Wednesday, October 24, 2012

For the Record: Keeping Score at the WSOP

Jessica Welman, besides now working as Managing Editor for, also keeps an engaging personal blog where she mostly writes about popular culture or comments on other issues of the day. However, every once in a while she uses that space to write about poker, such as a few days ago when she shared a nifty find she’d made in her capacity with the WSOP in a post titled “Lending History a Helping Hand-for-Hand.”

Jessica came across some online reporting from the WSOP conducted from 1995 to 2000 -- that, is dating back to pretty much the beginning of online anything -- and in her post describes what she found and what she likes about it.

Her post ultimately points back to the argument in favor of so-called “hand-for-hand” reports from final tables, something both she and B.J. Nemeth have long petitioned for and demonstrated in their reporting from World Poker Tour final tables. I’m talking about the practice of reporting every single hand from a final table, often numbering them, rather than only reporting most and/or significant hands while perhaps inserting other items of interest or relevance along the way.

Thus Jessica’s primary emphasis in her post is to argue that “it is time we stepped it up with hand-for-hand of every major final table” at WSOP events and other major tourneys. I want to address that argument, but first let me say a few things about that 1995-2000 coverage Jessica unearthed and in particular the examples of hand-for-hand reporting they contain.

Here is the page containing links to those 1995-2000 WSOPs. I know I’ve seen some of this before tucked away on the Conjelco site, although to be honest I hadn’t really explored it much and so like Jessica wasn’t previously aware of everything that was there.

By the way, for those seeking more early online reporting from the WSOP, the PokerPages site has reports going back to 2000. (There’s overlap, actually, with the same 2000 reports appearing on both sites.) CardPlayer has live updates from all events in 2005 and 2006. And from 2007 to present, PokerNews has handled the coverage as a primary content provider for the WSOP.

Among those reports from 1995-2000 one finds event summaries (including interviews and other goodies) written by Tom Sims, Andy Glazer, and Mike Paulle. Some of their reports from those final tables are quite thorough, and as Jessica points out these writers have left behind a great resource for anyone interested in studying the WSOP history during these pre-“boom” years. These guys were truly trailblazers.

One especially cool nugget highlighted by Jessica is a hand-for-hand account by Sims of the 1997 WSOP Main Event final table at which Stu Ungar won his third title. She also highlights another interesting item from that year’s WSOP Main Event, “The Andy Bloch Project” in which Sims and Bloch worked together to report all 648 hands Bloch played in that year’s ME.

Both reports are fascinating in their thoroughness. I think it’s probably safe to say nothing quite like it had been tried before -- not on such a scale, anyway -- and thus was Sims (and in the latter case, Sims and Bloch) challenged to establish both a methodology for keeping track of the info as well as devise a system for presenting it.

There to the left is a little snippet of Sims’s hand-for-hand reporting from the 1997 ME final table, with abbreviations indicating players, positions, and actions. As he himself explains in his “Post-Mortem” that appears as a sidebar to his reporting, he dictated hands into a microcassette recorder as they occurred, then transcribed it all to post online by the next day. (Jessica mentions in her post the poker player Melissa Hayden confirming this method adopted by Sims.)

Jessica praises Sims highly, and I can’t help but agree with her that he’s left something especially valuable in his report. Jessica calls Sims’s 1997 ME final table report “one of the most compelling, colorful, and thorough pieces of content” she’s ever read, and even goes so far as to suggest that between that report and “The Andy Bloch Project,” “his efforts... have more long-term value than any of the coverage generated at this year’s series.”

I’ll continue to agree with Jessica regarding Sims’s reports being “compelling” and “thorough.” And while the hand-for-hand stuff is not really that “colorful,” the “Daily Report” Sims filed to go as part of his 1997 ME final table reporting is indeed terrific, setting the stage nicely and really capturing the unusual scene at the only WSOP Main Event final table every to have been played outdoors (on Fremont Street, in front of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino).

