The day Harrah's officially announced the much-anticipated final table delay, my IM machine and e-mail struggled under the pressure. Among those instant messages was from Up For Poker blog co-contributor Luckbox with a simple question: "Pro or con?"
I barely thought for a second before answering, "Con." CJ has since written down his thoughts about the WSOP final table delay. I guess it's up to me to take the opposing role. To be honest, it's hard to get up the energy to write with much fervor about the already-decided subject. What's more, I like to keep an open mind about things like this. Finally, I have a great deal of respect for many people in the opposing camp.
Regardless, I've been known to call myself a neotraditionalist. I'm a junkie for all things old school. I'm the old guy who just last Monday night rolled into a poker game with Pet Sounds blowing out of his speakers. More often than not, I like things the way they were more than the way they are. That in mind, you're probably not surprised to learn that I approach the WSOP final table delay--to keep it in the lexicon of you people who live in the now--with a healthy dose of "meh."
The strongest argument made so far is one that's been made by the Con-Delayers so often that I don't need to hammer on it too hard here. A four month delay multiplies the opportunity for deal-making and yes--just say it out loud--collusion by a factor of about 120 times. We'd all like to think that people wouldn't collude on the biggest poker stage in the world. I'd also like to think someone would've found a way to bust Men the Master for his widely-rumored chip dumping and collusion scheme by now. If anything, this debate will mean just about everybody in the poker media will be looking for a hand in which" X-player absolutely had to call Y-player" but did not. I'd like to think Harrah's will be on top of this, but as someone pointed out in the last few days, no one said anything about the 2 million chip disappearance in 2006 until Amy and Tim produced what was probably the most important piece of poker journalism in the past decade. [For more, read Two Million Questions]. The Pro-Delayers wave off the collusion fears. Jeffrey Pollack says, "It would be a mistake," to mess with Harrah's in this way. I'd challenge you to find an already-inclined cheater to give a diddly damn what Harrah's thinks. If they were going to cheat before, they are going to cheat now. Only now, they have four months to figure out with whom to cheat and how best to do it.
As a late night IM said to me yesterday, if the final table delay had been in place in 2006, Richard Lee would've been arrested for bookmaking before the final nine reconvened to decide a champion.
Let's just think about that for a second. It's the most important event in any given year and the 11% of the field can't show up? The Super Bowl would be played with 19 players on the field. More than five cars would not compete in the Daytona 500. It's worse in poker, though. If a player can't make it because of death, emergency, or arrest, the seat won't be filled, but the chips will remain. Think of it like this: Jeff Gordon, Kyle Petty, Dale Jr., Mark Martin, and Greg Biffle all go out and get tossed in the drunk tank the night before the 500. In NASCAR, the vehicles would remain in the garage. Imagine if their cars were put driver-less on the track. The point is that a dead stack always changes play at a table. A dead stack at the final table of the World Series of Poker main event? Please. To the people who say, "Well there is always a chance of someone dying or getting arrested on the night before the final table.": Sure there is. Now there is a chance that lasts four months. Imagine if Stu Ungar had a four-month wait between ten-handed and final table play. Hell, what about Vinny Vihn? What if he makes the final table this year?
The point is this: It's not sympathy for the person who can't show up because he is no longer breathing or is breathing in a Clark County jail cell. It's the unnecessary and distinct change in the game that would happen as a result of that player's absence.
One of the loudest arguments made by the Pro-Delayers is the ability of players to secure better and more lucrative sponsorship deals. Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack has said out loud that he would love to see poker sponsorship become a lot more like NASCAR. For the player, it seems a great thing. It's why pro players gave their blessing to hole card cameras in the first place (more on that in a second).
And so, this is what we've been led to believe is a great thing for players. A four-month delay is...Stop! Agent Time!
As a friend (who can out himself here if he likes) pointed out to me, this decision is great for the nine people who make the final table. They will have four months to get the best possible sponsorship deal. However, this friend pointed out a less obvious consequence: the final 40 or so people in the tournament are going to lose a lot of sponsorship value. I've personally witnessed what I call the WSOP Shirt Dance. As the final five or six tables start to define possibilities for the final table, the sponsors start swooping in with deals, throwing shirts on potential final table candidates. Now, the sponsors can sit back, wait, and get the most value for their dollar. The Shirt Dance will still go on, but I would predict not to as large as a scale as it has in the past. If we're to think of it in Pollack's terms, it's as if sponsors could wait until the final nine laps of the 500 before slapping the Tide or Brylcreem logo on the side of the leading few cars.
