Q&A with ESPN Poker’s Norman Chad

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A new deal has been signed to extend the WSOP and ESPN relationship until 2017. What do you think about that and does this mean you’ll be along for the ride?

It’s good news for both ESPN and the World Series. It’s really been a great union of the two, and of course the boom has coincided with ESPN doing more hours. As far as, “I’m along for the ride,” that is a separate issue. I may be along for the ride and I may be dumped off at the nearest Greyhound station. I don’t know which one is going to be true at this point.

Your partner in the booth, Lon McEachern, is a good friend of Ante Up’s. How would you describe your relationship with him?

Well, I look up to him … because he’s five or six inches taller than me. (laughs) We get along great. I didn’t know Lon before the poker began in 2003, and we spend an awful lot of time in the studio together. I always tell friends of mine he’s got one of the tougher jobs in broadcasting because he’s gotta sit next to me for so long. He’s pretty easy going and I am not as easy to be with. You can check my old Rolodex and I’ll give the names of the ex-wives that’ll tell you I’m not easy to be with. (laughs) My relationship with Lon has exceeded the length of any of my several marriages, so I gotta hand it to him, he’s very easy to get along with.

Lon’s had a chance to work with Gabe Kaplan; would you like a chance to work with A.J. Benza?

(laughs) If we were on the same side of the street something would be wrong with the street. (laughs) I don’t know A.J., but I just think we’re cut from a different cloth. Lon and I are more like Yin and Yang, oil and vinegar, ya know? A.J. and me would be like nitrate potassium and some type of energy drink. I just don’t think it mixes.

You’ve been taping shows all week, and we’ve asked Lon this before, but can you take us through your process for making a show?

I had no idea what the process was when I started because I really didn’t do much broadcasting. I remember walking into Binion’s in 2003 … and I said to (the producer), “Where’s our vantage point?” And he kinda cocked his head and said, “What?”And I thought I was using too fancy of a term, “vantage point.” So I said, “Where do we do the broadcast from?” He says, “You can’t possibly be that stupid. We don’t do the broadcast here; we do it all afterwards.” I had no idea. … Obviously they have to edit down all the footage from all the hours of poker they’re doing and they edit down to one-hour telecasts. And every time they get down to a one-hour telecast, which used to take a lot longer than it does now but it takes several weeks and a lot of manpower, Lon and I then go into a studio, which happens to be in New York. We sit down with a monitor in front of us, which is like a 19-inch TV set, and then we call the action as if we’re there. … Even though I enjoy doing it, I have no idea why I went to college for five years. It gives you no preparation for this particular type of work.

How difficult was it to turn around the November Nine show last year in such a short period of time, and do you anticipate it being easier this year?

It wasn’t that much different. First you sober up Lon (laughs) and you just drive him into the studio. You get him upright; we get that booming voice going. We just show him pictures of like, women in Vogue, and he just peps up a lot. (laughs) There just wasn’t much difference; there wasn’t as much preparation. When we do a regular broadcast I get to see it a couple days beforehand and I’ll watch it to see what’s going on. Here we were just pretty much calling the hands as we saw them.

Speaking of the November Nine, every year you make it a point to pick Phil Ivey to win the main event, only this year he actually might do it. So, who has more pressure on him, Phil Ivey with years of high expectations weighing on his shoulders, or you, with millions of viewers dying to hear what snappy one-liners you’ve had stored up after so many years of disappointment?

I don’t think it’s close! I think I have more pressure! I don’t even think Phil watches poker. I don’t even think he knows I exist. I’ve walked up to him a couple times to talk to him and he hands me his valet parking thing and asks me to go get his car. (laughs) Obviously I feel fortunate. I try to give myself some props with the production team that there were dozens and dozens of reasonable well-known players when we started in 2003 that I could’ve picked, and I could’ve stuck with them. And I do think I ended up sticking with a guy who is a pretty darn good player. He almost made the final table in 2003, he had at least one other deep run after that, so this is his third or fourth deep run in the last seven or eight years, so I think I got the right guy and I feel good that he made the final table, and everything else after this is gravy.

How did you con ESPN into giving you this job?

There was no con involved, however it was an accident of fate. I was doing some other work for ESPN at the time and they decided to expand their poker. … They asked me to come on just to consult with the production team … pretty much because they didn’t know anybody else who had a gambling problem who worked at ESPN. (laughs) They knew that I played poker in a California card room a couple of times a week, and so I was literally conferring and consulting with this production team by emails and by conference calls.
Some time after that they called me up and I had no expectation what the phone call was gonna be, and they said, “We got an odd question for you. Have you ever considered doing poker commentary on television?” And I told him, “Jeez, it’s every 5-year-old’s dream to do poker commentary on TV.” (laughs) I mean, what the heck is he talking about? It didn’t even exist! He might as well asked me if I ever dreamed of opening up a 7-11 on Jupiter! It did not exist! So I actually told him I had to get back to him. I thought about it for a couple of days and I called my best friend who I went to college with and I told him I got this offer and he says, “So?” And I told him I didn’t know if I was going to do it. He goes, “Why wouldn’t you do it?” And I said I don’t know, it’s poker on TV. And he said, “YOU HAVE NO CAREER!”(laughs) And I said that’s a good point, so I called them back and told them I’d do it. … Now I’m sitting here talking to you. It’s really been a bad career arc when you think about it. (laughs). I could be working for Xerox in shipping and receiving right now … but because of the poker boom it brings us to this very moment. You can’t figure out life. (laughs)

How often have you been confronted about your comments and do you have any stories you can share?