I’m not going to go as far as Jessica and suggest the wealth of coverage from the 2012 WSOP somehow has less long-term value than Sims’s ’97 reports. I do think Jessica means more to praise Sims than denigrate more recent reporting efforts, and in fact her main point (as mentioned above) is really to advocate for hand-for-hand reporting from all WSOP final tables -- i.e., not just the Main Event -- so future readers and students of the WSOP can enjoy a record as thorough as the one Sims created 15 years ago.

In other words, I appreciate what she’s saying about the need for hand-for-hand coverage. From 2005-2006, CardPlayer occasionally provided hand-for-hand reports from WSOP final tables. PokerNews continued to try to do so from 2007-2008, and every once in a while in 2009. I was there with PN in ’08 and ’09, and so helped produce some of those reports and thus have had experience live blogging hand-for-hand. But from 2009 onward I believe the only hand-for-hand reporting from final tables that has been done at the WSOP happened at Main Events and the big buy-in events like the $50K Player’s Championship and the “Big One for One Drop.”

However, with regard to hand-for-hand reporting, let me point out a few issues Jessica doesn’t mention in her post.

She refers to the WPT’s reporting of final tables (which she helped with up until taking her position with the WSOP) and the standard set there for hand-for-hand reporting. “As a result,” notes Jessica, the WPT is “able to offer a wealth of statistical information that can only be estimated on other tours and at the WSOP.”

She’s right. It’s a little like having complete box scores for one league’s games, but only partially complete statistics for another. And like I say, I like the point she’s making about there needing to be more thorough “box scores” at the WSOP. As she notes, “these updates are the official record of these events and have a shelf life and utility that extends beyond the day of the final table,” and thus the more thorough the reports are, the more useful they can be.

Of course, the WPT’s final tables are exclusively no-limit hold’em, whereas at the WSOP many non-hold’em events present particular challenges when it comes to hand-for-hand reporting.

Pot-limit Omaha with pot-limit betting and two extra hole cards requires an extra bit of mental cogitation to chronicle hands at showdown. Stud games present more problems, with even more cards to keep up with, shifting betting order, and fixed-limit betting often speeding up the action. And of course, split-pot games add still more difficulty with multiple winning hands, split and quartered pots, and so on.

That’s not to say hand-for-hand coverage isn’t possible for non-hold’em events. But it is easier said than done. In fact, I’d suggest even an especially quick and talented reporter with a microcassette recorder (or today, an iPad) would find producing a complete hand-for-hand report from a Stud/8 final table an incredibly difficult task.

Speaking of Sims’s microcassette recorder, we might also point out that Sims didn’t “live blog” the 1997 WSOP Main Event final table, but rather filed a report the next day. Still a quick turnaround, but it’s probably worth noting that Sims didn’t face the same deadline -- i.e., right now -- that today’s live bloggers do.

Finally, I’d like to share some of what Tom Sims himself had to say about the innovative experiment of trying to report every hand from the 1997 WSOP Main Event final table. Interestingly, while he’s clearly proud of what he achieved with his report, he’s much less quick to praise his work and hold it up as a model of reporting than is Jessica.

Sims starts his “Post-Mortem” reflection on his reporting thusly: “The 1997 WSOP is now history, and while I am generally satisfied with my role in Conjelco’s coverage of this annual classic, I think I could have done better.”

The next paragraph then describes his process a little further while explaining why exactly he believed his reporting was somehow lacking.

