At poker table, ESPN has all bets covered

Television: The network has worked to perfect its World Series of Poker telecasts.

July 30, 2005|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN STAFF

Every epic struggle has its chronicler, whether in verse or image.

The Trojan War had Homer; the American Civil War, Mathew Brady.

And the World Series of Poker has Bob Chesterman, who, as coordinating producer, has helped record ESPN's coverage of the Las Vegas poker championship the past three years.

While TV poker is ubiquitous across the dial, it's the poker World Series telecasts that have become the most recognizable and familiar showcase for the game.

Over the course of ESPN's poker shows, audiences have been introduced to a cast of stoic pros, antagonistic foils, and the occasional Everyman who hits the jackpot. As a result, some poker personalities, such as World Series main event champions Greg Raymer and Chris Moneymaker, have greater facial recognition than many NFL or major league stars.

"When we started this, I didn't even know how the game was played," the boyish-looking, sandy-haired Chesterman said. "But I did know that there were these great stories out there - like the Ironman competitions that I had [filmed] and the Olympics. And I realized this game has a mystique and an aura that appeals to people. I might not have known what a pro poker player was, but I knew it was sexy."

Chesterman and a crew of 40 cameramen, sound technicians, field producers and assorted specialists were in Las Vegas from early June until mid-July at the recently completed World Series of Poker, filming zillions of hands of card-playing leading up to the No-Limit Texas Hold 'em main event, won by Australian Joseph Hachem over Severn accountant Steve Dannenmann on July 16.

Telecasts of the main event won't begin until mid-October, but ESPN started a new run of Tuesday night World Series-branded poker events on July 19 with "circuit" events that were played in casinos around the country. On Aug. 23, ESPN will begin airing preliminary events from the actual World Series.

Considering poker's current level of TV exposure, it's hard to believe that ESPN's first WSOP season in 2003 consisted of just seven hourlong episodes. Buoyed by ratings, ESPN ratcheted that up to 22 hours in 2004. This year, there will be 32 hours, including the circuit events.

Last year's 22 episodes averaged an overall rating of 1.7, which translates to about 1.5 million households. The finale, when Raymer won, reached 2.5 million households. Those TV numbers for the taped poker World Series compare favorably with live prime-time NBA games.

A distinctive characteristic of the ESPN World Series shows - and perhaps the key to their popularity - is that Chesterman and his producers have eschewed hand-by-hand coverage and have woven a story line for each hourlong segment, with a beginning, middle and end.

In the process, they might bend or suspend time to create tension. For instance, the 2004 final hand showed eventual winner Raymer beating Southern Methodist student David Williams with a full house. In the telecast, when Raymer went all-in - betting all his chips, requiring Williams to do the same - Williams is shown taking a long, dramatic pause before matching the bet.

In reality, Williams fired back his call immediately.

"We have to do that sometimes to give the announcers time to explain to the viewers what the options are for the player," Chesterman said of editing that slightly alters real life. "Sometimes, we even slow down the dealer [in editing] for the same reason, otherwise it would go too fast for the audience. But we're not altering the outcome."

Even the announcing is a bit of an artful illusion. While hand-by-hand straight man Lon McEachern and wisecracking analyst Norman Chad give the impression that they are doing commentary along with the action, it's really a voiceover.

"It's not scripted," Chad said, "but we know the story line, and we know who the heroes and villains are."

And the plot lines can be compelling: the venerable pro trying to hang tough with the upstart young guns; the tourist who plays a qualifying tournament on a lark and unexpectedly finds himself competing for a fortune, the honors college student who drops out of school to pursue a career at the tables.

To help bring the audience inside the poker universe, Chesterman covers the primary playing field - the so-called featured table where tiny cameras are embedded - with no fewer than 18 cameras. Considering a poker table is about 36 square feet, that works out to one camera for every 288 square inches of green felt.

In addition to the cameras in the table rail that capture the players' hole cards, there are crane cameras, overhead cameras, cameras on dollies and even one camera, the rabbit, that shows what the last card, called the river, would have been if it had been dealt. The goal is not to simply record the hand, but to capture the emotional nuances - contemplation, grimaces and jubilation.

To cover the broader range of action, Chesterman dispatches field producers who scour the room for human interest stories, and six camera crews roam the floor peering over players' shoulders, boom microphones dangling over the action. When this year's main event started with more than 5,600 players, about 190 tables were in use at times.

Once filming was done, Chesterman and a handful of producers returned to New York to sift through about 1,300 hours of poker that will be distilled into 12 hours of programming for the main event alone.

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