As made-for-TV concepts go, ESPN’s “Big One for One Drop,” was perfectly suited for these modern times – where a desperate poker industry finds itself broke, busted and de-evolving. In the wake of Black Friday, disintegrating ad sales have gutted TV poker and crippled trade magazines, while professional players leave the U.S. in droves to play overseas, or quit the game altogether. What better way to forget our troubles than with a simple, star-studded, dumb-as-doornails premise. 48 pro and amateur poker players drop a buy-in of a million dollars each and the winner walks off with a whopping $18 million in cash! (Nice Rake Caesars) Did we mention (at least the announcers did twenty times) that it cost a million dollars per player to enter this tournament? Who said there was no money left in the game?
The “One Drop” tourney was a clever gimmick – the celebrity rich and famous thumbing their noses at the dismal, collapsing poker economy. It succeeded by accident, based largely on the chemistry of the players at the final table. Several of the best pros went up against amateur players, mostly billionaire businessmen who consider a million bucks a fair price to get on national television and rub shoulders with their idols. For viewers, it was a valuable learning tool, chiefly because of the lessons learned from the weak play of the CEO’s, a live primer on mistakes to avoid.
It was painful to watch at times, especially Bobby Baldwin, the 1978 Main Event winner who plays tighter than a rock star’s pants and has yet to adjust his game for the modern era. A couple of TV hands were blatant examples. Holding middle pair in middle position and short stacked, Baldwin just flat-called an early position raise, only to be driven out of the hand by aggressive pro Sam Trickett’s button reraise/squeeze with 8-3 offsuit. Later, mega-billionaire David Einhorn raised preflop with 8-10 suited and Baldwin, still short stacked, just called with K-Q, offering Trickett (holding pocket 3’s) a great price to join the fun three-handed. When the flop of 7 4 6 missed Baldwin, Trickett assumed his pair of 3’s (with gutshot draw) were probably good and bet. Baldwin and Einhorn, of course, insta-folded. If Baldwin three bets his K-Q pre-flop, nobody in the hand would have stuck around to call his C-Bet after the flop.
These were fairly routine observations that could be made by rewinding your DVR. But nobody in the announcer’s booth bothered to bring them up because prime-time poker broadcasts on ESPN are in the final stages of terminal irrelevance. Commentators Lon McEachern and Norman Chad have anchored the “World Series of Poker” for ten years. While the game has strategically evolved by leaps and bounds, the show hasn’t intellectually budged an inch to grow with it – much to the dismay of those few real fans who still enjoy watching poker on TV.
To understand the ridiculous dilemma facing poker broadcasting in these times of prohibition is to appreciate how ESPN and Caesars Entertainment (who run the World Series of Poker), must walk an impossible tightrope. How do you promote and build a game that is basically perceived as illegal by the general public? Fearful of guilt by association, or maybe on the advice of their attorney’s, ESPN has shamefully turned its back on the brand it built so brilliantly in the 2000’s. As their major gaming advertisers (basically defunct U.S. online sites) deal with prosecution and jail, the network has pulled the plug on pre-2011 WSOP repeats, while cutting 80% of its poker programming.
But there is some good news in the midst of all this blatant shrinkage. The competition from online poker TV has grown the broadcasting game. Brilliant analysts and commentators like Olivier Busquet and David Tuchman have quietly moved up the announcer food chain, graduating from podcasts to ESPN 3. As a result, dedicated poker viewers are exposed to deeper and more profound levels of strategy, the kind of sophisticated analysis that’s an exciting step forward and a natural product of a maturing market.
When ESPN had the courage to air an unprecedented 50 hours of live poker at the 2011 Main Event, it was a breakthrough that held the promise of revolutionizing the way people watch the game on TV. While the roof was caving in on the industry, the coverage expanded. Most importantly, the network finally let real experts call the action, just like in other professional “sports” broadcasting. It demonstrated healthy ambition, but also felt like a ratings loss leader – as if someone had stolen the TV station and was doing all this innovative, fun stuff because it was inevitable that the landlord was on his way to pull the plug on the whole thing.
