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A newbie's view of the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event

23 November 2015

Over the past two months, my colleagues here at Casino City have extensively covered the World Series of Poker 2015 Main Event, both on the ground in Las Vegas and via its ESPN coverage. I copy edited their reporting, ensuring that all the sentences were sentences and that "Butteroni" was spelled correctly. I'm from New Jersey; I know my way around Italian last names.

But one thing was bugging me: Poker is practically its own dialect, and I'm not all that fluent in it. I'm more likely to be found playing Settlers of Catan or Gloom than Texas Hold'em, and my favorite game at Mohegan Sun is "How much of this chicken and waffles can I eat at Hash House A Go Go?"

So, for purposes of professional development, I watched the ESPN coverage for this year's Main Event on YouTube. All 25 hours of it.

The beginning is the beginning of the end?

The earlier episodes were a little disorienting for me, not least because Episode 1 kicks off on Day 4, when more than 85% of the field has already been eliminated. This is announced, but I didn't have a very good sense of it — 1,000 players left is quite a lot of people to squish into a few hours of TV footage, so the event still has an air of being big and crowded — so it was hard for me to appreciate that the people busting in the first few episodes are actually very good players who have done well in the tournament. And while a lot of the players left are apparently well-known in poker, they were unfamiliar to me, so it was easy for me to get lost among all the short, disjointed character profiles and mini-storylines. (In fact, I think I might have skipped Episode 3 by mistake, since there weren't any storylines strong enough at that time for me to notice if I'd missed something.)

But I was happy to keep watching anyway, because a lot of the people on display here are goofy as hell and it's extremely entertaining. Also, when your sense of how far along in the tournament we are is shot, it makes Phil Hellmuth's elimination at the end of Episode 2 much funnier, since he gets a lot of face time during the first two episodes and he likes to talk about how awesome he is.

Televised poker and your eighth-grade English class

But no matter how entertaining characters may be — and poker players are characters — there's no story if they've got nothing to do. When I told other non-poker people what I was watching, they all wanted to know: Isn't watching other people play cards for hours boring? There isn't any exciting running around jumping on other people like in football; how does this work as a spectator sport?

The answer is deceptively simple. Poker is a game of incomplete information — for the players. Each player can only see his own hole cards, obviously, otherwise there'd be no game. But the audience gets to see everyone's hole cards, so we have more information than any of the people playing on-screen. In literature, this is called "dramatic irony," and audiences love it. It's no less effective here.
Women made up 25% of the Side Action Championship, which was still not enough to make it not pointless.

Women made up 25% of the Side Action Championship, which was still not enough to make it not pointless.

Not ironic, just unfortunate

It took me a bit by surprise when Norman Chad introduced the Side Action Championship by commenting that he didn't think there ought to be a Side Action Championship. While obviously it's a major part of the announcers' jobs to crack jokes and generally be characters, this was what first tipped me off to a certain unprofessional streak in ESPN's coverage. In this particular instance I thought it was funny — funnier than the Side Action Championship, anyway — but as the series went on, I found myself taking more issue with some of ESPN's gimmicks and framing. More on that later, because first I want to discuss something I think they actually handled well that they could have easily messed up: the dearth of women in the Main Event.

The Main Event field this year was only 4% female, which I know because the announcers mentioned it a couple of times, with just the simple commentary that this is a really bad number. No justifications, no half-baked pseudosociological theorizing about why, no sexist jokes: just acknowledgement that this is a problem. In the earlier episodes, they give plenty of airtime to the women who are there, giving us interviews and little canned character profiles for the more famous ones just as they did with the men. This is the way to make a scene look woman-friendly: normalize their presence. Don't ignore the ones who are there, but don't get weird about them, either.

The Last Woman Standing, the Littlest Vampire and other characters

The show only drew attention to an individual player's gender when Kelly Minkin became the last woman standing and it looked as if she might make the final table, which would apparently make her the first woman to do so in an embarrassingly long time. I was very bummed when she busted even though I already knew she hadn't made the November Nine; she was great to watch — completely unfazed by anything, and unusually chill for an attorney.

As the field was whittled down, there were fewer people for me to remember and the ones ESPN likes got more and more face time, which allowed me to do the thing I like doing best when watching TV: judging people! This also seems to be the thing Norman Chad likes doing best when commentating, and I regret to report that our opinions didn't always agree.

