Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Making Stories That Make Sense

Story sandwichWas thinking a little about the 15-plus hours of coverage of the 2011 WSOP Main Event final table aired on Sunday (on ESPN2) and Tuesday (ESPN). I enjoyed nearly all aspects of the coverage, and really it was only during the latter hour or two of heads-up between Pius Heinz and Martin Staszko that my attention flagged much at all.

That said, the marathon-like nature of the shows got me thinking about how well they might have played for the so-called “casual” poker fan. In particular, I wondered how well some were enjoying watching without knowing hole cards until after a hand had concluded.

Or, perhaps, were not enjoying watching.

Many of us enjoy not knowing the cards beforehand. We like the strategy talk and speculating about players’ holdings as a hand plays out. For us, the drama and intellectual engagement and even the emotion of watching is heightened by that unknown element. As players, we perhaps identify more easily with the “characters” in the “story” when the hole cards aren’t told to us beforehand.

But a lot of viewers aren’t as moved by such things, and in fact much prefer knowing the hole cards in advance. Rather than have to think about “what if,” they get to enjoy the benefits of knowing more than the “characters” do as a hand plays out. In other words, they are more likely to experience the pleasure that can be produced by perceiving dramatic irony.

You know what I mean. We know Juliet hasn’t really died, but only drank a sleeping potion. But the other characters don’t, including Romeo, and thus his misapprehension heightens the drama as we watch him act with an incorrect assumption about his beloved.

Think about that Hand #211 from last night -- actually the 33rd hand of the evening and the 29th of heads-up -- in which Staszko shoved with king-high on the turn over a bet by Heinz and forced a fold.

Heinz had almost 125 million and Staszko 81 million to start the hand. With the blinds 800k/1.6m with a 200k ante, Staszko opened with a raise to 3.5 million, Heinz reraised to 10.1 million, and Staszko called.

The flop came 7d2hTs. The pair looked at each other for several seconds while Heinz riffled his chips, then after almost a minute Heinz bet 9.8 million. Staszko looked at Heinz some more, then after about 30 seconds called.

The turn brought the Ac. “What an interesting card,” said Esfandiari, who then went through possible hands for Heinz. For A-K or A-Q, it was a good turn. For pocket queens or jacks, not so good. The big three-bet by Heinz before the flop -- and Staszko sticking around with calls both pre- and post-flop -- certainly made that ace on the turn interesting.

As Heinz thought further, so did Esfandiari. “There’s a very good chance that he’s up to it again,” Esfandiari finally said, meaning Heinz could well have something considerably less than a premium starter. “I mean, I would not be surprised if he turned over king-jack.”

Finally, after about 90 seconds, Heinz bet 21.3 million and looked back over at Staszko. A half-smile appeared on the normally emotionless Czech’s face as he looked back at Heinz, then down at his stack. About 15 seconds later he looked up and told the dealer he was all in, and Heinz immediately folded.

We then got to see their hands -- Jd9s for Heinz, and KdQh for Staszko!

Esfandiari and Norman Chad each expressed amazement at Staszko’s play, and Lon McEachern summarized their response by noting that “Heinz’ story did not make sense to Staszko.” Now the Czech had the lead with over 122 million while Heinz was back down under 84 million.

A thrilling hand, really, but it wasn’t until the end that we knew just how remarkable it was. And then only for a moment as the next hand was already being dealt.

Imagine knowing the cards beforehand. In other words, imagine enjoying the dramatic irony produced by the knowledge that Heinz was (as Esfandiari correctly guessed) “up to it again.” And that Staszko was up to something, too!

There are other problems with the comprehensive coverage -- namely, the long, less-than-thrilling stretches that come in between such interesting hands. But I genuinely wonder which way of presenting a hand like this one would be preferable. Which method of presentation -- with hole cards known from the start or only after the action is complete -- would produce the best or most pleasurable “story” for the most viewers?

McEachern said the line taken by Heinz in the hand “did not make sense.” But I think for many viewers not knowing hole cards all but ensures that most hands won’t make a lot of sense regardless of what the players are doing.

Make sense?

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Blogger JMF said...

I loved the new format. I found myself watching the players intently, trying to pick up tells. Esfandiari was excellent on strategy, even if the delayed reveal meant that some of the analysis had to be jammed in before the next hand. Even Chad was tolerable. After years of a Hollywood approach, the new production company has gotten serious. They did it right. (It also helped that there were two serious, respectful professionals battling for the championship.)

11/09/2011 7:26 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

The announcers, especially Antonio, got many of the hands completely wrong which really goes to show how difficult the game is when you don't have the odds of each hand winning plastered on your television :-)

11/10/2011 4:28 PM  

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