In short, Pollack is getting his wish. Sponsorship deals are becoming a lot more like NASCAR...more money for few, less money for the field.
Let's just call this what it is: a great decision for the business and marketing of poker designed to make poker a lot more like NASCAR and make a lot more money for the companies involved in putting it on. It will put a new marzipan on the same poker cake we've been eating for years.
The Pro-Delayer's loudest argument for the change is that it will give ESPN a chance to profile the final table players and turn them into stars before the final table plays out. The idea is two-fold. First, it will grow the poker audience. Second, it will boost ratings for main event coverage. I don't begrudge them those goals. Marketing is a big reason poker has become what it has.
But, let's all be honest with ourselves here. I think, as a business, poker has probably spent up the Moneymaker value. There was a time when most people (even you!) didn't know you could qualify for the World Series through an online poker site. The symbiotic relationship between online poker companies and the WSOP, combined with the revolutionary hole card cameras made poker what it is today. We can thank Henry Orentstein, PokerStars, and Chris Moneymaker for that. Still, today, is there a wide market of people who don't know about online poker qualifying? Can the WSOP fields still grow by such huge percentages? Will a semi-live final table change that? Probably not.
Listen, I applaud Pollack and everyone else for trying to grow the WSOP brand. There was a time when NASCAR had a much more limited audience than I does today. There's a reason the NASCAR explosion happened and it's marketing decisions like they have made for the WSOP final table. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to increase ratings. It will help us all. I'm all for it, in fact.
The problem is, in an effort to market poker to a wider audience, Harrah's is making changes to the game that have a chance at affecting the outcome. Nobody should be in favor of that.
Alternatives to the delay
If we all can agree that the marketing of poker is a great thing if we could somehow get rid of the delay, then I think we should be able to agree that there are better solutions. Four months is an eternity in this world.
The four-month delay serves two purposes. First, it allows people to watch a semi-live event in edited form (Pollack says, "Think the Olympics!"). Second, it allows ESPN to pump up the profiles of the final nine so Joe Six Pack will care about the potential winner in advance.
Both of these are noble goals. There is nothing worse than watching a final table of nine people you don't care about, especially when you already know the outcome. (Note: you would be surprised how many regular Joes out there get really pissed when you tell them who won the WSOP before it shows on TV).
So, what is the solution? Can we have our cake and lick the marzipan too? The answer is yes, if ESPN wants to put up the money and manpower to do it. It's not perfect, but it serves the same purpose without adding unnecessary changes to the game.
Here's how it works: The main event is scheduled to last about a week and half before final table play begins. Full coverage shouldn't start until play is down to the final three tables. At that point, ESPN records the tournament like a live sporting event. Editors work as they go for a next-day broadcast. At the same time, a features crew should already have several features in the can and ready to roll. Finally, when the final table arrives, it is broadcast live (without hole cards) on a secondary ESPN network. Then, for those who want to watch an edited version, 411 (the production team in charge of the WSOP broadcasts) does a cut for the next day.
Would it cost more? Yes. Would it be more difficult? Absolutely. Would it serve the same marketing purpose while not affecting the game? Yes.
Don't think it can be done? Well, an excellent crew out of London does it once or twice a month during the European Poker Tour. Sunset + Vine produces a live webcast of feature and final tables in the final two days of EPT events. The quality is outstanding and the product is very easy to watch. Given, they don't do a next day edit on the final table, but it is possible if people want to do it. If I'm supposed to be thinking of the Olympics, I suppose I'm allowed to point out that we get next-day edits from those production crews.
Simply put, the WSOP is either a sporting event or a reality show. If it's a sporting event, then cover it like one. If it's a reality show, then let's all call it what it is and stop being so high and mighty about it. I prefer the former, but nobody listens to me.
And why it doesn't really matter
The decision has been made here. It has the blessing of some top pros, the Nevada Gaming Commission, and, most importantly, Harrah's, the company that stands to make the most money on the deal. It's a WSOP experiment in poker like...
Like I said, not every experiment is bad. Just most of them. That's what's made me a neotraditionalist.
I actually have a lot of respect for the people behind this idea. I hope it turns out well. I hope nothing goes wrong. I just think it could be done differently and better. As we move forward, we should always be asking ourselves what is more important...the integrity or growth of the game? Moreover, is there ever a time we should put the latter before the former?
I don't think there is, especially when there are viable alternatives to serve both masters.