I get confronted once in a while, not as often as I used to. I had no credibility when I first started, but now I have, with the poker community, a little credibility but still not much more than zero. They don’t like getting called out on the carpet.

A few times early on when I called people out I did have people who came to their defense. The early one that was rather infamous in the poker community was Josh Arieh during the (2004) main event. Erick Lindgren, who I get along with very well, actually I had an email exchange with him, and Josh was upset. Daniel Negreanu and a couple of other people talked to me about it and thought I might have been out of line. Back then they started a Web site to get me fired, and they had T-shirts and everything. I remember talking to Josh and talking to Erick ’cause I wanted one of the T-shirts; they were pretty nice. (laughs) And I just wanted to let them know I could give them 50, 60, maybe 80 different reasons why I might get fired at any time, but their Web site wasn’t one of them. So I said have a great time, I hope you do well with it, and the Web site I think kinda died off. But, yeah, people have come up to me when they were upset. Sometimes when I talked about strategy, which I should virtually never talk about because I’m really not that good of a hold’em player, people come up to me to correct me. … I’ve apologized to several players when it’s a strategy thing, and I regret when I bring up strategy too often. I’m much stronger on, you know, shirt colors and stuff like that. (laughs) Fashion isn’t my strength, but compared to whether a guy should be raising with jack-10 offsuit in middle position at some stage of a tournament, I’m much stronger on talking about somebody’s shirt. So I stick to fashion.

We’ve seen you play in mixed events at the Series. How disappointing is it for you that there doesn’t seem to be a healthy enough audience to broadcast mixed events on ESPN?

I’ve been a big advocate of showing games other than hold’em and I’ve lost that battle. I love ESPN and I love my production team and they all disagree with me. I just think for the long-term health of poker it’s better if everyone is learning and liking all the games. And all the games were popular before TV poker. When I played home games for years … nobody played hold’em, we played everything but hold’em. So I’ve been kinda bothered that everything points towards hold’em. I walk into card rooms, and particularly small ones, and all they have is hold’em. So we did some of them, and we don’t do them anymore. I’m hoping we do them again in the future. I don’t like my chances. I think the audience is there. I don’t think the ratings are that much different for Omaha or H.O.R.S.E. than they are for hold’em. Sometimes I’m told I’m wrong. I think people tune in to watch the people, the stories, the characters, I almost think the poker is incidental. I wish the people could see the other types of poker because they’re pretty enjoyable and they were being played beforehand anyway.

Most of the Ante Up Nation knows you through your ESPN gig, but what they may not know is you’re also a very average sports columnist, an occasional fill-in on Pardon the Interruption and you’re a sub-par author as well. Which of these outside endeavors do you enjoy most?

(laughs) You know, I don’t have therapy scheduled for like another 10 days, but you went with a “very average this and sub-par that,” it’s a lot to absorb. (laughs) Actually my real job, and it’s not even a job, before doing poker is a sports columnist. And I’ve remained a weekly sports columnist, and I love writing once a week. It’s a humor column and actually the sensibility I bring to the sports column is pretty much the same sensibility I bring to the poker telecast. I really don’t take the stuff that seriously, I just try to have fun with whatever is happening in sports. So I love doing the sports column; it’s pretty much just watching sports on TV at home and it’s called Couch Slouch.

When you’re courting a future ex-Mrs. Chad, do you let her know ahead of time about your habit for making fun of your marriages in front of a national audience?

The current Mrs. Chad, I don’t believe she’s a future ex-Mrs. Chad. I hope not. This is my third and, hopefully, final marriage. I’ll kill her before I get divorced. (laughs) Actually if I kill her I’ll have to get married again, so she’ll kill me before we get divorced, so it’ll be my final marriage. (laughs) She’s aware of my marital history, she’s aware of my sensibility and she actually has very little interest in poker. … She’s been an angel dropping out of the sky.

Which is the greater honor, being interviewed by the American Mustache Institute or by Ante Up Magazine and why?

Boy, I think this is called lesser of two evils. (laughs). I never expected either interview. I didn’t know what the American Mustache Institute was. I thought I was on Candid Camera and someone was trying to play an April Fool’s joke on me. Who asks questions about your mustache? (laughs) On different parts of the interview that was a high and low point of my life. (laughs) And the same can now be said with you. You play the hand you’re dealt. If I didn’t start doing poker in 2003, which is a statistical improbability, I’m not sitting here talking to you today. So we were both dealt a bad hand is what I’m trying to tell you. (laughs)

Photo courtesy of ESPN