Monday, August 11, 2014

Watching Golf, Watching Poker

Got thoroughly caught up in the PGA Championship yesterday. Such high quality play from the leaders at the end, and Rory McIlroy more than proved himself with his comeback, making shot after shot to top that tough field and claim yet another major. Three straight weeks’ worth of wins by McIlroy is pretty incredible, too -- perhaps slightly more likely than a poker player winning three successive tournaments, but still a very rare feat to pull off.

I’ve written here before about the many similarities between golf and poker, both of which are games that players of wildly differing levels of skill and commitment can enjoy. Amateur golfers like myself can watch pros and still feel somewhat connected with what we are seeing, having ourselves attempted similar shots even if we’re competing on a much lower level. I’m not sure that’s really so much the case, though, with poker. Not currently, anyway.

I was realizing yesterday that when we think back to televised poker’s heyday during the mid-2000s, one of the primary attractions for a lot of us was the fact that we could make a similar connection with what we were watching. Whether it be the WSOP Main Event, the prelims that got some play on ESPN during those couple of years, the WPT, or other poker on TV, many of us watching were players ourselves and without too much effort could readily appreciate similarities between hands we were playing and those we were watching.

It was kind of like one big game then (if that makes sense), with online poker especially helping all of us feel connected in a much more immediate way than is the case today. Even if we didn’t necessarily think “one day that’ll be me” as we watched, we still recognized the games on TV as analogous to what we were doing when we played.

Some of us who continue to tune in and watch televised poker today still think in similar terms as we watch -- that is, we connect somewhat with the players and the game -- but I think the gap between what’s happening on screen and what most of us experience with poker is a lot wider now. Certainly when it’s the “Big One for One Drop” being shown none of us identifies that much with those participating in a $1 million buy-in event. But even in other tourneys I’d venture to say many of us find it hard to relate to what we’re seeing.

During the PGA broadcasts this week they would occasionally show short instructional segments featuring Lou Guzzi, the 2013 PGA Teacher of the Year. That’s a shot of him above, getting set to deliver a quick lesson about how to hit the ball out of a fairway sandtrap. The lesson didn’t seem out of place at all within the context of the coverage. Players could benefit from the instruction, and even non-players might have found it interesting to see the mechanics of such a shot being explained.

I know in televised poker there have been various attempts to introduce strategy discussion into the coverage. In truth, every single hand shown is usually accompanied by some talk along those lines. But I think most of such commentary is received simply as describing the action, not prescribing potential plays we viewers might make. The level of engagement by the viewer just isn’t the same with poker as it is with golf.

I’m discussing this phenomenon as if it isn’t just personal but applies more broadly among most viewers, which could be incorrect. This might just be me. Or what I’m describing might primarily apply to recreational players of both golf and poker (in which categories I put myself in both cases), and not as much to others.

Still, I think for all the similarities between golf and poker, there are some big differences, too, particularly when it comes to trying to make the card game into a game as engaging to watch as golf can be.

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