will be via ESPN3, which a lot of us (myself included) cannot access. Thankfully I do receive ESPN2 and so will be watching there.

Other items

Max Heinzelmann and Shaun DeebThere were a few other items discussed during the call.

When asked what moments stood out for them at this summer’s ME, McEachern cited that wild A-6-versus-A-A hand between Max Heinzelmann and Shaun Deeb from Day 3. (Read about that one here.) Meanwhile Chad, a big fan of the “everyman,” liked the hand from Day 6 in which Bob Bounahra survived with 8-7 suited versus pocket kings. Bounahra “embodies what we love about the Main Event,” said Chad, who believes having “a guy like him at the final table it just adds so much life and color to it.”

A question came up near the end asking how close we were to seeing a woman make an ME final table, and the response focused on the continued low percentage of women who enter, holding steady at around 3.5%. McEachern noted Linda Johnson’s recent induction into the Poker Hall of Fame and how that might inspire more women to play.

James Guill (of Poker Junkie) then asked if there would be any coverage of Tuesday’s PHOF induction ceremony (scheduled a couple of hours prior to the restart of play that night), and apparently there will be a brief reference and perhaps a short clip.

Shamus watches the WSOPAs I say, I’m intrigued to see how it all plays out. It almost feels like the decision to show “almost live,” comprehensive coverage of the final table is a bigger story than the event itself.

In fact, without having a favorite player or any especially compelling story regarding a player going in, I’m probably more interested in seeing how the coverage is handled, its possible affect on the play, and how it is received than I am in finding out who wins.

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