WSOP 2017: The best spectacle in the world...so long as you're watching on TV
In most professions (except, maybe, the oldest) spending time in a hotel room during working hours is shirking. But here at the World Series of Poker Main Event, a few hours spent upstairs is arguably the smartest move a reporter can make.
For long periods during this tournament, the action from the three feature tables has been screened live on ESPN--the first time poker has been shown live, with hole cards, on a major network.
All indications point to a successful experiment too. Viewing figures are highly promising and the WSOP buzz is now extending to the main casino floor, bars and restaurants as well as in every hotel guest's room. It's meant a steady trickle of spectators ambling down the long corridor towards the nerve-centre. And you know what that means? Disappointment.
Without question, the small screen is the best way to watch poker, be it ESPN or PokerStars.tv, which of course continues to broadcast PokerStars Championship events live online. This is especially true in comparison with the experience of watching poker in the flesh, and doubly so as the tournament reaches its business end.
For obvious reasons of game integrity, no one close to the tables in real life can see hole cards. But as the field thins, the gaps between spectator rails and active tables grows wider too. It's only right that players don't feel cramped. (The roving camera crews deliver enough pressure as it is.)
All this means that on the comparatively rare occasions that a hand goes to showdown, spectators can be left rocking on to tip toes to see what anybody was playing. Even though it's pretty obvious to whom chips are being pushed at the end of a hand, it's often unclear specifically how the hand was won. "What he have? What he have?" becomes a common refrain.
Arguably the bigger issue--and this is true too on the feature table, where at least the board cards are in view in overhead monitors--is over identity. The most pertinent question is more usually: "Who's he?"
Until you have watched poker from the rail in the flesh, you don't know how valuable the graphics with the players' names can be. For instance, it wasn't until I spent 30 minutes watching ESPN this afternoon that I could say with confidence which curly-haired youngster was chip-leader Dan Ott. But having seen him win a few pots on TV, I'll know from now on.
How to make poker a viable live spectator experience is a problem that has vexed entrepreneurial minds for quite a while now. Various elaborate approaches have been tried, but the results tend to be mixed. The Global Poker League perhaps came closest and it at least addressed two of the principal issues with turning poker into a visual spectacle.
The much-vaunted "Cube" playing area, in which the two players were locked in isolation while their hole cards were visible to spectators outside, looked great on TV, and could in theory let a live audience share in the thrills and spills. There were a number of reasons why it did not attract a significant live audience; its set design was not one of them.
Another thing that the GPL got right was bringing a team element to the game--and it wasn't until today that I really appreciated that. The difference between tournament poker and almost all other sports or pastimes is that the contest at its heart is not team vs. team, and it's not even one man or woman against another. It's an individual against hundreds of other individuals, which then breaks down into a seemingly infinite number of brief personal battles.
When one person wins a pot, it usually only affects two (or maybe three) players. The winner can celebrate, the loser(s) can commiserate, but everyone else in the room, constituting the vast majority, is indifferent.
This, I think, is principally where poker struggles as a live spectator event. In almost all sports, the thrill of the live spectacle is dependent on the tribal element: get loads of people together with a common desire or a common dread and excitement and tension develops. It's why we all get so worked up about the bubble, especially at the World Series. That's the one moment when almost everyone in the room joins forces to root for the same outcome. It's why a huge roar goes up and high fives are exchanged. At that moment, and that moment alone, poker unites rather than splinters.
So back to the Brasilia Room tonight. Not so long ago, Christian Pham won an enormous pot, knocking out Jonathan Dwek, surging into the chip lead and giving his small cheering section to opportunity to try to raise the roof.
They dutifully erupted at the sight of Pham's rivered straight flush, but there's only so much noise a small band of fans can make in a cavernous room such as this, especially when everyone else in the room was absolutely indifferent to the news.
Benjamin Pollak was the only one to react at that table. Referencing Dwek's Superman costume, Pollak said: "You got the kryptonite. You killed Superman." But nobody cracked so much as a smile. The ambivalence was palpable. The table broke soon after, sending Pham and Pollak in different directions and forcing Pham's fans to try to cram into the tiny viewing section of a secondary feature table. They will experience familiar, maybe even enhanced, issues with figuring out what's happening from there.
There's no doubt that the World Series is still great, and any poker fan would rather be here than not. They do a great job of building atmosphere with the red and blue lights, the neon, the TV stage, the knowledge of the money on the line, etc. This is also obviously not a long-winded suggestion that poker be made a team sport.
But now that this excellent event is also being broadcast on TV and online, with hole cards up, with graphics providing all the crucial information, with all the tables covered, you're really better off saving the walk down the long corridor to the Brasilia Room.
Addendum: As all of those watching saw, Pham ended the night tops of the final 27 at bagging time. Click here for a complete list of end of Day 7 chip counts.
WSOP photos by PokerPhotoArchive.com. Except for the hotel room one. I wouldn't like to blot their copybook with that.