Poker’s World Championship on TV

This week, the final hands of the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event , the unofficial “world championship” of tournament poker, will be broadcast on America’s unofficial Gambling Network, ESPN. The winner’s name has been public knowledge since July, but if you’ve been following the taped coverage and don’t want to know who earns the $8.25 million first prize, read no further.

As someone who played for many years in the World Series of Poker and who has worked as a commentator on another network’s poker shows, ESPN’s packaging of the venerable event fascinates me. Having watched the final table live, several months ago, I’ve been looking forward to finding out the competitors’ hole cards, which remain secret unless there’s a showdown or the players voluntarily turn up their hands. Unfortunately, ESPN’s broadcast philosophy seems to be “the less poker, the better.” Except for the rare live broadcast, every poker telecast is highly edited for time and drama. But the ESPN shows have less footage of actual card playing than any other poker product on TV. Instead, the emphasis is on building “characters” through taped features and obsessive attention to buffoonery. The game itself is reduced to a sideshow for the real ratings engine: mental illness on display.

The lesson here is that if you want to be on TV, act like an idiot and ESPN will oblige you.

It’s no accident that the ESPN poker announcing team consists of two fellows who don’t know much about tournament poker. They don’t really have to, since the point of the programs isn’t to analyze, instruct, or illuminate. It’s to produce a low-budget alternative to the WWE, albeit with fewer steroids and bloody foreheads. Thus we get an interminable series of nonsensical player nicknames. (Question: Why is ESPN darling Scotty Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant whose favorite English word is “baby,” known as “the Prince of Poker”? Who is his father, the King of Poker?) We get roving cameras ready to zoom in on players with demonstrable psychiatric problems, sociopaths who can be reliably counted on to “blow up” or “meltdown” for our viewing pleasure. We get lifelong cheaters, angle-shooters, and sleazeballs apotheosized into “legends of the game.” It’s a three-ring circus — and you, too, can have a seat under the famous big top for only $10,000.

One benefit of ESPN’s reality TV style is the astonishingly revealing glimpse we’ve been given of religious freaks who sincerely believe that God cares about who wins a card game. The eventual champion, Jerry Yang — a Laotian refugee who previously was employed as a social worker, not the founder of Yahoo — can be seen and heard praying (loudly) whenever a crucial card is about to hit the felt. On a recent episode, while Yang was imploring God to give him “a purpose in life” (not to mention a friendly river card), ESPN captured the girlfriend of Yang’s all-in opponent, Lee Watkinson, yelling at God to make her man a believer. It was a thrilling battle of Good versus Good, with Yang apparently being the worthier recipient of God’s grace.

Yang, in fact, played like a man possessed — by what exactly I can’t say, although he’ll tell you it was the Lord’s guiding light. Based on the few hands ESPN has shown, Yang plays poker brilliantly. Some of his brilliance, I must confess, is beyond my meager comprehension, like an Ornette Coleman saxophone solo that only can be fully understood and enjoyed by musical minds far more advanced than mine. Many of Yang’s poker decisions seemed to me inexplicable, until I learned from ESPN’s coverage about the master plan Jesus had drawn up for his devout adherent. Then they made perfect sense.

Next time you watch a televised poker tournament from beginning to end, notice how many players, upon elimination, stand up from the table and drink from a water bottle as they walk away. (It’s weird). The only thing more predictable is that if the tournament is on ESPN, you can safely bet that someone will do or say (“say” being a catchall term for scream, howl, ejaculate) something that normal people would find embarrassing. Since America’s Gambling Network can’t really justify airing reruns of “The Jerry Springer Show,” the World Series of Poker has become a useful surrogate.

Poker, anyone?

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