For example, Chad picked on Fedor Holz quite a bit — for his habit of staring at his opponents; for his slow, deliberate movements at the table; and for his black leather hoodie, which somehow is a thing that you can buy, although probably only in Europe. It is for precisely all these reasons, combined with the fact that he looks like he's about twelve, that I decided Fedor might be a vampire, which instantly made him one of my favorites.

Chad also picked on Antonio Esfandiari, although I think mostly in the way that you pick on your friends. I liked Esfandiari — he was the only one of ESPN's obvious faves that didn't annoy me. This may partly be because he was the least blatantly favored of the blatant favorites, and I found it annoying on principle that it was so obvious who ESPN's faves were. There were a number of times when ESPN didn't seem be reporting on the tournament or finding the stories within it so much as trying to write its own full-blown poker drama, and pitching a fit when the reality of the tournament went off-script. With The Phil Hellmuth Show over after Episode 2, the station set up Esfandiari and Daniel Negreanu as its dual protagonists for a while — at least until Esfandiari was eliminated by Neil Blumenfield, who would be the station's unabashed golden boy at the final table.

Poker Jesus vs. the Glorious Trainwreck

With Esfandiari gone, ESPN throws itself fully into its telling of Daniel Negreanu and the Final Table, an inspirational tale of the most awesome person to ever bless poker with his existence, and who despite being the best person and the best poker player has tragically never yet taken his rightful place among the November Nine. But now he has overcome the hardship of having bad posture and has gone vegan and started working out, so he's definitely going to make it this year, because that's how stories go.

Obviously, that's not what ended up happening. In the meantime, I spent more than a little time wondering if I was missing something. The affable, fortysomething short guy hosting the featured table — did anyone else find it weird that one player is allowed to basically host the featured table the whole time? — certainly kept up a pleasant stream of genial table talk that was enjoyable to watch, but in the face of the accompanying deluge of commentary about what a great ambassador for poker he is, I would have expected a little less making fun of other people's accents.

Seriously, there's a segment in Episode 16 that's literally just a bunch of other poker players talking about how wonderful Negreanu is. I found it off-putting. I also think it might be time to retire the "Kid Poker" nickname and just start calling him "Poker Jesus" already, since that's what everyone seems to think he is. And he's got the beard. (Note: Apparently there is another poker player nicknamed "Jesus." But ESPN didn't spend 14 episodes singing his praises, so he's not Poker Jesus.)

I am probably being unfair to Negreanu here, since clearly poker is an entire subculture with a long, long history that I don't know anything about, and he was perfectly entertaining. I just probably would have liked him more if I hadn't felt like I was being beaten over the head with how much I was supposed to like him.

Which is why my absolute favorite part of all the Main Event coverage was when human disaster Justin "stealthmunk" Schwartz lands at the featured table and proceeds to annoy the crap out of nearly everyone there. I didn't know who this person was, but it was clear that he doesn't like Negreanu and Negreanu doesn't like him, making him the only person onscreen bucking the party line. He also keeps up a near-continuous socially awkward ramble that steamrolls over all the nice media-friendly players' genteel banter and makes them super uncomfortable. It's hilarious.

My opinion, it appears, is not universally held. Nearly everyone who does not think this was the best part of the coverage seems to think it was the worst part of the coverage. But by this point, I felt that the show was not any sort of objective news reporting on the game: I was clearly watching reality television about poker players, and the point of reality television is to watch wacky people create a lot of drama and conflict. Also, there's something vicariously liberating about watching someone just be completely outrageous, unburdened by any cares for the social expectations that the rest of allow to constrain our behavior.

The show tried to provide a bit of background on whatever the deal between Schwartz and Negreanu is, but all I got out of it was that they've been mean to each other for years, but Negreanu wants to help Schwartz now and is very pleased with himself for being so generous, so now they've got some combination poker game/weight loss challenge that might or might not be still on. And I'm clearly missing whichever key element of poker bro psychology makes this helpful instead of condescending, or perhaps it just wasn't explained very well. But whatever the origin of the DNegs/stealthmunk beef, I would watch a thousand hours of it.

