Ante up: ESPN will provide live coverage of poker finals

ON GAMBLING

The Kickoff

June 20, 2006|By BILL ORDINE

If you play poker and sometimes wonder if you'll ever figure out the game, you have plenty of company. And not just among fellow card players.

Television is still trying to get a handle on how to best present a game that has been a short-term small-screen phenomenon but whose very nature - long periods when little happens - makes it a challenge for producers.

Examples of contrasting TV styles are ESPN's World Series of Poker broadcasts, which are produced more like documentaries focusing on personalties across the breadth of an entire tournament, and the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour that zeros in on the hand-by-hand action at a single six-person final table.

With the 45-tournament poker World Series about to open at the Rio casino in Las Vegas next Monday, ESPN has announced an expansion of its own coverage - a pay-per-view live showing of the Main Event final table that will be available both on TV and on the Internet at ESPN.com.

In addition, ESPN's now familiar edited presentation of the Main Event, more formally known as the $10,000 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold 'em World Championship, will be shown much sooner than usual after the actual event. The marquee tournament will air less than two weeks after the last cards are turned; last year's Main Event didn't run on ESPN for about three months.

In both cases, the World Series should have a greater sense of immediacy for a poker audience that has grown both broader and more sophisticated.

While the pay-per-view show, costing $24.95 and a starting air time of 3 p.m., Aug. 10, will put the TV audience at the final table in real time, prospective viewers should understand two things.

First, the viewer-friendly rail camera that exposes players' hole cards to the home audience will not be part of the live broadcast, so that titillating element of knowing what the other players don't will be missing. Secondly, considering that last year's final table lasted 14 hours, there's going to be vast stretches where nothing happens on the felt.

Dave O'Connor, an ESPN producer in charge of this year's World Series productions, said not showing the rail camera shots during the live telecast is for security purposes. Harrah's Entertainment, which owns the WSOP, is bracing for as many as 8,000 players, which would mean a total prize pool well in excess of $70 million with potentially $10 million going to the winner.

"There's so many more millions of dollars involved, the difference between first and second will be worth millions," O'Connor said. "Any information that might trickle back to the players, we have to be concerned about."

There have been other live poker telecasts that do show hole cards, most notably by FSN, but these have been for much shorter time periods, say a few hours, and involving much less money. The Poker Dome series allows a live audience to see the hole cards of players but the competitors are isolated in a see-through dome, also for a relatively short period.

Because the WSOP Main Event final table goes on for so long, players have to take breaks including for meals, and leaked hole card information would give tips about opponents' tactics.

O'Connor said that the live telecast is intended to appeal to the hardcore poker enthusiast, the type who would be trying to follow the final table blow-by-blow on Internet poker blogs.

But he also believes that the inherent interest of the final table, along with entertainment elements ESPN has planned - pre-recorded features and a parade of poker pros and analysts commenting on the final table - will keep the telecast compelling.

While the live broadcast will be an interesting exercise, ESPN hopes that the quicker turnaround on the now familiar World Series edited presentation will bolster ratings that sagged in 2005 from the previous year.

The 2005 Main Event that saw Australian Joe Hachem outlast Severn accountant Steve Dannenmann occurred in mid-July but didn't begin airing until mid-October.

This year, the cards go in the air for the final table Aug. 10 and ESPN will begin showing the Main Event on Aug. 22.

Last year, ESPN opened 32 hours of Tuesday night poker World Series programming with circuit events - tournaments held at Harrah's casinos around the country earlier in the year - followed by some of the World Series preliminary championships, also called bracelet events, and ending with the Main Event.

This year, circuit tournaments will again lead the first-run lineup starting Tuesday, July 18, but then the poker series will go right to the Main Event starting Aug. 22 and wind up with bracelet events.

Protege shines

Last month, a 27-year-old Connecticut accountant, Brian Fidler, won a poker tournament that earned him the distinction of becoming the protege of professional Daniel Negreanu. Credit Negreanu as a great mentor or Fidler as a quick learner but the novice player was the chip leader at the final table of the World Series of Poker Circuit championship event that started play last evening in Lake Tahoe. Fidler had nearly 640,000 chips when final table play started, almost twice as many as his closest competitor. The tournament started with 110 players and the winner is expected to earn more than $370,000. bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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