Somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert, the folks at Harrah's rang one hella-big bell, and no amount of bitching and moaning is going to un-ring it. No matter how many times I say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," it's still going to be fixed in one way or another.
The thing is, the WSOP Final Table was broken, at least in terms of how people watch it live.
So, since I have yet to put on the yoke of perpetual cynicism, I've chosen to think about the WSOP Final Table delay in terms of what Harrah's can do now to impress the hell out of everybody.
What was broken
Though there was little real blame to assign, the 2007 World Series of Poker final table left a bit to be desired. Within 24 hours of the end of ten-handed play, 75% of the Rio's Amazon room turned into a warehouse. Hundreds of poker tables disappeared, a small gift shop materialized, and someone scattered a few television monitors and chairs around the floor. In one corner, the feature table--looking as it did for the entire month of the World Series--sat ready for the final nine. Most of the big lights in the room were turned off. It had the feeling of a giant meat locker at the end of a Texas BBQ festival. It felt used up, nearly forgotten, and cold. The fact that nine largely unknown players were competing for millions of dollars was only evident in the few people who got a seat looking down on the final table. Elsewhere in the room, a few bored people sat in chairs, watching the silent TV monitors, and shivering off the conditioned air. Most of the noise in the room came from a single drunk British guy who was soused on Milwaukee's Best (a final reminder that the bar on the edge of the TV table was probably not the best idea... and yes this is ME saying a bar should go the way of the all-in button, poker sauna, and pocket peek cards).
To repeat, the sterile and anticlimactic feel of the room was no one's fault. The Amazon room's size is necessary to accommodate the huge WSOP crowds. When play is nine-handed, the intimate feel of Benny's Bullpen just isn't possible in such a huge room. It didn't make much logistical sense for Harrah's to move out of the Amazon room, and so we were left with something that felt a little like the last gasp of someone very important.
Despite its many problems, the WSOP final table delay offers Harrah's an opportunity to change all of that. Between now and November, Harrah's has a chance to create a final table atmosphere that will be great for the players, the spectators, and the viewers at home.
WSOP Final Table Location
Harrah's officials said in last week's conference call that they have not yet decided how they plan to present the final table. The only firm decision (how firm is a question that neither I nor anybody else asked) is that the WSOP final table will play out at the Rio. Harrah's hope is that the final table will have the atmosphere of a championship NBA game, with poker's version of Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee sitting in courtside seats and fans who have a screaming interest in the outcome.
If Harrah's stays true to the decision to hold the event at the Rio, it has several choices for the exact location of final table play. The first and most obvious choice is the Amazon room or one of the other big convention halls. They are huge and can easily be customized into whatever the production team and Harrah's see fit. Two other suitable locations offer the kind of necessary space--The Penn and Teller Theatre and the Calypso Room, home of Tony N' Tina's Wedding. Though both rooms have the capacity to host the final table, they both lack a certain elasticity required to customize for the traditional theater in the round style of poker finales. Unless I'm forgetting another big room in my Summer home, those are about the only places in the Rio suitable for the final table. If I had to guess, we'll end up back in the Amazon room. It's really the only place at the Rio that makes sense.
There is, however, the possibility (albeit small) that Harrah's will change its mind and move to a different venue. There is one good reason for doing this. The Rio is a destination hotel and casino. The only way you end up there is if you intended to go there or got lost on your way to the Gold Coast or Palms. Strip casinos get walk-up traffic. They draw wanderers and Joe Sixpack in off the street. Hosting the final table somewhere on the Strip would nearly guarantee a bigger live audience than the Rio. Whether you actually want a thousand loud tourists there is another question. I have my opinion, but it only counts for enough to play the 2am at Binion's.
Still, I tried to come up with a Strip location that would draw crowds. I settled on one place that would be fairly unique: the 4000-capacity Roman Plaza amphitheatre outside of Caesars Palace. While November might be a bad month for such a thing and the weather may not agree, it's hard to ignore how neat a venue it would be for a huge production like Harrah's has planned. [On a completely unrelated note: does anyone know if this was the same outdoor venue that hosted the infamous Boom Boom Mancini vs. Duk Koo Kim fight, or was that elsewhere outside Caesars?]
The amphitheatre is a bit over the top, however. First, it's much too big. Second, Vegas is an odd place to do anything outdoors. Still, I've watched three final tables outdoors and it is possible to pull it off. Thing is, you would need that crowd to make it work. How big a crowd? Well, likely many times bigger than you're going to see at the final table.
Does size matter?
I've spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how big of a crowd to expect for the final table. Harrah's obviously wants a big event and would simply be giddy with a crowd that could fill the Roman Amphitheatre. The problem is, if Harrah's goes with something that big and doesn't fill the seats, the entire production will look silly. If Harrah's goes too small, it stands a good chance of not living up to the advanced billing (not to mention shutting people out or putting them in another area like last year). My old friend, Science, is going to have to get involved at some point and work the math. Fortunately, casino companies are good at that kind of thing and will probably come up with a good number.
I like to set lines on times, crowd sizes, durations, etc. After thinking about this for a bit, I have decided to set the O/U on the number of people seated at any one time (not including media and TV production people) watching the final table at 600. This accounts for 10-20 sweaters per final table player, 50 or so of the poker elite, and then the usual lookie-loos and railbirds who show up for these kinds of things.
The more I think about it, we need something the size of a high school gymnasium. I'm not being silly or trying to put down any efforts to make live final table attendance bigger. I'm simply saying that the seating capacity for the WSOP final table should be commensurate with the likely attendance. It should be big enough to allow everyone a clear view of the table, but not so big that the event looks like nobody showed up. Fortunately, with the right planning, construction, and foresight, such place can be created right inside the Amazon room.
It's all in the presentation
There is precious little the tournament organizers can do about who shows up at the final table. They could end up with Scotty, two Phils, and a Professor or they could end up with Dudley, Whitey, and Teddy Foreskin (three guys from the G-Vegas underground, if you were wondering). The point is, the poker is going to be the poker and there is no way to plan to make it a World Series to remember. So, Harrah's and ESPN production company 411 are going to have to do what Vegas does best. They are going to have to present the final table better than it ever has been presented.
First, as mentioned above, there will need be adequate seating for everyone who wants to watch. This does not mean, as it has in the past, two or three rows of bleachers and a bar/balcony area. This means stadium-style seating completely circling the final table and rising up so that everyone can look down on the action.
Of course, because the action is so hard to follow from a distance, there simply must be a variety of big plasma screens so the hundreds of people watching can see everything. Furthermore, the behind-the-scenes production crew should be staffed with a spot-on director who can punch with the best of them. That is, what appears on the plasmas should appear as what spectators would see if they were watching on television. Gone should be the days of seeing only the flop cam. We should see everything. That includes running chip counts on an overhead scoreboard. Impossible you say? Not at all. One perfect chip count at the beginning, an announcement of every bet, and a spread sheet and you have an accurate chip count to display for the entire event.
It can't be all technological, though. You need good people calling the good action. It's a tough job to maintain focus on the cards as well as have a good enough personality to work the crowd. Johnny Grooms, Jack Effel, and Chris Spears have done a good job in the past. We'll need to see as many people with that kind of talent to call the action perfectly and maintain a decent rapport with the crowd.
Those are the big things. There are others , but I'll save those for the day I get hired as a big time consultant.
That happens to be conveniently scheduled for the same week pigs fly and hell freezes over.