Poker pro and celebrity reveler, Antonio Esfandiari, provided inspired, revealing commentary, and Phil Hellmuth demonstrated that he’s a vastly underrated old-school analyst, while interminably reminding us of the respect denied him as the most successful player ever. But the 2011 live WSOP extended coverage was mostly about Olivier Busquet finally getting his shot at a prime-time slot. A New York City native, the 31 year-old Busquet was a high school star in track and basketball and is one of the best heads-up players in the game. This was proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in 2009, when he overcame a 20-1 chip advantage to take down the The Borgata WPT Poker Open.
Busquet is the future of poker announcing, a guy with a stunning knack for translating the most complex strategy situations into a language that is not only informal but accessible for the average viewer. He’s the poker coach you wish you had – here to help the less knowledgeable, so don’t be afraid to look dumb by asking.
With a slightly pompous and academic delivery that still feels pure and organic, Busquet effortlessly brings the viewer into the mindset of the accomplished, younger poker players. He can appear nervous at times and stumble out of the gate, but once he hits stride, the rhythm and timing of his insight is staggering. Working in real time and without the benefit of the hole cam, Busquet doesn’t just describe what we are already seeing, he explains the thinking and the counter-thinking involved in every decision at the table. He walks us though the thought processes behind the action. When he’s at the mic, you’re really learning how to put a player on a hand, a skill that can seem like spiritual enlightenment when you finally get a knack for it. Busquet and his frequent partner, announcer David Tuchman, are version 2.0 of Lon McEachern and Norman Chad.
Viewers who had watched hours and hours of “Big One for One Drop” coverage live on ESPN 3 were eagerly anticipating Busquet joining Lon and Norm in the announcers’ booth, possibly as a third wheel, for the taped prime-time broadcast. But one minute into the two hour edit, it was disturbingly apparent that this was not to be. Busquet had been air-brushed out of the picture and prime-time watchers were robbed of the chance to appreciate the debut of a real star. As it has for years, the network played it safe and scared with McEachern and Chad.
One memorable example comes to mind of a hand that was called by Busquet and later by Chad in the truncated TV broadcast. Here’s why what you don’t hear is often more important than what you do.
Phil Hellmuth held Q-J heads up against David Einhorn on a board of 5 9 10 3. Hellmuth, in position, played his hand incredibly weak, checking back on every street, mandating that if he failed to pair his overcards or hit the open-ended straight draw, he must fold (by self-instinct) to any river bet. Luckily for him, he spiked his open-ender and the nuts, when a king landed on the final card. Einhorn also hit a pair of kings, an incredible break for Phil, and the amateur quickly bet 1.5 million, announcing to the world that he had top pair.
Hellmuth, with only 10.4 million to start the hand, put in a huge overbet, raising to 7 million. Einhorn folded and Hellmuth made the absolute minimum, leading the casual viewer to think this was another situation where Phil didn’t get enough value out of a hand and another reason why he’s always short stacked. But instead of paying even a passing thought to what we just saw, all Chad could offer was a semi-retarded, nonsensical cliché. “Don’t count the Poker Brat out!” he hooted.
Anyone who watched the live broadcast online on ESPN 3 heard Olivier Busquet offer a radically more profound analysis without the advantage of already knowing how the hand would play out.
Busquet said, “It’s very hard NOT to put Phil on the absolute nuts with a bet like that. When Einhorn bets the river you have to give him credit for a pair of kings. One of the ways that Phil has been so successful over the years is to get amateurs to call big bets in situations where he is rarely bluffing and this strikes me as one of those situations. This is a huge percentage of Phil’s stack and I think Phil would interpret an all-in here as looking incredibly strong and doesn’t want to lose the amateur, so he bets a little bit less to give himself a better chance of getting called. Sometimes players make plays like this to make it look like they are leaving themselves some chips, so if they’re bluffing and get called they’ll still have some chips left over to play. That doesn’t strike me as what’s happening here.”
With this added explanation, Hellmuth’s play made a certain sense. Einhorn eventually folded his hand because he wasn’t buying what Phil was selling. But the viewer who saw both telecasts didn’t walk away remembering how bright a guy Einhorn is. The viewer was left with the impression that to be denied the brilliant insight of Olivier Busquet is to feel cheated by ESPN.
