PCA 2015: Missing a lot is the price you pay for seeing a lot

As poker has evolved over the years, so has the way in which it is brought to the public. Major tournaments are still televised in time-honoured fashion -- a cut-down of the feature table, and then the final, squeezed into one-hour portions -- but we are now also in the era of the webcast, where it's warts and all from start to finish at one particular table.

At the same time, television producers are trying out new formats, usually with a snappy twist, in a bid to engage new viewers. It's this experimentation that has brought the PokerStars Shark Cage into existence, a few years after the similar Big Game and the likes of High Stakes Poker, which shifted the gaze of the cameras to the cash tables rather than the tournament arena.

Here at Atlantis this afternoon, on the first day of the 2015 PokerStars Caribbean Adventure, all the formats are being produced simultaneously. The enormous television stage is in place, with its Shark Cage looming over it, on which Jake Cody, Jennifer Shahade, Ronaldo, Tito Ortiz and Sam Grafton are doing battle. Meanwhile a smaller webcast stage neighbours it, which has also doubled as a gym for Mike McDonald today, and out on the "normal" tournament floor, there are five tables of "regular" play in the $100,000 Super High Roller. A couple of handheld cameras are currently taking B-roll there, which may or may not be edited into the final broadcasts.


Three stages in one room

This unique set up affords those of us inclined to think about these things the perfect chance to ruminate on the strengths and weaknesses of the various broadcast formats. One thing that has been established over the years is that you can't please all of the people all of the time: there is no way to cover poker that will perfectly satisfy the demands of the purists, who have a high skill level, and the casual viewer, who does not yet know if poker is for him or her, nor whether a flush beats a straight.

The "problem" tends to be that so much more happens in a poker tournament than can ever be included in a edited programme, while many of the key events that tell the basics of the story are some of the least interesting moments of the piece. A confounding back-raise on an outer table, for example, which sends a particular pot along a highly unorthodox path, will almost never get the love it deserves when a show finally airs. However, a super-standard shove with queens, getting out-raced by ace-king, will make it to screens around the world, even though a similar coup will have been broadcast hundreds of times before.

In the Super High Roller event today, players have begun building the stacks that will put them in the best position to make a run for the final table tomorrow. They all have deep stacks -- they started with 250 big blinds -- and any scholars of the game could learn enormous amounts about top level poker if the action from these outer tables cold be seen in full. But during a recent half-hour period, I saw precisely one showdown at Daniel Negreanu's table - a small-ish pot in which Negreanu, with pocket tens, lost the minimum against Mohsin Charania's aces - and the lessons went unlearned.

For many reasons, there is no other way this can go down, however. You can't have hole card cameras, even on only one table in a multi-table tournament, and there's probably not enough tape in the world to record every hand from every table through the duration of an entire event. It means that even though the EPT Live cameras are showing one table, and are managing to catch things like the aforementioned McDonald prop bet, the overwhelming majority of hands are not being seen by anyone.

It also means that by the time the final table convenes for a cards up final, the viewers will know little of how the players got there. It applies to their lives (i.e., how they got to the position where they could enter a $100,000 buy in tournament at all) and to the mechanics of the tournament. As far as most of the viewers will know, they just showed up that day with a randomly-sized stack of chips and were told to get on with it.

But the flip-side of this has also been tried. The Shark Cage is a made-for-TV event, so its structure is necessarily steeper, and the game has been tinkered to provide the most engaging product for a television audience. But many of the early criticisms of the Shark Cage programmes centred on the relative lack of actual poker: the back-stories of the players, particularly the online qualifiers, were told at length, but this was often deemed to be at the expense of the nitty gritty of poker hands. You can't win them all.


Sam Trickett, not playing the Shark Cage, drops by to the Shark Cage nonetheless

We have been sitting this afternoon alongside the Shark Cage set and it sounds as though it's going to be a blast. With Grafton there, the volume has been high, particularly as his countryman Cody makes at least one trip to the cage. Meanwhile Ronaldo and Ortiz are two of the biggest celebrities there will ever be on a poker show, so their back-stories are going to take some telling. In short, again, there will be much more on the cutting room floor than in the actual show, and viewers are likely to realise that they are seeing merely the highlights. But if anybody can figure out how to balance the tightrope between offering engaging, event-filled poker programming and long, nothing-filled hours focused on the anonymous, then plenty of folk will want to know.

In the meantime, it should be good to know that efforts are being made to give the most thorough overview of all these events. When the PCA first set sail, 11 years ago, all anybody saw of it was the six-handed final table, won by Gus Hansen.

Next time you're left thinking about all the stuff you're missing, turn it around and remember all the stuff you can see.

Follow all the action from the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure at PokerStars Blog. Head to the Super High Roller page to see hand-by-hand updates and chip counts in the panel at the top of the page, with feature articles below. Action is also under way at EPT Live.