This year, at the esteemed World Series of Poker, there were 57 official events in total. Events ranged from the $500 Casino Employees NLHE event to the $50,000 HORSE event and every interesting poker variant in-between. If you're a poker geek like I am, you loved the lineup at the World Series this year. 6-Handed Limit Hold'em? Got it. 2-7 lowball draw? Natch (for $10,000 no less!). PLO, Stud/8, Razz? Yes, Yes and Yes. There was certainly something for everyone this year. I was salivating to see the coverage this year on TV. Last year, there was great coverage of Stud events, HORSE events and Omaha events, in addition to the normal NLHE fare. It can only be good for poker for people to get a taste of the other games, right?
So I was MONUMENTALLY disappointed to learn that ESPN would not be covering ANY non NLHE games this year. And worse, they're covering just 3 tournaments, focusing the bulk of their coverage on the Main Event.
The three events are the $40,000 NLHE event (Event #2), the Ante Up for Africa charity tournament (not a bracelet event, thank god) and the Main Event.
I'll take this in order:
1. The $40,000 event - A perfectly good decision to air this. It's a high-buyin event, ensuring there will be plenty of well-known poker players in attendance. The high buy-in also ensures a high payout for the final table, making for good drama. Nothing wrong here.
2. Ante Up for Africa - I understand why ESPN, in a bid to attract ratings, would want to show a charity that they know will feature plenty of Hollywood eye candy. The broadcast was fun, even if it made for completely meaningless poker. By the final table, the participants (no celebs made it to the final table), all had an M under 10 and it turned into a complete push-fest. Fun to watch but crap poker.
3. The Main Event - The decision was made to air the Main Event every Tuesday over the course of 30 (!!!) episodes. The idea, I think, is to have a long and slow build-up to the Final Table on November 10. I'm ambivilent about this decision.
A. Pros - Giving us Main Event coverage in drips is definitely better than last year where we had a huge 4 month gap between the end of coverage and the final table. Interest in the event definitely waned in the meantime and having weekly updates should help keep that interest up. Also, long and detailed coverage will allow people to see more of the early rounds, where small-ball poker is key. Coverage of NLHE tourneys has been criticized, rightly, for emphasizing all-in and call situations. This will allow us to see many more tough decisions, tough folds and good bluffs. In other words, good tournament poker.
B. Cons - Devoting this much coverage to the Main Event diminishes the luster of the other events and doesn't leave time to cover them. Jeff Lisandro won three bracelets this year, an unbelievable feat. But you won't see any of them, because his events weren't deemed important. Never mind that one of them was the $10,000 buyin Stud/8 event. And dropping out coverage of the highest buyin event, the $50,000 HORSE event, is unconscionable. That event was being billed as the "Player's Championship", where the pros would meet to see who was best. You're guaranteed to have big names at that final table and it's poker playing for poker players. You know, your audience!
I see what ESPN is trying to do here, but there has to be an eye towards growing the sport, if for no other reason than to ensure future audiences. My suggestion is to air at least 2 episode versions of all $10,000 or greater buyin events, with special extended coverage of the Main Event. The $10,000 events are all billed as the 'World Championships' of those games, so it would mean someting special to see them. And for god's sake, promote the HORSE event! The event suffered from a big drop-off in participation this year, specifically because TV coverage was dropped for it. It's hard for a pro to get sponsorship for their big buyin if it isn't on TV!
So, in short, include the $10,000+ events, drop the charity tourney to one day and we'll see how the Main Event coverage pans out.
One other thing. There was talk this year of making the HORSE final table a NLHE affair in order to up it's excitement and make it good for television. Two words. GOD. FORBID.
In my opinion, HORSE is going to be exciting for people when there is a network push behind it to promote it. Start with the insanely high buyin, for one. Also, concentrate on this as the game of the pro players. And run that drunk Scotty Ngyuen coverage from last year on a loop. That was some good TV.