This month brings the news that Annie Duke has teamed up with former WSOP supremo Jeffrey Pollack to bring us supposedly the definitive league of poker. If only, so the line of argument goes, we could have one definitive league, and therefore one definitive champion, we could know where we are with this “sport”. Perhaps more importantly, we could market it more effectively and convincingly to the world at large. Can poker join the ranks of legitimate spectator sports?
For most of us, the journey starts when we’re very young. There’s something compelling about that moment when your dad explains how one boxer is going to knock out another. The unfolding drama is palpable: the power, the skill. That’s when the drug first flows through our veins: competition is addictive, we find it difficult to tear ourselves away from watching it.
Breaking it down, I think there are three key ingredients to competitive games as spectacles. First, as viewers, we want to side with winners. That’s why there are more Chelsea and United fans now than there were twenty years ago (when they were Liverpool and Tottenham fans). Perhaps this is a tribal thing – we’ll naturally affiliate ourselves with those who give us the greatest chance of sharing success.
Second, the glory of watching competition in action is in seeing something spontaneous yet creatively brilliant. It is the theatre of the sublime. When Nadal played Federer at Wimbledon we were on the edge of our seats. The match was a showcase of breathtaking skill, athleticism and dexterity, and we reveled in watching it unfold.
The third key ingredient is particularly relevant to poker: uncertainty. This does not merely mean the luck factor, although in sport, luck obviously plays a part. Without any form of uncertainly, the spectator sport would be a dull affair. Every match – even David versus Goliath – has the possibility of an upset.
And poker? As far as the mix goes, we can be sure that there is plenty of skill in our game. The problem for poker as a spectator sport is of the other two ingredients. First, skill in poker is such a cerebral matter. It’s pretty difficult to make a TV-friendly exercise out of a game so heavily predicated on memory, intimate knowledge of your opponents’ mood, mindset and history, and almost microscopic attention to the face and body. In cinema, it could be done (alas, it has not yet), but television surely cannot capture this.
Second, as far as the luck factor in poker goes, we’re woefully oversubscribed. It says a lot that our most revered stars are made a fuss of if they get a fourth place in a major event (Daniel Negreanu at the EPT Vienna), or where prop bets are exchanged as to whether they can succeed in winning one out of 57 tournaments in our appointed World Championships (Ivey at the 2010 and 2011 WSOP). With criteria such as that marking success in our game, it’s not surprising that we are so desperate to lend our game an air of legitimacy.
We’re thus left with poker as the only kind of spectator sport it can be. Our shows capture the grandeur of the event, the opulence of the venue, the height of the stakes, and the characters that populate the world. Unfortunately, when it comes down to the actual game, the hands that make the cut are the big all ins. “Oooh, he’s got Ace-King; ooh, he’s got Jacks! Which one will win? Oh my, an Ace on the flop! Gadzooks, a Jack on the river!!!” One has to admit, it’s compulsive viewing, but it’s not what spectator sport is really made of. Neither is it selling itself to the TV moghuls, those who might be looking in, scouting for potential new avenues of profit.
The fact is that unless poker changes, this is all it will ever be. Granted, it does make decent late night, back-from-the-pub viewing. But you can tell by the efforts of all those trying to broker a deal on the world stage for poker, that what they really hanker after is the big time. They want the Superbowl or the World Cup.
Can they have it? I’ve thought about this plenty, and every time I come to the same conclusion. I think that some time in the future, there will be enough poker players out there of decent sophistication that a TV show can be possible which somehow conveys more of the cerebral nature of the game. Until then, for the vast majority of poker TV watchers, the shock! Horror! of AK v JJ all in pre-flop figures to be the best in entertainment that poker as a spectator sport has to offer.
The only other thing I can think of is to reduce the luck factor in the game. Of course, for the game played at the grass roots level, the luck factor is just perfect the way it is. The beauty of poker is that it tantalises its losers just often enough with wins to keep them going. Push that slider even slightly down the spectrum towards the skill end, and the fish would be eaten up within a heartbeat. The sheep, as the saying goes, would be skinned, not sheared.
No, this idea would be reserved for the Premiership only, and this is where Duke and Pollack’s idea comes in. The key is to select a few who have established themselves in the game and are definitely money winning players. Don’t bother enticing them with money from some grand fish – TV sponsorship money is all you need. These players engage in a version of poker where the luck factor is significantly reduced. I don’t know what, but plenty of ideas abound.
In this arena it would be a lot easier for the Dwans and Iveys to rise to the top – even among their peers. We would have our champion, and the action would probably be worthy of a TV format which required a more sophisticated audience to understand it.
The trouble with Duke and Pollack’s venture is it falls short on many counts. First, it excludes online and cash game results. This is presumably as much to do with practicality as anything else – who, after all, could track all the major cash games going on in the world, either live or online? Others have mooted that the main reason to exclude the online prodigies is that they’re mostly autistic mathematical twenty-somethings who don’t make good telly.
Perhaps the biggest barrier is how big the sponsorship behemoth has become in our game. Without the blessing or Stars or Tilt, no such venture could get off the ground. And that’s before Caesar’s Entertainment (aka the WSOP) enters the fray in the post-UIGEA US market.
In other words, the way poker is at the moment, it’s not just about getting all the best poker players in the same room at the same time (although with so many tours vying for supremacy, that would be difficult enough). Even once you got them there, the luck factor in the game is too big for the skill of the better players to shine out in a TV-consumable time frame.
It’s a shame, really, because all of us want poker to go stratospheric. Not just because it would make us all richer, but because it would give poker the credit it deserves. It’s ironic that the one thing that makes poker as big as it is – the luck factor – is the one thing that’s holding it back from being bigger.
This article first appeared in Bluff Europe magazine.