Amateur poker on TV misses the point

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The dog days of poker viewing are upon us. ESPN’s World Series of Poker coverage concluded Nov. 11; NBC’s Poker After Dark broadcast Season 4’s final episode Thanksgiving week; Season 5 of Game Show Network’s High Stakes Poker is only now being recorded with a possible airdate in January; and Fox Sports Net’s debut of the World Poker Tour’s Season VII is yet to be determined. What’s a Poker TiVo Junkie to do?

I suppose I could watch the latest season of FSN’s Best Damn Poker Show to get me through this viewing lull. (Yeah, right. I’d rather have my eyes sewn open and let Chris “Jesus” Ferguson take aim at me one card at a time from a deck of KEMs.) Of course I could actually do something productive and walk a few miles every night to burn off that couch-potato bulge that’s been torturing my pants button these past few months. Nah! We know that’s not going to happen!

So now what?

Well, squeezed into the FSN-WPT agreement is another TV show called ClubWPT.com that debuted in early October. American and Canadian players from the subscription-based ClubWPT.com site earn one of six seats during the week and are flown to Los Angeles — They get to stay at the Four Seasons! — to play in what amounts to a winner-take-all turbo no-limit hold’em sit-and-go.

The structure, in true WPT-televised style, is insanely fast, and the payoff is $5,000 to the winner. This concept is nothing new. FSN and MansionPoker.net did virtually the same thing a ways back, but that was around for just one season before the site pulled out of America because of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.

The idea is to give Average Joe or Jane a chance to play on TV and win some decent coin — Howard Marsee of Oviedo recently won one of these matches. But I have to wonder if this truly is the dream of the average player. When I think of playing on television I think of earning a seat at the final table of a prestigious event, such as a WPT main event or a WSOP bracelet event. The fact that I had beaten some of the best players in the world to earn the right to be on television, that I’d be playing for an important title and life-changing money is what makes it “the dream.” I’m not saying if I had the chance to play in one of these made-for-TV specials I wouldn’t do it, but it just doesn’t fit the criteria of chasing the dream for me.

But, as a viewer, this sort of show makes me pine for an afternoon waiting in line at the tax collector’s office. There’s a huge flaw in putting six amateur poker players on TV: We don’t care. And why don’t we care? Because we don’t know these people, and for the most part they’re terrible.

There are two main reasons people watch poker on television: entertainment and knowledge. No one is going to be entertained by these people because even if we did like them or find them amusing, we’ll never see them again. When we watch the WSOP or HSP we know the featured players. We tune it to see how they’re playing, or in the case of Phil Hellmuth and Mike “The Mouth” Matusow, we watch to hear what they’ll say next. But to pit six unknowns every week and ask us to invest time in them knowing they aren’t very good and we’ll never see them again is asking a bit much. That kind of hit-or-miss broadcasting is very risky, and certainly not worth an hour of my time every week. I originally got a Season Pass to this series, but have since cancelled it. Maybe walking at night wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Random thought: Poker After Dark’s Mori Eskandani and his crew continually try to come up with interesting matchups or themes for the week. Past themes included World Champions, 19th Hole (players who also are known for playing high-stakes golf), International Week, Bracelet Winners and Mayfair Club (players who frequented this underground New York poker room back in the day). These were naturals, though not every one made for good television. Mayfair week featured some insightful stories of yesteryear, but the poker and pace were just dreadful. Other themes were a real stretch, such as Jam Up Week, which supposedly featured players who are loose and like to jam the pot. But to have Howard Lederer and Barry Greenstein in that lineup was laughable. And Gus and the Ladies Week? What the hell was that? The flirting at the table was nauseating to say the least. Or Cowboys Week with Andy Bloch, Gabe Kaplan and Chau Giang? Are you kidding me?

I have some suggestions for Season 5, if there is one. First, lose the themes. They were cute in the beginning, but for the most part they don’t work. Just put together great personalities and the rest will work itself out. I liked that they mixed it up and threw in two cash-game sessions and a heads-up week this past season. These were steps in the right direction. Continue with more cash games, perhaps more players and larger buy-ins as well.

When we had Eskandani on our Ante Up Poker Podcast we asked him if he’d ever consider doing a mixed game show, perhaps a H.O.R.S.E. tournament, and he shot us down saying it’s hard enough keeping the public interested without confusing them with explaining all of the games, etc. I can agree with him to a point, but I think the H.O.R.S.E. coverage on ESPN was stellar and the explanations weren’t intrusive. What about featuring the game that’s sweeping the country now? Pot-limit Omaha. The game is as simple as hold’em only with more cards. If poker on television is going to continue to be successful someone is going to have to try something different to grab a whole new crop of viewers.

And if you insist on the themes might I suggest a couple? Try Andy and the Corporation Week and make it limit hold’em. Ask billionaire Andy Beal to play against the Brunsons, Jennifer Harman, Phil Ivey and Howard Lederer and make the buy-ins total at least $1 million. And, of course, have Michael Craig in the booth with Ali Nejad.

If that doesn’t do it for you how about Poker Podcasters Week? Scott Long and I will gladly take on Phil Gordon, Joe Sebok, Gavin Smith and Nejad. That would make for some interesting television I guarantee it. Now if only we can find a sponsor for our $20K entries.

— Email me at chris@anteupmagazine.com and tell me how you’ll be spending your downtime away from the poker tube.