There was a time, ten years ago, when Lon McEachern and Norman Chad were a breath of fresh air in a game where the players and broadcasters smelled old and irrelevant. In 2003, ESPN radically changed its WSOP coverage, upgrading the typical dry commentary with personality-driven player profiles. Chad had a knack for making poker seem like a swashbuckling, exotic lifestyle and more than just a bunch of guys playing cards. It was a poker party, a home game on TV. You could forgive Chad’s moronic Rat Pack jokes and endlessly contrived stories about his ex-wives because he really made the players at the table into three dimensional individuals. Everyone had a personal back-story, as meager as it might be. The best known players were actors in a reality sports show. Any viewer could find a player to root for. It was like casting for the Wizard of Oz.
And what a cast they had for this continuing soap opera. There was the father figure, real cowboy and beloved patriarch, Doyle Brunson; the long-haired, math wizard Chris “Jesus” Ferguson; the pontificating “Professor” Howard Lederer; his bitchy and kinda hot sister, Annie Duke; the master feel player, Johnny Chan; the impish, likeable Daniel Negreanu and the most feared player on any given day, Phil Ivey – to name just a few.
But the primary component of a good script is always the villain. Poker had the best in Phil Hellmuth, a whiny self-promoting loudmouth who just wanted luck and the poker gods to please give him a break so his true genius could be appreciated. It would be rare in any entertainment venture to find such universally recognizable and attractive figures, and their role in making the game explode in popularity cannot be underestimated.
Norman Chad fit like a glove with these larger than life personalities. He really sold the concept of poker as a good time. His comedy and frivolous nature was well suited to a naïve TV audience that was still getting used to terminology like the “flop” and needed a gravelly voiceover at the start of every WSOP broadcast to refresh them on the basic rules of the game. But as poker evolved and the fans grew more sophisticated, Chad’s limitations became more and more problematic. Lon McEachern was a jack of all trades and similar to a white dress shirt. He could go with anything and did double duty for ESPN, calling mixed martial arts bouts with the same efficiency as the WSOP. Chad was supposed to be the color guy, but was really just a general sports reporter faking it, not a poker expert. He was destined to always be an outsider trying to explain an insider’s milieu. His corny approach, vacuum sealed in about the year 1966, finds him in 2012 still referring to the younger players who have become the mainstays of poker as “those Internet kids.”
It’s been nearly ten years since Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event and those darn Internet kids, weaned on the classic poker film, “Rounders,” put the youth of America squarely at the reins of the game. But online players behind computers 16 hours a day seldom develop much personality. They care little for branding and self-promotion. Sponsorship is where it’s at. Yet ESPN continues to stick with an old-school celebrity formula that has less and less material to work with. Compared to a volcano like Mike Matusow, Ben Lamb is plain white bread. Is it possible to develop a fascinating back-story on Martin Staszko? Forgot him already? He was the Soviet Bloc guy who finished second in the Main Event last year and was best remembered for a perpetual look of fear and embarrassment, like he was afraid someone might demand a closer look at his visa.
So if you’re Caesars and ESPN what do you do? How about this – instead of repeating the past, you embrace and cultivate the future. Poker is a beautiful game, one that anyone reading this already knows. It is basic and brutal. It is sophisticated and requires ridiculous intelligence, employing strategy that can be successfully applied to everyday life. Poker is a religion that does not require you to kill those who don’t believe. It is exhilarating and overwhelming in its ability to bring forth your inner strength when the chips are down and you’re tired and beat and your back is against the wall. It tests you and rejects your best efforts – but it also rewards players for hard work, giving anyone who devotes themselves the opportunity to match wits with complete strangers in a safe and sane environment, where the green felt jungle of the poker table is the ultimate proving ground. Maybe this sounds like a commercial for the U.S. Army. But seriously, celebrities are not the key to poker’s future; they are a cover-up hiding poker’s true strengths. It doesn’t need to be hidden by make-up. It looks great just rolling out of bed. Make the casual viewer fall in love with the game and you’ll have an audience for life.