As I have related previously, I was a reluctant participant, and it took numerous invitations by Chuck Weinstock before I relented and consented, much against my better judgment. I really didn’t need the hassle of what turned out to be an unrealistic commitment on my part. Also, as I now realize, I violated an old maxim of mine: I put the “em-PHAW-sis” on the wrong “syl-LABBLE”, by focusing on recording the play-by-play data and getting it on the net the next day. I only did the Daily Report narrative because of Chuck’s urging, had little time nor mind-frame to do it justice, and relied on the coded, hard to read, play-by-play data to provide most of the meat of my reportorial efforts. This was a big mistake. Making the play-by-play data a public record was my prime motivation, but I should have highlighted more of the color and important hands at the daily Final Tables, and done the tedious transcribing of play-by-play data at my leisure, after the WSOP. If I ever undertake another Poker reportorial [sic] assignment, I will skip the hand-by-hand data (I’ve made my contribution!), or do it on a “to follow at my leisure” basis, and devote a lot more time and effort to what’s going on.
Sims is much too hard on himself here, particularly with regard to his “Daily Report” which is quite engaging and highlights plenty of color (even if it doesn’t really talk about important hands). And despite what he says about abandoning the experiment, it appears he did provide one more hand-for-hand report for the 1998 WSOP Main Event final table as well.

Still, the reservations he expresses about hand-for-hand reporting are worth noting.

Interestingly, while he certainly believes that the “play-by-play data” he’s produced is valuable -- and with great prescience has an idea of a “public record” to which he’s contributing -- he laments that by producing the hand-for-hand report he’s largely missed out on being able to share the larger story of that year’s final table. Recognizing his own limitations as an individual reporter, he consciously chooses to forgo the hand-for-hand experiment going forward in favor of stepping back and being able to report “what’s going on.”

I present Sims’s own self-criticism as more food for thought to those who like Jessica would like to see future WSOP coverage model itself after what he accomplished.

One way of ensuring the creation of such a “box score”-like report from every WSOP final table would be for the WSOP to assign one person (or perhaps two for non-hold’em events) to do what Sims did and simply stand nearby and chronicle every hand -- not reporting it immediately like the live bloggers do, but taking the time afterwards to reassemble the notes into a readable format.

Of course, PokerNews (or another media outlet) could assign reporters to perform this task. And not to speak for PN, but I’d imagine they’d happily do so if the WSOP insisted that was the kind of coverage they required from them as part of their arrangement. But as Sims himself points out, producing such “play-by-play data” necessarily means the reporter(s) engaged in doing so aren’t going to be able to do much else.

I’ll end the post here, having already run on much longer than intended. I haven’t even gotten into the larger debate between the relative “value” or “shelf life” of unembellished hand-for-hand reporting and more imaginative narratives about what happens at a poker tournament -- an argument that if taken far enough starts to resemble debates about the relative worth of scientific explanations of the world versus artistic responses to it.

Anyhow, as a “word guy,” you probably already suspect where I lean on that one. So I’ll stop here and invite you to share your own words about it all.

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Blogger Jess said...

Thanks for writing this. I was really hoping my post would facilitate some conversation, not necessarily persuade people to my side. I am glad it got you thinking about the subject and I think you bring up some interesting points, in particular, how Sims perceived his own work.

I do agree that mixed games are a tall order. While the unofficial king of hand-for-hand BJ Nemeth and others like change 100 seemed to effectively pull it off in the 2007 WSOP reporting (see:, I agree that is probably a concession we would have to make.

And you are correct that my intent is not to denigrate current reporting in the poker world. I will say though that I do think the way we approach these tournaments is so preoccupied with immediacy that the historical value of these final tables is not being given adequate consideration.

As for logistics and the potential loss of color, typically two reporters work a final table. If one is writing hand for hand, which can be done with a little cooperation from the announcer, the other can still add color and frequent chip count updates. I don't mean to indicate I don't think relaying table chatter or what is going on in the audience is important as well. I firmly believe it is. I just believe that there is room for both.

I guess I also just don't agree with the "significant action" standard that has developed in tournament reporting. In football, we don't just not broadcast first down on TV because the QB threw an incomplete pass. That play is significant because it put the team at 2nd & 10 and helps us understand how a team got to a third and long situation.

