Friday, July 15, 2016

Checking in the Dark

I have been idly checking in on where things stand in the World Series of Poker Main Event from time to time today. Mainly I’m just noting who is leading and players left, while occasionally being moved to look a little more closely at the updates after noticing someone tweet about the tournament.

As I was talking about earlier in the week, for those not at the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino right now, it’s like the entire Main Event is being played in semi-secrecy. Sure, updates and chip counts give us the stats and essentials, but that can be a lot like watching a self-refreshing box score of a live game on the ESPN site or Yahoo! Sports. Or a scrolling stock ticker. Or the clock on your microwave oven ticking down.

Don’t get me wrong -- I’m a huge proponent of “live updates” (or whatever you want to call them) and their centrality to poker tournaments. I’m also a big fan of the folks on site there right now churning them out hour after hour, day after day.

I partly value updates for their historical value and the way they capture and chronicle these very stats and essentials I’m referring to (like a box score). But I also think when done well they enable interesting storytelling, and can even help underscore what makes poker a special game to so many.

I’m remembering writing a post here nearly five years ago in which I was praising good poker reporting. I quoted James McManus making a reference to Al Alvarez and his high-watermark reporting on the WSOP from years ago. In the quote, McManus noted how Alvarez proved a well-crafted “prose account of poker action is quite a bit more exciting than watching the game in person, or even on television with hole cards revealed.”

In that earlier post, I expressed agreement with McManus, although today I’m realizing I’d like to add a qualification to my agreement.

I think when looking back on reporting from a tournament, a rich, detailed narrative recounting hands and other goings-on really can potentially be as engaging and entertaining as any televised broadcast.

That isn’t so much the case for hyper-literal recounting of action minus any color whatsoever (which really is more or less like reading old box scores). But when the updates manage to incorporate elements of strong storytelling -- well-drawn characters, a sense of plot, mindful scene-setting, an interesting style, and so on -- I absolutely believe they can challenge or even exceed the excitement level of televised poker.

Meanwhile, when it comes to following an event as it is happening, the live stream (or “almost live” stream on a slight delay) is always going to be a preferred way to experience a tournament.

Five years ago live streams weren’t nearly as prevalent. Nor were they as trivially easy both to produce and to consume. But today they are the norm, and even small tournaments wishing to attract an audience routinely post some kind of video in order to provide those not on site a way to follow the action.

I’ll make do, as will others who are fans of the game. But we’ll also keep on hoping one year the WSOP will figure out a way to let more people enjoy the early, middle, and penultimate stages of its marquee event as they are playing out.

Image: “SMPTE Color Bars - Test card,” Denelson83. CC BY-SA 3.0.

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