Party Poker Premier League

On Tuesday night, the Party Poker Premier League kicks off on Channel 4. I’m not going out on a limb when I say that that this will be the best new poker show on TV this year. It’s a damn fact.

It’s been a while since there was a poker program that promised as much of an impact. I believe Premier League Poker will change the face of televised poker in Europe. It’s been nearly eight years since Rob Gardner, while working for Presentable Productions, developed and produced the groundbreaking Late Night Poker series. In those eight years, innovation in televised poker has been stagnantly sparse. You could say nonexistent. Televised poker has been limping along in a dual format for the last eight years of multi-table tour events and one-table made-for-television tournaments. Both strands have been in dire need of improvement. The sophistication of the average poker fan has changed exponentially from year to year, but the way that events are devised and covered, sadly, has not.

The problem with multi-table tournament coverage is that though events like the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour, and the European Poker Tour are inherently interesting as poker events, the resulting televised products do not do the events justice from a poker point of view. A new method for televising a multi table tournament is needed. At its source, what makes a multi table event different from a one table extravaganza is the skill and strategy required to win one. But it’s not enough for the viewer to be told, that because a multi-table event is more skillful than a one table affair, that because of this then watching the final table as a televised event is a better viewing experience. Or that selected feature tables from a 400 or 2000 runner field plus exit interviews can give us a back story. What inevitably happens is that some guy who we’ve never seen before and may never hear of again will play an enormous bunch of all-in pots and the viewer is supposed to accept that as prime poker viewing. What just happened? How did he get there? Why did he arrive here? These questions have never been answered for the armchair poker fanatic. A multi-table tournament is a gold mine of data, and television strip mines in the worst possible way. It’s an ending with the weakest story possible.

The problem with one-table made-for-television tournaments has been the quality of the drama and the sophistication of the strategies, or lack of them. The one-table televised strategy has been parsed, spliced, and severed up and down every way since Sunday over the last eight years. In a tournament where first out and runner-up hold the exact same allure, the hammer and go, while effective, has no subtlety for someone who is genuinely interested in the pressures that the game can allow. That filming time constraints have previously made the crucial stages of these tournaments into a crapshoot have only added to the problems. Too often you see players playing as if they don’t care about being knocked out in four hands. They don’t. These days if they don’t double up, players are quite happy to go out first and catch the next train to Zuider Zee.

Enter, the Party Poker Premier League. Here’s the format. The entire Premier League is made up of only twelve players. The fourteen shows consist of a twelve week season, the playoffs, and the final. Each player plays six matches, accumulating points for the league table which determine position at the end of the season. The top four players go straight to the final table, with chip stacks relative to their accumulated points. The middle four players play a series of head-up matches to determine the final two players for the final table. The bottom four in the league are relegated off the final table completely. In addition, a new blind structure has been introduced to these one-table affairs which has changed everything. Rather than playing timed blind levels of one half hour, as has been the norm for years, blinds are raised every twenty-one hands. That little thing has increased the amount of play to no end. Whereas it used to be not uncommon to reach blinds of 5,000-10,000 six handed (an average of ten big blinds per player) after only 35 hands, players are now playing a full twice as many hands at the lower blind levels. It was unique for a Premier League match to last beyond the 10,000-20,000 level, where it used to be the rule of thumb.

What makes the Premier League special? First of all, there’s the strategy. The players care. Proper plays were like abstract equations. The league table became the most important document circulated before and after each match. The difference between going out sixth and fourth could end up being the most important result a player had. By the second half of the season, the strategies for the different players were complex. To give an example, the Premier League featured the first time I’ve ever seen someone fold an Ace-King under the gun at a six handed table. Whether it was right or wrong is another consideration, but the fact that these kinds of decisions get put into the playbook make for a whole lot more interesting viewing.

There’s context. Too often in televised poker today, hands are shown on TV that have no story surrounding them. The players have no history, whatsoever. It’s the first hand we’ve seen these people play together, and the last hand we will ever see them play together. There’s no contextual meaning, and therefore there really is no psychology to add to the strategy, poker with the before hair from the commercials. The Premier League has context. By the middle of the season everybody has played countless hands with everybody else and watched all the rest, game plans are being changed, and situations are being repeated. There’s context, there’s complexity, there’s psychology. And the viewer knows the story.

There’s the level of play itself. The Premier League advertised that it was going to bring in among the best players in the world and it delivered on that assertion. Matchroom Sports’s new policy to allow logos in all televised events was a contributing factor, as was Party Poker’s addition of several hundred thousand dollars to the prize pool. It’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, that the science of the game of tournament poker has evolved to where the greatest practitioners are those adept at getting money out of beginners, as has become the norm with large multi-table events today. This was always to be the domain of cash game poker, but tournament poker evolved with the notion that its nature should eventually pit the best against the very best. And you’ve got that with the Premier League, as in no mugs. As in nobody making plays without at least some seedling of experience and thought in their globules.

There’s the drama. Yes, the Premier League is full of poker players who have no shortage of experience in hamming up to the cameras, but don’t for a second think that it’s not real. It was there. By the third time the Devilfish faces Phil Hellmuth, you know full well he cares, he cares with every fiber in his body. The pressure that guys like Kenna James and Tony G are under to make the final table comes pouring off their every decision, and the interplay between these twelve as they crumble and creak through a week of being locked up in a remote hotel in Kent together is stuff you just cannot make up. It’s compulsive viewing, for the anorak, the poker player, and the voyeur extreme.

There is one last thing that made the Premier League special. It’s hard to plan for but you know when you’ve got it. It takes me back to the first Late Night Poker, just after the final table, when The Devilfish bought two cases of champagne for the partiers in the bar of the Jury’s Hotel. Nearly every single person who had participated was there until late in the night. Half of us had lost our case money in the event, but we were all joyous in the extreme. I remember sitting there with guys like Surindar Sunar and Chip Winton and The Hendon Mob, and we were feeling like pioneers. We knew that we had taken part in something special, that like it or not we were bonded together.

And brother, that’s what the Premier League became. Every single one of those twelve players was involved from start to finish, twenty-four hours a day for an entire week. When they weren’t playing, Vicky Coren, Phil Hellmuth, Roland DeWolfe, Andy Black, Kenna James and Eddy Scharf were in the box doing commentary, and there was one unforgettable day when both the Devilfish and Tony G stayed in the box without pause for nine and a half hours because they knew that if either left the other would unmercifully slag him off. It was a week during which Roland never slept more than three hours in a row. What with the cash games at the hotel, the Chinese Poker, the non-stop prop betting in the Green Room, the golf, and the drinking, it was action. There were hangovers, tempers, and tears, and if you want to see what became of everyone then a little gem will be coming out at the end of the summer which shows cracked up souls to a man.

Because immediately following the Premier League, most of the players herded into London for a filmed twenty-four hour cash game that went from the sublime to the ridiculous. And all the Premier League players started out on tilt.

You can moan, you can bitch, you can throw things at the TV. But don’t miss the Premier League. It’s good TV. And it’s very good poker.