Poker is the same IMO. I don't believe you can fully understand why the monster pot is significant without reporting all the small stolen pots than lead someone to get frustrated or short stacked. Without hand for hand, or at least a concerted effort to report the vast majority of hands, not just the ones where lots of chips are at stake, I think we lose just as much "color" as we gain.

10/24/2012 1:29 PM  
Blogger BJ Nemeth said...

You wrote: "I’m talking about the practice of reporting every single hand from a final table, often numbering them, rather than only reporting most and/or significant hands while perhaps inserting other items of interest or relevance along the way."

I disagree that "inserting other items of interest or relevance along the way" is incompatible with hand-for-hand coverage. It's not.

The difference between hand-for-hand coverage and only reporting "key hands" is just that -- and nothing more.

As an example, I submit the PokerNews coverage of the 2007 WSOP $50,000 HORSE Championship, which was covered by myself and Dr. Pauly.


By myself, I handled the hand-for-hand reporting, typing every check, bet, call, raise, and fold, along with every exposed card on the table -- in real time. All it took was a plan, a little preparation, and a 10-minute chat with the announcer, who was happy to help.

That freed up Dr. Pauly to provide commentary, and he did a very thorough job of it, providing analysis of each round along with color.

Though I think if you take a look at the final couple of hands, you'll see that I was able to work some interesting color and descriptions directly into the hand-for-hand coverage.

At most WSOP final tables (if not all), PokerNews has assigned two reporters. And the WSOP provides an announcer for every final table. There is no logistical reason for not being able to provide hand-for-hand coverage.

Nor should it come at the expense of color commentary.

10/24/2012 1:30 PM  
Blogger BJ Nemeth said...

As a counter-example, can anyone provide a link to any PokerNews live coverage from the 2012 WSOP that was so colorful and insightful that it was incompatible with hand-for-hand coverage? Is there a carefully crafted story of each final table that colorfully describes the highs and lows in an engaging matter?

One of the most compelling nights of this summer's WSOP was when Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth were heads-up and going for bracelets at the same time (though in different events). Can someone show me a PokerNews report that captures the atmosphere and tells the story in a compelling and colorful way?

Because if it's out there, I must have missed it.

If someone were to ask me about creating compelling coverage, I'd point to my very thorough photo blogs, which I feel recap the action in an interesting, compelling way, while only dealing with the highlights.

Here's a look at Durrrr's amazing run at a bracelet at the 2010 WSOP. The official WSOP Photo Blog is in reverse chronological order, so you you'll have to start on page 56, and then read page 55, and then 54, and then 53. (Yes, it took me 35 photos to tell that story.)


10/24/2012 1:45 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Thanks, guys.

I actually think there currently is a concerted effort to report nearly every hand from the WSOP final tables. That editorial decision about "significant hands" is frankly hard to make on the fly, and as a result a majority of hands often get reported anyway. Probably because I'm one of those guys who began reporting from final tables when H4H was still the goal, I'm always trying to post as much info as possible both in terms of actual hands, ongoing chip counts, and every other bit of relevant contextual info that's necessary to understand the significance of what is happening at each step. (I think most others doing the live blogging are, too.)

You both mention cooperation from the announcer being a key component when it comes doing a complete H4H -- I agree. The reporter's vantage point is important, too (how far away from the table is he or she stationed?). I'd suggest at this summer's WSOP there were logistical obstacles that would've made it difficult had PN decided to do hand-for-hand for every event (especially at the non-Amazon FTs), though nothing that couldn't be addressed fairly easily if H4H became a shared priority for the WSOP and the primary content provider.

I purposely tried to avoid setting this up as an "either/or" argument between H4H & color, because like both of you I think we can have (and should desire) both. B.J., you jump on a distinction I make when I try to define what hand-for-hand reporting is, but I don't really mean to define H4H as excluding color altogether. In fact, Sims is more emphatic than I am about having to choose between the two. And anyway, as Jess notes at the end of her comment, "color" isn't so useful without sufficient specifics of what is happening, so it's silly to champion one over the other or even to suggest they can exist separately.

