The World Series of Poker is an immature phenomenon. Like me, its history spans more than three decades. Like me, it is still trying to figure out its place in the world. It doesn't know if it is still simply a gambler's convention. It wants to be something far greater. It wants to be a cultural mainstay, something along the lines of the ball-oriented World Series or the Superbowl. It's somewhere in between and its adolescence is not the easiest of times in its existence. Like any kid moving into adulthood, there's the acne, the hair in places where there was no hair before, and certain atavistic urges that are impossible to explain.
There are a lot of people wishing the WSOP would either grow up or fade into obscurity. Then there others who believe we're seeing a natural process. Whether Darwinism or the hand of an unseen power takes over, what happens with the World Series will happen regardless, and there's not much you or I can do about it.
Part of the World Series' immaturity is its discomfort with the impossible-to-balance relationship between its desire to be well-marketed and the media's natural desire to cover the World Series like a sporting event. In the past three years, the media rules at the World Series have changed three times. Every change has been driven by both Harrah's desire to carefully control the perception of its product and every media outlets' financial interests.
I have been one to criticize Harrah's heavy-handed and jack-booted efforts to control the flow of information from the Amazon Room to the outside world. I think Harrah's did a better job this year of allowing media to do its job. It still was far from perfect and some legitimate media providers got caught up in a few messes. I think this year was better partially because of the leadership provided by John Caldwell and his entire PokerNews crew. Unlike last year's CardPlayer exclusive coverage, Caldwell and PokerNews spent less time protecting their exclusivity and more time actually covering the tournament. The result was better live coverage and an atmosphere of fairness that allowed the media to work as well as they could in the tricky poker tournament world environment. I hope Caldwell and PokerNews get the gig again in 2008. They proved they could do the job and they helped the rest of us prove we could do our jobs without getting in the way of the exclusive provider.
For a long time, I also criticized the general concept of "exclusive providers." It's money-driven, to be sure. I always said, "You don't have an exclusive provider for football games or baseball games, why should you for poker?" Without anyone ever actually pointing this out to me, I decided the answer was simpler than I was making it out to be. In short, the whole of the media can watch a baseball or football game from the press box and get a better-than-average sense for what happens. They can spot the personnel changes, the ground-outs to first, and the grand slams in the bottom of the ninth. In poker, the whole of the media can't watch the same playing field at the same time unless there is a camera on every table. It's logistically impossible. There simply isn't enough space.
Now, a lot of the above is, if you will, Inside Baseball. The people reading on the outside don't care how they get the information, as long as they get it and they get it accurately. What's more, if members of the media start working to work within the rules rather than trying to get around them, they can be just as successful as before. There were many outlets that did just that during the 2007 World Series--the most successful in my opinion were PokerListings, Gutshot, and, sorry about this, the PokerStars Blog. It was a lemons-to-lemonade scenario and it worked out as best it could.
With all of that said--and what a hellish preamble it was--there remains an immaturity to the media situation that is still to be resolved. When there is such a thing as exclusive internet coverage, exclusive radio coverage, and exclusive TV coverage, there is still a certain care given by those providers to protect the game that pays them. I kept a close eye on PokerNews and Bluff Radio during the whole of the World Series to see if they either unfairly slanted their coverage or left out unseemly aspects of the poker world. All in all, I think those outlets did the best job they could. The stories about Vinnie Vinh and Eskimo Clark appeared in PokerNews where warranted and I think the editorial decisions were pretty well-founded.
Here's the thing, though. PokerNews, Bluff, and a majority of the poker media are poker people writing and broadcasting for poker people. Their job is to tell poker people what's going on in the poker world. Yes, their jobs are dependent on whether poker people think they are doing a good job, but they don't have to worry as much about actively offending Joe Public or bringing down the wrath of Suzie Homemaker with their coverage.
ESPN is different.
