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Making the World Series of Poker Better

Jonathan Duhamel

2010 Main Event Champion Jonathan Duhamel just didn't move the ratings needle

The WSOP Ratings on ESPN came out this week and the final table numbers were bad.  I mean, really bad.  They were worse than 2007 (the year that Jerry Yang won the main event) which was the last year before moving to “The November Nine” concept, and have been on a steady decline from the 2008 year when Peter Eastgate won the event.   Last year’s table with Phil Ivey drew fewer views than I think most people expected, but this year’s numbers can’t be classified as anything other than a disappointment.

The reality is that 25% fewer people watched the ESPN Broadcast of the WSOP Final Table than did the year before.  It’s not a sign that Poker is on the decline either, as the attendance was up at the WSOP by players by almost the same percentage.  But for some reason, people didn’t watch it on TV this year.  Maybe it’s due to the time slot, as a 10pm EST starting time on a Tuesday was chosen this year, meaning that it didn’t end until after midnight on the east coast.  Maybe it was due to being piggy-backed onto a largely uninteresting program of “30-for-30” which profiled a not-so-riveting story about some athlete that I’d never heard of, and didn’t care about.  It could be that scores of people had just watched it streamed live on ESPN3 only a few days before it aired, and didn’t need to watch it again that late on a Tuesday night.  Or perhaps it just has to do with the fact that the general public doesn’t seem to care about a group of nine 20-something year olds playing cards for cartoon dollar figures that most people will never make in a lifetime.  Whatever the reason, people just didn’t watch it this year.

Wicked Chops Poker recently ran an article about changes that could be made to the WSOP to make it more viewable to audiences. It made me think about the fact that there are 32 total episodes that are dedicated to covering the World Series of Poker, and more than half of them are mostly irrelevant.  In covering the NAPT – Los Angeles event for the Twitter Poker Tour this week, the reality struck me that the real stories of interest don’t come out of the early days.  The best stories come out of watching play unfold late in the tournament.

Now I’m not suggesting that ESPN completely scrap the idea of broadcasting the early stages of the tournament, but let’s be honest for a moment.  When someone opens a 100-200 blind pot for 600 chips of their 30,000 stack, and you get 1500 in the middle for a flop that represents such a small percentage of your stack, it’s just not that interesting.  In contrast, get two people who get all their chips in the middle while a million dollars is at stake, that’s interesting.  Watching Darvin Moon play 4 or 5 hands after a full day at the “featured table” and then hearing that he went bust the next day, makes his story largely irrelevant.  But seeing the people walk into the room, explain the numbers of the field size and prize pool, and get a glimpse of the chip leaders at the end of the day, pretty much tells the whole story of the early days and can be done in much less that one hour of air time.

I think that day 1, 2, and 3 of the Main Event of the WSOP can easily be recapped by a single 30 minute episode.  It basically goes something like this, “Here are the people that played.  Here’s the numbers of the tournament.  Here are the guys that finished the day as the chip leaders moving into the money day.  And here are 1 or 2 interesting stories about the first 3 days of play.  And that’s it.”  There ya’ go ESPN.  From 4 hours of TV for day 1, 2 hours of day 2, and 2 more for day 3, you have consolidated 8 hours of largely worthless television into a single 30 minute episode that sets the groundwork for the remainder of the tournament.  From then on, let’s talk about the people that matter.  Those that made the money.

So what should you do with all that time that you save?  Well, how about recapping some of the stories of final tables from the 56 other events throughout the course of the World Series? You could tell us about how Phil Ivey wins bracelet number 8.  Or show any of the other final tables with Michael Mizrachi and Frank Kassela who wins 2 bracelets, and talk more about the Player of The Year race. Perhaps you could talk to us about Allen “The Chainsaw” Kessler who cashes 8 times.  Or show us Sammy Farha winning another bracelet, as most people only remember him for finishing runner up to Chris Moneymaker.  And how about for grins and giggles, show us perhaps the biggest story of the early part of the series where Tom “Durrrr” Dwan nearly crippled the poker universe because of prop bets when he fell 1 spot shy of winning a bracelet.  You could show final tables galore by spending very little time at them filming mostly “B-roll” footage, and then talk over it in interviews with the champions who tell the story of how they won their events earlier in the series.   Just a thought.

Michael Mizrachi

The star power of Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi wasn't really leveraged properly

Secondly, we need to develop the November Nine better, and make them feel more relatable to the casual viewer.  I think that so many people are desensitized by the story of the online kid who just plays this game for hours on end by clicking a mouse for millions of dollars to make their career.  While online poker has created incredible players, TV audiences only see these players as unattached strangers with a hoodie and sunglasses that the masses fail to identify with.  Back in 2003, Chris Moneymaker captured the world by storm by making people believe that anyone with a few bucks to their name could deposit money online, and satellite their way to being pokers next world champion.  I think in large part because people identified with the “accountant who wasn’t a pro” story, people flocked in droves to the online site wanting to be the next “accountant turned millionaire.”  It was a great story, and ESPN did a fantastic job of educating the rest of the world that poker can make fairytales come true.

Today, while the November Nine are filled with players that are interesting, they are getting shortchanged in their personalities by being branded “faceless online guys” that just luckbox their way through a massive field.  The truth is that when you talk to these guys, they have compelling back stories with fascinating tales to tell.  And yet they get relatively little air time in comparison to some of the better known “Old Guard” who people have grown accustomed to watching on television.  The truth is that showing these seasoned old pro players going bust early is just a tired story.  If Phil Hellmuth or Phil Ivey are well chipped and running deep, kind of like Johnny Chan did this year, that’s really interesting.  But watching them go bust on day 1, not as much.  We need new and more interesting people that will be able to identify with others that are not very familiar with poker, and have ESPN and the WSOP do a better job of relaying these players story to the masses.  Have the casual fan of the game meet them through the TV, look at them say “wow, that could be me.” If you tell the story of how they got started playing poker, and how they made it through to where they are, they can begin to bridge that gap, in addition to giving the audience a rooting interest in their story and a closer relation to the players.

I think a great way to identify with these people is to use the 3 month break to put together a story about each of the November Niners, and incorporate their personal stories into the telecasts.  Instead of a 2 hour 30-for-30 story about a random athlete right before the November 9 kicks off, how about a 30-for-30 that takes us inside the lives of the November Nine, one at a time, and tells us their story, and what they’re playing for?  I was at the WSOP Main Event throughout the duration of the 2 weeks that it ran in Vegas, and watch play unfold and a ton of hands.  But even having been there, what I know right now about this year’s champion Jonathan Duhamel as a person is basically 2 things. 1) He’s Canadian and 2) He’s 23.  But really, that’s about it.  Oh!  And he wears a hoodie.  But other than that, I’ve got nothing.  How about taking a look at the house he lives in. Ask his parents what they think about the hours that he logs in online.  Let’s chat with his buddies on what they think of Jonathan off the felt.  If ESPN wastes 2 hours on some unnamed athlete, then they can certainly build up the 9 players that they’re trying to turn into superstars by giving them 15-20 minutes of time to tell their story, and put it together during the 3 months that they have off.

What other improvements do you think that the WSOP and ESPN can make in order to make their broadcast more appealing to the masses?