Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Poker Among the Ruins

There’s an interesting piece over on the Salon site today provocatively titled “Has ESPN ruined poker?” The article is by a freelancer named Argun M. Ulgen who provides a fairly well informed judgment on ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker over the last decade. As the title suggests, Ulgen is mostly censorious with regard to the network’s presentation of the game, and in fact he seems ready to blame the network for online poker’s legal woes in the U.S. (even if he doesn’t pursue that idea much beyond just suggesting it).

Going back to Chris Moneymaker’s big win and the much-repeated, seven-episode presentation of it by ESPN that many point to as having been a necessary component in the “boom” that followed, Ulgen recalls those early days of the hole card camera and what for many was a kind of revelation that it could actually be interesting -- even riveting -- to watch a bunch of people sitting around playing cards.

The article severely takes ESPN to task for what was always a somewhat obvious inner contradiction in the coverage of the WSOP during those first few post-Moneymaker years, really right up until the brink of Black Friday -- namely, the jarring juxtaposition of the “skill game” argument either explicitly made in the broadcasts or implied by the whole idea of showing poker on a sports network and programming seemingly highlighted by lucky hand after lucky hand with players constantly all in and powerless to affect their fate.

The coverage “routinely failed to provide by way of non-intrusive info graphics or quick commentary fundamental, skill-based pieces of information,” argues Ulgen. Noting a general lack of context surrounding the showing of all of those key preflop all-ins (not enough about stack sizes, blind levels, and so on), Ulgen laments how viewers were “mostly treated to showdown results, which, whether it is poker, basketball, or finance, is always heavily flavored with luck.”

Most of us deep within our little niche -- or “cultish game,” as Ulgen calls it -- recognized early on the wide divide between reality and romanticism in ESPN’s WSOP coverage, noting to each other at length how all of those “Degree All-In Moments” (remember those?) weren’t really poker, but added up to a kind of glorified, exaggerated version of the game that seemed to entertain not just us, but the masses, too.

From there Ulgen moves into a discussion of ESPN’s 2011 WSOP coverage from the first post-Black Friday Series, in particular its showing of uninterrupted play on a couple of Main Event tables for hours on end for several days in July, accompanied by fairly high level commentary by Olivier Busquet and Antonio Esfandiari. I remember writing a little here at the time about ESPN’s coverage that summer, including the weird feeling once of covering the tournament then going back to the hotel room early one night to watch the tourney continue on television.

Ulgen laments the rapid shift away from that type of coverage -- i.e., the sort that lended itself well to making a much more convincing and coherent “skill game” argument for poker -- that has taken place over the last two years. (He doesn’t mention or draw any conclusions from the fact that 2011 was the year Poker PROductions took over the WSOP coverage for ESPN, taking over from 411 Productions.)

He points out how the current coverage again fails to provide adequate context when showing hands. He’s a little harsh and not entirely accurate about ESPN not currently providing information about position, blind levels, and stack sizes (they usually do give all three, in fact, although not always). But he still makes a valid point about how the shows often tend to race around from highlight to highlight, having gotten far away (again) from the studied presentation of the game that briefly popped up a couple of years ago.

Ulgen’s title employs some obvious hyperbole as an attention grab. In truth, many might say that far from “ruining” poker, ESPN on the whole done has a lot more to revive poker, bringing in new players and expanding the game considerably, even if it has done so in a way that has corrupted (perhaps permanently) the mainstream’s understanding of the game in its failure to present a convincing case for poker’s skill component.

Ulgen’s article is worth a read, but for those of us who’ve been involved with poker over the last decade, the point he’s making is very familiar to us as something we all argued among ourselves at length all through those “boom” years and after. Of course, back then -- pre-UIGEA, pre-Black Friday -- we were so distracted with our multi-tabling most of us probably weren’t as invested in the argument as we might be today, as the fate of the game hardly then seemed threatened.

We were all like the guy who gets his chips in bad and then draws out anyway. Skill... luck... who cared? We were winning.

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Blogger Grange95 said...

Interesting that Ulgen claims that UIGEA generated litigation about the legality of online poker. In fact, the Big Sites assiduously avoided litigation to clarify their legal status, preferring to continue raking in cash in the prevailing grey market. Prior to the Back Friday cases (criminal and civil forfeiture), there was only one case related to the UIGEA, brought by iMEGA as a stalking horse challenge. That challenge failed miserably as the federal district court and 3rd Circuit both rejected the challenge and found UIGEA valid. (see http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/081981p.pdf ).

Also, I find it interesting that Ulgen asserts that focusing on skill will make poker more marketable. I think actual ratings do not bear this out. Even in poker's heyday, more complicated coverage of less "exciting" games like stud were a ratings disaster. Similar to football or basketball, most fans only care about basic strategy to the extent they can understand what is happening. They tune in to see the big hits, the touchdown, the breakaway dunks, etc.; whether the defense was in Cover-2 or someone set a nice pick off the ball just don't matter to the casual fan.

9/24/2013 8:19 PM  

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