The broadcast of the 2003 World Series of Poker main event stands out as the most important moment in televised poker history. When accountant Chris Moneymaker bluffed and then defeated seasoned professional Sammy Farha to conclude the first multi-episode WSOP broadcast, the folks watching at home saw him realize a dream and realized their dreams could be lived out on the same felt. In the years since, there have been thousands of episodes of dozens of poker TV shows, but none have rivaled that Moneymaker victory in importance or in influencing the poker industry's future. It was a true evolutionary moment.
The next such moment is at hand.
At the dawn of the 2011 World Series of Poker main event, 6,865 players put up $10,000 apiece with the dream of emerging as world champion and taking home $8,711,956 of the $64,531,000 prize pool. In the eight days of play that followed, all but nine fell by the wayside. Now, those nine will reunite in the Penn & Teller Theatre at the Rio in Las Vegas, fighting over the $28,269,361 that remains up for grabs and the title of world champion of poker. Still, we've had November Nines before. There's a final table every year. The money is there every year. There's a champion crowned every year. But this year is different.
This year, for the first time, it's all coming to you in real time on 15-minute delay. Every tense pause, every cheer from the crowd, every decision, every ounce of agony, every hand. Welcome to the new World Series of Poker on ESPN.
"It's a different game," said WSOP Player of the Year Ben Lamb, who will enter final table play in fifth place. "The three-betting that would go on if you see a guy doing that a lot, you'll know what they're doing it with. It's a very different dynamic. It's going to change things. I think everyone will have people working for them. I have some really talented players who'll be conveying information to me. Some will be close to the table, some will be at home."
On Sunday, at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2, the remaining nine will become three. Then, at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday, three will become one on ESPN as the world champion is crowned. All told, 18 hours of broadcast time have been earmarked for the WSOP, if that much is needed, a monumental block for any sporting endeavor. The importance will pale only to that of the '03 broadcast, because in the toughest year the poker world has known, as so many televised poker franchises closed shop, the WSOP and broadcast partner ESPN are expanding coverage instead of collapsing it. They're gambling on the maturation of the viewer.
"This is really a true test of how far poker has come," said WSOP executive director Ty Stewart. "To see if the audience has matured enough to consume this much poker in the live style. The way we've presented the product in the past, you don't have to know much about the game. This will be a different experience. The guessing game and the analysis happening after the hands, versus talking you through the situations as you're watching them. Are people going to love this or hate this? I'm prepared for some of both."
The idea of the live broadcast started to gain traction in late 2010 when Doug White, ESPN's senior director of programming and acquisitions, challenged poker broadcasting team member Matt Volk to find a way to improve ESPN's WSOP broadcasts. White was impressed by Volk's plan for live event coverage.
"Every sport needs to evolve," said White. "Every league has to think about rules and game changes. We viewed poker in that same light. We did not want to get caught being flat-footed. This was a chance, with a good idea, to move forward. I'm happy [WSOP parent company] Caesars and the rest of the community agreed with that sentiment."
Martin Staszko will hold the chip lead when play resumes on Sunday, but the 35-year-old has some tough competition at the final table. There will be 34 minutes, 57 seconds left in Level 36 (blinds: 250,000/500,000 with a 50,000 ante) when the action picks up from the Rio.
The Chip Counts
• Martin Staszko: 40,175,000
• Eoghan O'Dea: 33,925,000
• Matt Giannetti: 24,750,000
• Phil Collins: 23,875,000
• Ben Lamb: 20,875,000
• Bob Bounahra: 19,700,000
• Pius Heinz: 16,425,000
• Anton Makiievskyi: 13,825,000
• Sam Holden: 12,375,000
The changes come in a transitional time for poker. On April 15, 2011, the Department of Justice filed indictments against PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker, effectively jettisoning online poker from the United States. Since the advertising money that had paid for so many shows was gone, most poker television couldn't survive. Despite the events of what's come to be known as Black Friday, though, White wasn't deterred.
White and Stewart recognized the risks. It was the edited version of the WSOP that brought the event to its heights in popularity, but when experiments with a 30-minute delay broadcast during the summer returned good ratings results, White and ESPN were convinced that real-time broadcasting was the way to go. For Stewart and the WSOP, the opportunity was one that couldn't be passed up.
"No one aspires to be 'Must-TiVo TV'", said Stewart. "To be event television in sports, you need to be live. From my perspective, the poker industry has always had to fight for more fight for credibility. So of course we wanted to jump at the chance for more exposure and more authenticity. ESPN's skill at delivering the WSOP as interesting television was a huge part of our growth. We think they'll do even better with live, which is their DNA."
For Stewart, the changes weren't just about grabbing a new opportunity, but also about evolution.
"I think that many of our most hard-core fans have been exiting the broadcast to go to other platforms," said Stewart. "Twitter, live updates and the like. There wasn't a compelling reason to consume the flagship broadcast. We wanted to re-engage the core. That's kind of classic market speak, but it's sincere. In a time where many poker shows are being cancelled and it's a transition period for the industry, we couldn't pass up the opportunity. Poker is always fighting for credibility and poker has often been positioned as an infomercial, a documentary. That means you don't get much exposure outside the broadcasts. Part of that is just practical: Who's going to cover poker? Beat writers on poker because it's a TV program. This was an opportunity to really reinvent what poker could be -- live sport. We hope to continue that evolution because it will benefit the credibility of the industry. You have to try something new from time to time. Poker has historically been presented one way: packages, 44 minutes, 14-16 hands, lots of backstory, presented in a linear fashion. We wanted something more similar to golf coverage. Not who was the biggest personality, who was the chip leader. We wanted to try that."
What remains to be seen is just how drastically the format will affect the play. The 15-minute delay and the lack of hole cards on the broadcast (as the hands are being played) are in place to prevent information about a hand in progress affecting its conclusion, but the effect on longer-term strategy will be tangible. The players are preparing for a game of poker that's not quite like any that's ever been played before. One played at the highest stakes imaginable, where they'll know what their opponents have been raising, folding and calling with, without actually seeing the hands at the table.
"There's a couple of people who'll be watching the broadcast and then relaying the information for when I step away from the table a bit," said Phil Collins, another November Niner whose following is likely to be the rowdiest of those in the arena. "Everyone's played poker where you show your hands after, maybe with friends; I think it's very similar. It's not some gimmick where we get to know what one another has. The best player is still the most likely to win. The person who mixes their play up the most is hard to figure out, whether you get the info or not."
The poker world will have its eyes peeled for evidence of the delay's effect, but that's ultimately a small side story in the shadow of bigger ones: the championship, the money and a huge shift in how we watch the game. On Sunday (ESPN2) and then Tuesday (ESPN), we're going to see history made. We'll crown a new world champion, sure, but for an industry that needs one, we may just be looking at a rebirth.