There are other issues here, including weighing the different kinds of "value" (historical, strategic, even literary) potentially present in final table reports. I say I'm a "word guy," but I also find the stats produced by tournament poker fascinating. As a kid I loved scoring baseball games, even while watching them on TV -- whatta nerd, eh? -- and couldn't get enough of baseball's endless riches of numbers. So while I'd love to be able to go to the WSOP one summer and come away with a draft of the next The Biggest Game in Town, I also find something satisfying in being involved in the "score-keeping," too. (I probably wouldn't keep going back year after year if I didn't.)

10/24/2012 2:32 PM  
Blogger Merom Doft said...

I didn't cover Ivey or Hellmuth's final table, but whoever was cannot be in two places at once providing live updates on both final tables.

It isn't a PokerNews reporter's job to know everything that is going on at once. We focus on what we are assigned each day. It is not fair to criticize the reporting of Hellmuth's razz final table because it didn't capture how cool it was that Ivey was also at a final table. The reporters usually go from start to finish on an event, so they aren't following Ivey's tournament (there are exceptions to that, especially me)

It is incredibly unfair to criticize. To do a football game example since Jess did, if I want to watch USC vs Oregon, I would damn well hope I'm not listening to Alabama vs Florida commentary the entire time to understand the scope of it all. If i wanted that, I'll watch sportscenter after.

10/24/2012 5:48 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

I have to agree with MD here, BJ -- he's absolutely right to defend.

Your shot at PN is unwarranted. It also misses the point of my post, which in no way suggests that H4H is "incompatible" with other types of reporting. I mention the challenge of a single person doing both H4H and anything else, but I'm hardly saying H4H reporting is incompatible with other kinds of reporting.

You move on to cite examples of your own reporting and praise them as more compelling than others'. Fine, do that all you like. But that, too, is beside the point. What we're talking about here is Jess's suggestion that there is a need for H4H reports for all final tables and the value of doing so -- not that other types of reporting isn't valuable (or colorful or compelling), too.

10/25/2012 9:35 AM  
Blogger BJ Nemeth said...

Sorry for the defensiveness. (And the aggressiveness.) But as you know, I am very passionate about this issue. Especially since I am forbidden from providing H4H coverage at the WSOP -- and the one outlet that *is* allowed thinks it isn't a priority.

My feeling is that complete H4H coverage at final tables is important, and it adds value without detracting from color. I have yet to see anything in the PokerNews live updates that is incompatible with H4H coverage.

I will not accept "It's too difficult" as a reason for not doing H4H. It's not.

I will not accept "It's too expensive," or "It requires too many resources," because it doesn't.

PokerNews has proven that it can provide H4H coverage for "big events," like the One Drop and the Main Event. The problem (as I see it) is that PokerNews doesn't consider most WSOP bracelet events to be "big events."

So let's stop dancing around the issue. The only reason PokerNews doesn't provide H4H coverage is that PokerNews chooses not to do it.

It's not a compromise, it's a choice. And I strongly disagree with the decision that PokerNews has made by not providing H4H coverage.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

As for Sims, he was reporting in a completely different era.

Sims wasn't deciding whether to report 65% of the hands live or 100% of the hands live. He wasn't reporting *anything* live.

Sims was deciding whether to write a traditional narrative recap article, or to provide H4H coverage -- two *very* different ways to cover a tournament, both in terms of the final product and the amount of work required.

PokerNews isn't facing that choice.

PokerNews is deciding whether to cover 65% of the hands or 100% of the hands. A completely different situation than the one that Sims faced.

10/25/2012 6:05 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Understood, BJ. I've written a post here that speaks in favor of the value of H4H reporting.

You have some phrases in quotes -- I assume you're indicating things others have said and not me, because those aren't my words. I said (in some cases) H4H was difficult, but never that it was too difficult to do. I never said anything about H4H coverage being too expensive or requiring too many resources.

10/25/2012 8:04 PM  

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