Now, I'm not going to be too critical of ESPN, because I think the network and its crack team of producers put out one of the best poker broadcasts on the market. Furthermore, they are shooting in HD this year and the product already looks amazing. They are also very good storytellers. Overall, I think ESPN has been good for poker and for that I can't and won't try to fault them. Still, there's still a bit of journalist left in this old boy and I fear ESPN has not yet figured out they are missing a fleet of boats when it comes to the World Series of Poker.
I'm not going to call ESPN out yet, because the producers are still going through tapes and putting together their season of coverage. However, I'm willing to make some predictions about what we won't see in the final cut of the 2007 WSOP coverage.
I predict we will see scant if any reference to the fact that Vinnie Vinh repeatedly showed up for Day 1 of events but failed to show up for Day 2. The oft-repeated and basically confirmed rumor was that Vinh was a hopeless drug addict, hopelessly broke, and hopelessly in debt to a collection of thugs who sought to put Vinh into tournaments in hopes of getting re-paid. Pauly did a lot of good reporting on the issue, but I doubt ESPN will. If this were the Superbowl, there would be a five-minute magazine-style piece bumping in between coverage on the exclusive network.
I predict there will be no coverage of the story of Paul Eskimo Clark's repeated physical collapses during two tournaments. Both tournaments were interrupted in ways that were disruptive to the event. Clark, despite actually failing to the point that he urinated on himself during a final table, refused to leave his seat and stay in the hospital. Several stories went around about why. Some said he was on a romantic quest to win a bracelet or die in his chair while trying. Other stories said Clark owed people way too much money to get up and give it up for the year. If this had been baseball's World Series, we would've seen a feature piece about a player fighting physical adversity or a darker story about the player choosing to fight debt over the cause of preserving his health.
Now, sure, I'm writing here without any knowledge of what ESPN will do. Last year, the network felt forced by PokerNews writers Amy Calistri and Tim Lavali to discuss the 2006 Color-Up Scandal. There is nothing pushing ESPN to discuss the above stories. A good excuse will be that neither story was necessary to tell the tale of the World Series, that neither story was relevant, and that those stories all happened when ESPN wasn't around. All of those excuses fly, I suppose, but I'm waiting for the day when poker has grown enough that ESPN feels comfortable telling both the good and bad stories that surround poker. I'm not trashing ESPN. I think they are pretty good people overall and I enjoy their broadcasts. I just wonder how long it will be--if ever--that poker gets a real sport's treatment instead off World's Strongest Man coverage.
There was somebody from ESPN--and I'll just let you guess who--who in a private moment made a comment that drove it home for me. This person was talking about Tiffany Williamson's improbable run during the 2005 World Series. The quote: "Tiffany Williamson is so bad, she makes Ted Lawson look like Johnny Moss."
After I finished laughing, I wished I had heard that quote on TV. First, because it's funny as hell. Second, because it's true.
Truth is all I ask for.
[Note: I should note here that all of the above is in reference to ESPN's broadcast coverage. Its writing online, headed up by Andrew Feldman, is much more brave. Of course, ESPN.com had a problem with Pauly, so maybe not quite as brave as I would like yet.]
Finally, I have a few notes here and nothing much to do with them. They are also stories that you won't see on ESPN, however even in my addled post-Series mind, I don't think these belong on TV. They are just stories that don't have a place anywhere or even deserve their own blog post. They are good, bad, interesting, and boring. I just need to clear my notebook and start thinking about something else. For lack of somewhere better to put them, I'll drop them here.
The Milwaukee's Best marketing campaign got out of control
There is a marketing wizard somewhere at Miller Brewing who is currently trying to spin the results of his idea in the best way possible. This person decided it was a good idea to put a bar--a bar!--within the stands of the ESPN final table. This might have been well and good if the drinks costs as much as they did at any other bar in the Rio. Instead, beers were $2.50 and sometimes free-daddy-free. The result was poker hooliganism. Drunks shouted at the players and generally made asses of themselves on a regular basis. You know me. I'm all for a good bender. However, there is a certain decorum that goes along with final table play in poker tournaments. The day the PGA allows free beer to be served to the masses on the 18th green at the Masters, I'll go for an open bar at the final table of the World Series. Until then, keep your underdressed hostesses and cheap beer somewhere else.
