EPT11 Barcelona: Stepping into the feature table fish bowl

The final table of the Super High Roller event is well under way, and the usual hordes are tuning in to EPT Live to watch all the action go down. This time around, PokerStars Blog had a tiny part to play in the world's superlative poker broadcast as one of our writers -- well, me, in fact -- was recruited to take part in the dress rehearsal for the tech team. It was, I don't mind telling you, a dream come true.

On the eve of the first day of broadcast, the audio and video wizards need to make sure that everything will run smoothly when the players first take to the televised felt. It's doubly important when the first event to be broadcast costs €50,000 to buy in; things need to be working smoothly from the off.

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The EPT feature table fishbowl

The best way to ensure all aspects work as they should is to actually play a small poker tournament, a sit and go featuring a bunch of no hopers in lieu of the high rollers -- kind of the equivalent of this lady (or, more probably, this rabble).

Despite having watched EPT tournaments play out since Season 1, I had never actually sat and been dealt a hand at a feature table, and it was kind of fascinating to get a player's eye view. I was among a couple of EPT employees and five engineers from TRANS-SPORT, the company who puts hauls the set from stop to stop and then assembles it on site.

It takes about 50 hours to put the whole thing together and the engineers had been in Barcelona since the previous Wednesday, five days before the set was due to be used. These guys a pretty handy with a spanner and a lighting rig, but they're not all that great at poker, as I would soon find out.

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Yours truly, on the TV table

Before a card was even dealt, however, we all had to be mic-ed up. In the early days of the EPT, this process used to be kind of arduous, with all kinds of wires tangling themselves in and out of players' clothing. These days, it doesn't take much more than following the pretty straightforward instructions of a sound technician, who comes around, clips a microphone to your shirt, and says: "Stick that on your pocket".

You put a transmitter where he says, and away you go. The hard bit is remembering that every word you now utter, and every move you now make, will be heard with crystal clarity by people you can't see. Heed the warning offered by Frank Drebin is all I can say.

The first thing you notice about taking to the feature table felt is how big the whole thing is. It is about 50 per cent bigger than a regular poker table, I would say. I was in seat two for this sit and go of champions and was probably about three feet from the dealer, to my right.

Mickey Petersen wrote a blog recently on the subject of good etiquette at the poker tables, in which he mentioned the importance of putting blinds and antes far enough on to the table for the dealer to be able to reach them. It is never more important than at the feature table, where even the dealers of the largest stature would require Mr Tickle arms to rake in chips placed just in front of stacks.

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A railbird's view of the final table

Our dealer Anna was, it's fair to say, not of the largest stature. She is one of the EPT's elite pool of dealers, brilliantly able to calculate raising sizes, chopped pots and the like, as well as to keep a firm and authoritative handle on the often tension-filled players of the European Poker Tour. Next time you play live poker, it's worth taking a few moments to watch exactly how difficult a dealer's job is, and how competently they do it.

Throwing your chips a few inches further forward to help avoid back strains really is the least you can do.

Dealing is a difficult enough job at the best of times, but the dealer on the feature table is also very much a part of the broadcast. They are equipped with a microphone to relay information about action and bet sizing back to the graphics team and also have an earpiece in which the director will ask for clarifications or amendments. The dealer is like an orchestra conductor: he or she needs to keep an eye on the eight or nine players at the table, while also maintaining a conversation with everyone behind the scenes.

"Daniel...Can you hear me Daniel?" This was Anna as they tested her microphone connection. "Daniel. Are you there? Can you hear me Daniel." It sounded momentarily like we were at a seance as Anna attempted to make contact with the ghostly Daniel. But Daniel -- in this case Daniel Hudson, the production director -- could not immediately complete his visitation and the pleadings became more anxious. "Daniel, it's Anna. Can you hear me?"

Eventually, after a bit of fiddling, Daniel replied and we were ready to go. Anna cut for the button, it was placed one seat to my left, and I received the first hand.

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Not that Daniel...

For many years, the most efficient way for a television audience to see a poker player's hole cards was via a small camera embedded in the table's elbow rail. However over the past couple of seasons, the advent of cards carrying microchips has made hole-card cameras redundant. Players instead now slide their cards on to small box drawn on the felt in front of them. There is a chip reader underneath that can deliver the identity of the two cards directly to the graphics team, which reproduces them on the broadcast stream.

I greatly enjoyed this bit, I must say. It allows for precise fidgeting as you line the cards up directly in the box and, even better, encourages the beautifully satisfying two-finger slide-fold. This is definitely a move that has grown in popularity since the advent of the microchipped cards: place index and middle finger directly on to the two cards, then send them sliding towards the dealer over the slick felt of the best-kept playing surface in poker.

After an uneventful first couple of hands, we soon had our first elimination. One of the engineers named Josh somewhat overplayed his no pair and saw all his chips piled up the other end of the table. He sat back with a chuckle and prepared to stay and watch his colleagues play on. It was not to be, however.

"Josh, will you do the walk off for us," Donna, the floor manager, asked.
"Come on, the walk of shame!" chimed Josh's unforgiving colleagues.

This is the bit that every poker player dreads, whether from a genuine final table or even this two-bit, sub-home-game rehearsal. Josh looked suitably downcast as he slouched off the stage and had his microphone unclipped. He did not, however, kick out at any of his carefully constructed set.

The digital video projections, which surround the table, relayed news of his departure to the rest of the tournament room. By this point, I had almost forgotten all this, despite the enormous amount of kit. At first step on to the set, it feels like entering a fish bowl: wherever one looks there are cameras or spectators, and if you accidentally look at one of the monitors, you might find yourself staring at yourself, which is impossibly scary.

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Scott Seiver in duplicate

But the lights these days do not give off any heat and the cameras glide around in near silence. They are curiously easy to forget, which perhaps explains some of the apparently bizarre play we often see on the TV tables.

I managed to win a pot after bluffing with [10d]2♦ through three streets and, having been called all the way to the river, eventually giving up. My adversary checked, I checked and I prepared to watch my chips vanish. But he ended up having an invisible nine-high and I was good. I then won a legitimate pot with top-pair kings, called by two ace highs. That was a thrill.

The action became even more crazy. After a shove of 4,000 into a pot of about 500, an EPT employee had a decision to make. There were four spades on the board and he pondered: "I don't know if I'm taking this too seriously." He eventually folded.

"It's quite boring being a poker player," said the engineer to my left. He had been forced to fold a couple of hands in a row, but it was kind of difficult to disagree. (The lack of millions of euros on the line could have something to do with it, I suppose.)

Within a few moments, we were all out of our misery. Donna, the floor producer, told us that everything was in order and we were free to go our separate ways.

The final table of the €50,000 Super High Roller is under way. Head to the main Super High Roller page for full coverage from the tournament floor. Also, watch along at EPT Live.

Howard Swains
@howardswains in European Poker Tour