Norman Chad and Lon McEachern are celebrating their ten-year anniversary and this seems like a smart time for them to cash out for the good of the game. Their unsophisticated play by play is as dated as the generation that preceded them. Executives at Caesars are fond of whining about how abysmal the ratings were for mixed-game poker on TV – that infomercials drew better ratings than the revered $50K buy-in Chip Reese H.O.R.S.E. tournament. Long gone are the days when the goal was to educate the viewer about all things non Hold ‘em. Now it’s a grim numbers game of survival. Even before Black Friday, ESPN had turned tail and run. I spoke at length with Chad at the 2010 Main Event and he told me he nearly lost his job for demanding that the network continue its broadcasts of Stud and Omaha. I guess, in the end, this is a business and it was business decision for ESPN. But ever since the events of last April, it’s felt more like a betrayal.
For the first time ever, there were no significant pre-Main Event billboard ads on ESPN. The debut broadcast of the “One Drop” tourney was 11 p.m., instead of the prime time 6- 8 slot. You have to wonder how ESPN expects to get ratings when no one knows these shows are on. Are they afraid that publicizing poker programming in these post-Black Friday times is unsavory, or have their lawyers advised them that it would smell of collusion with embattled online poker sites if they put some muscle into promotion? It all reeks of pre-censorship and a gutless lack of commitment. ESPN treats poker like the errant mistress you’ve got stashed in a safe house across town. Profess your love for her but keep her hidden from everybody else.
Chad can’t be blamed for all of poker’s woes. But once the network gave the public a taste of what poker announcing could be, they can’t put the genie back in the bottle. A move must be made, and next year’s WSOP is the time to recreate the spirit of 2003 and break that mold. There are a half dozen color commentators who have worked various online broadcasts who are superior to Chad. But here’s a simple solution. Just get Olivier Busquet and do it now before he signs a contract with the World Poker Tour.
In the meantime, prepare yourself for another month of WSOP Main Event Coverage, 24 new episodes where Norman Chad-isms (jokes that bomb) will hang heavy in the air like wet laundry on a clothesline in the rain. While Olivier Busquet is hard at work grinding online in a remote Toronto apartment, Lon and Norm will remind us how much we need him, with “One Drop” repeats weekly on ESPN.
Brace yourself for canned straight lines from McEachern like, “The One Drop – an unforgettable night of poker for unforgettable dollars.” Prepare to suffer through Chad nimbly dissecting David Einhorn’s play with the revelation that, “He looks dressed for a day on a really nice sailboat.” Chad reminds us, “The flop has three cards” and clues us in on Esfandiari’s mindset at the table by saying, “Antonio would be a natural in outer space.” And how’s this for a curious slice of wtf babble? Norm trots out the literary references when he describes a player as, “Looking relaxed, like Thoreau at Walden Pond.” Nuff said! The viewers don’t need fancy stats like post-flop aggression frequency and money voluntarily put into the pot. Chad can just observe how younger players look really cool in hoodies and sunglasses. It’s Poker for Dummies and one-liners from a guy who sounds like he’s announcing a seniors’ dance at a Florida retirement complex.
Poker is no longer an analog world, it’s decidedly gone digital. And while Norman Chad represents the old-school analog approach, it is not analog in the sense of a warm vinyl album on a smooth turntable. It is the grating sound of a worn-out scratchy record, skipping in its groove and constantly repeating itself. The harder Chad tries to be funny, the higher his voice goes, reaching the pitch of a drunk snorting helium, while Lon does his tired “Ho-Ho-Ho” Ed McMahon sidekick shtick. Many of Chad’s lame quips are incomprehensible gibberish, because four weeks of lag between the taped event and the actual broadcast is apparently not enough time to write a decent joke.
In “The Sopranos,” men who had overstayed their purpose were described as “Guys who gotta go.” It wasn’t personal, just business. Somebody please send the car for Lon and Norm. You can’t give a nation a taste of free speech and expect them to return to a repression of intellect. Nobody would ask DVR viewers to go back to time-shifting their shows on VHS tapes. Once you’ve lost your virginity you’ll never be satisfied with holding hands. It’s over and the question is how long will it take for ESPN to make the obvious move necessary for the dignity and longevity of poker on TV?