Gus Hansen and Devilfish make over-sexed pigs look like Casanova
There are a lot of pigs in poker. I am probably among them. However, the stories about Devilfish and Gus Hansen and how they treat women are more than even I could stomach. If I had only heard these stories once, I might have been able to brush them off. However, having witnessed some of it myself and having heard story after story repeated ad nauseum, I'd caution anyone to not allow their daughters, wives, or girlfriends (age 16-40) to be alone around the Great Dane or the Devilfish.
Many of the big-name stars use same traveling masseuse
(and it's not the one many of you would guess)
Toward the end of the Main Event, I ended up sitting at the bar with Dan from Pokerati. We were relaxing after a long day and generally minding our own business. Eventually, we noticed a 40-something lady sitting on my left. She had been the source of a lot of speculation among many members of the media for the past several weeks. After a few beers, Dan and I got to chatting with the lady. If her story is true--and based on what she said, I have no reason to disbelieve her--she is the traveling masseuse to the stars of poker. What's more, she is a fixer and tends to facilitate a lot of the things...well, a lot of the things you don't see on ESPN. Around 4:30am, she left to tend to one of poker's biggest names. The stories she told us in the interim were the kinds of things you won't see in print. She claimed to have been offered $750,000 to write a book, but refused based on principle.
I'd buy it.
Bicycle Card Company's PR disaster
The first day of the World Series was marked by the biggest public relations disaster of the year. This year, Copag cards were out and Bicycle cards were back in. The company had put together a marketing campaign for the ages to surround its new cards. Initially designed to make it easier for payers to determine their pocket holdings by only looking at the corners of the cards, the design ended up making it nearly impossible to know what one was holding without picking the cards all the way up and staring at their faces very carefully. Within 48 hours, all of the new cards were gone. While the cards' designer updated his resume, Bike's PR team went into damage control mode. It was a valiant effort, to be sure. I don't have a lot to say on this other than Bicycle's attempts to re-woo the media were long-lasting. Within a few days, every member of the media had a brand new set-up of plastic cards (not even available to the public!). A few days later, we all had brand new t-shirts. A couple of weeks later, we all had a second t-shirt and a stainless steel coffee tumbler.
32-way chop at Venetian
Having played a few single-table winner-take-all satellites at the WSOP, I know the process of convincing people to make a deal. It's generally a lot easier when there are two players left. I played in a 140 player multi-table event at Caesars in which a deal was only possible after we hit four players. So, I was a bit incredulous when I heard about a 32-way chop in one of The Venetian's deep stack events during the World Series. Three days after it happened, it was the stuff of legend. I was hearing about it all over town. The Venetian impressed just about everybody with its $500 deep stack tournaments. Winners were pulling in $50,000-$70,000 at a time--not bad for a $500 tournament. Finally, I found a guy who was involved in the chop and was able to confirm it. Apparently, the top four players took $11,000 a piece and the remaining 28 got $7,500.
Mr. Surgical Mask
This was the greatest maybe-urban-legend of the entire World Series. I heard about the guy from three different dealers and five different players. I never saw him myself, but I'm not going to say he didn't exist. Apparently, late one night, a guy showed up at the $500-max $2-$5 game in the Amazon Room. He was from "out-of-town" and wore a surgical mask while he played. He claimed to have lost $25,000 that night. Not at the tables. Not in the pit. Not by getting rolled by a hooker. He claimed it fell out of his pocket. That was one story. However, as the story went on, the guy apparently pulled out $500 and bet it blind. And then did it again. Then again. Then again. By the end of the story, Mr. Surgical Mask had tilted off $20,000 at a $2-$5 game.
And I picked that night to go to bed early.