It is easy to think that the pictures you can watch on EPT Live right now are equally simple to produce. In a way they are – but only as long as you have a team of highly skilled production staff who have been doing this for years.
But it wasn’t always so easy. Even they had to start somewhere.
As detailed earlier in this week’s coverage, Barcelona hosted the first ever EPT event and it was filmed to make the first television show of its kind. Three of the TV crew from that first tournament still work the Tour, and they are only too happy to reminisce about the early days. It almost fell apart from the start.
“This was a sport we knew nothing about,” said Dave Corfield, a cameraman with 20 years of experience in television. “We were a group of television professionals who had shot sport all over the world and now we had a new brief, attaching ourselves to this thing called poker.”
Tossing around a copy of Poker for Dummies, the crew set about climbing a steep learning curve. They had no idea what anyone had in mind for a TV programme about poker.
“We were looking at each other trying to work out what they wanted,” said Corfield. “Now we have seven crews with sound ops. Back then we had two cameramen and no knowledge of what was going to happen. We just shot every hand.”
There were 229 players in that first event, a lot of players to film. But there was another problem. Who were these people? Who were the good players, the stars of the game? With no idea the crew did the only thing they could do, and pointed their cameras at the people who “looked good, or wore a stupid hat,” according to Corfield.
“It was the dying days of the old guard. The Moneymaker generation was starting to come through. Then all of a sudden Gus Hansen was the start of something. It was no longer the crew that was confused – the players were too.”
Players like Hansen and Patrik Antonius were turning poker theories on their head. The TV crew, just getting used to the older established players, now had to keep up with the new generation.
“Because we were doing the interviews we heard these commandments of poker,” said Corfield, looking back on what seems like an era of black and white. “Two of them were ‘don’t chase a straight or a flush.” Your good cards were aces and kings, ace-king. Ace-queen you’d probably throw away.”
Problems weren’t limited to the camera teams. The production staff tasked with making sense of it all had to do so in an analogue age of pens and clipboards. Francine Watson, who produces the current coverage, was a production manager back at the start. Now if she’s on the tournament floor it’s to watch over her staff of more than a hundred, working like a finely oiled machine. Back then the machine was rusty and needed a kick once in a while.
“The worse thing about it was the logging [of hands],” said Watson. “One person couldn’t do it because we were so inexperienced. For the first couple of rounds we were just looking at each other. We had no idea. I would hear the dealer shout numbers and I’d just write them down.”
With nobody really knowing what things should look like, staff used old DVDs of poker shows for inspiration, hoping the rest would fall into place. Somehow it did, and looked great when the first show was aired in the UK. Now, that first event is looked back on fondly. (Check it out – and all other poker shows – at PokerStars.tv)
“I turned up to a casino to do poker,” she said. “I thought I’d be wearing a ball gown every day. The other thing that hit us was the chip noise. It drove us nuts. Now you just don’t notice them.”
The subsequent success of the EPT broadcast, complete with live streaming on the internet in six languages, is down to various factors. But it’s this nucleus of TV people that have turned tournament poker into an enthralling spectacle, led by the director, Daniel Hudson.
“Dan’s was the hardest job,” said Watson. “He had to direct cameras without knowing where to send them.”
Hudson is still a man who works long hours and eats lunch next to one of several trucks parked around the back that contain the broadcast equipment and buttons that keeps the tour on air. Like everyone, Hudson had never played a hand of poker in his life when he got the call to go to Barcelona. Now he’s responsible for every image you see on screen. That wasn’t always easy.
“[John Duthie] wanted nice dark moody shots, shots of people’s eyes, shots of the hand and the cards,” said Hudson. “But actually by the time you get four camera guys on camera with no idea what’s happening, it ended up a bit of a farce, and a car crash to be honest.”
With play under way the crew soon realised their inexperience was causing problems. After 45 minutes they had no footage and the rustle of a P45 in their ears. Hudson stopped play, got everyone together and made some changes.
“We got Thomas Kremser (the former EPT tournament director) a microphone and he stood behind the dealer,” said Hudson. “At least we had half an idea of what was going on at the table. Actually half an idea is probably an exaggeration. That’s way too much.”
Hudson had previously been working on sports and game shows, which he suggested gave someone the idea that poker somehow amalgamated the two. Hudson was in at the deep end like everybody else.
“I remember John Duthie sitting next to me, spotting for me,” said Hudson. “I saw someone had queen two, and I said ‘He’s got a queen, that’s brilliant!’ John just looked at me. It got better from then.”
The other problem was practice. Back in those days only the final table was recorded and with events separated by months rather than weeks, each event meant starting again.
“It probably took a good season,” Hudson said. “What really helped was when we did the final of the first season at the Sporting L’Hiver (in Monte Carlo) that we got four good days. That really allowed everyone to have a fighting chance to get our heads around how we’re going to cover it.”
Nine seasons later the feature table has been looking better each year and operates seamlessly. “The whole thing just grows continuously,” Hudson said. “We were just covering final tables in the first year and now we’re covering it as a whole event.”
But there’s more to putting a TV show together than making it look nice. The experience for every player that takes a seat on stage is at the heart of everything.
“What we tried to do was make it a natural transition for the players to come from any other table in the tournament to our TV table,” said Hudson. “That’s something we’ve always worked hard to achieve. Of course the lights and the cameras are the difference but for them as players we don’t ever want to affect the way they play the game. That’s essentially the difference between us covering a poker tournament, rather than getting six blokes sitting in a studio.”
The poker world is a different place now for everyone, and much of it is owing to those stalwarts Corfield, Watson and Hudson. Only the strongest have survived.
“I think it killed the first producer,” Corfield said. “But we slowly found our feet. It’s been a phenomenal ride.”