As we get closer to the final table, we get to know the eventual November Niners better, except for Patrick Chan. It's like they knew he was going to bust in two hands or something. ESPN is especially enamored with Max Steinberg and Neil Blumenfield, since they dress snappy. The station begrudgingly gives air time to Joe McKeehen, who stares at his opponents a lot and is otherwise not very expressive, but who is wiping the floor with basically everybody and so can't really be ignored. One of the announcers (I think Lon) asks if we would believe that Joe McKeehen is a world champion at Risk. I have personally had my ass kicked at Risk by many dudes very like Joe McKeehen, so, yes? Federico Butteroni is unbelievably Italian. Tom Cannuli of New Jersey is very believably Italian-American.

Plot twist

If Episodes 1 and 2 were The Phil Hellmuth Show and the rest of the summer coverage is The Daniel Negreanu Show, Episode 16 is when the tournament becomes The Joe McKeehen Show. McKeehen busts our main antagonist Schwartz — who prophetically tells him "You better win this f—ing tournament" — in 14th place, but then also busts our protagonist Negreanu in 11th. He then eliminates the guy in 10th, determining the final table, where he is the chip leader by . . . ::checks math:: a lot.

ESPN never quite forgives him for this. Throughout all the final table coverage, the camera never misses a chance to make McKeehen look weird, capturing every unflattering facial expression and replaying it in slow-mo. The announcers are all very worried about his ability to be a good "poker ambassador," which apparently means "have mainstream commercial appeal." All of the commentators — and for the final table coverage, we're up to six — are openly rooting for an upset from one of the hipper, flashier Niners, and there are many jokes at the expense of McKeehen's dress sense and his hair. It's all very Mean Girls.
All right, so it is an extremely talk-about-able suit.

All right, so it is an extremely talk-about-able suit.

Now, it makes sense that ESPN, being a large media conglomerate, would be concerned with the TV appeal of this event and its players. However, I feel that most large media conglomerates are usually a little less blatant, pretending to put forward values that as a culture we (at least theoretically) approve of, such as determination, individualism and competence. As an outsider, coming in to hear so much of the event dedicated to wibbling about its own appeal to outsiders made me feel as if I should wait outside the door until it was ready for guests.

It would be easy — too easy, I think — to write a story of this year's WSOP in which Joe McKeehen is the hero, straight up. A story in which a sharp, dedicated young mind with a passion for the game rises to the top despite the doubts and judgments of a shallow, superficial society that is more concerned with how people dress and how charismatic they are during interviews than it is with actual poker prowess. But our hero stays true to his nerdy everyman self; refuses to be distracted with shallow fripperies; and is ultimately rewarded for his focus and perseverance with the highest honor in his field, $7 million and a sparkly bracelet. It practically writes itself.

ESPN did not tell that story. ESPN is openly dedicated to being the shallow, superficial society. And from the sheer amount of McKeehen-making-weird-faces footage we got, I suspect someone there hates nerds the way jocks in bad '80s movies hate nerds. I may have emotionally regressed about 10 years and fallen into a pit of defensive nerd pride during the final table coverage.

In my defense, I had to amuse myself somehow during Ofer Zvi Stern's tanking.

Leveling up as a spectator

Despite my issues with the framing, I think a lot of the changes made between the prerecorded episodes and the live final table coverage were pretty strong. The addition of Antonio Esfandiari to the main commentating team was extremely necessary, partly to shake up the bantering dynamic — we've already heard 16 hours of just McEachern and Chad — and partly because, with no additional tables to cut away to, we have to watch every single hand all the way through. Having additional expert analysis and opinions fills up the time with more real content, and it helped me develop a better understanding of what I was looking at. The Kara Scott/Daniel Negreanu/Phil Hellmuth analysis table was also fun, mostly because it provided Kara Scott with more things to do now that there were only a few elimination interviews to conduct each night.

Some of the "getting to know the players" features bordered on silly, especially going clothes shopping with Max Steinberg. But they really did help me as a viewer get more invested in these guys, which is important when they're spending at least half their time on-screen sitting very, very still.
Left, Level 24 Josh Beckley. Right, Level 25 Josh Beckley.

Left, Level 24 Josh Beckley. Right, Level 25 Josh Beckley.

And by the end, I liked all of them. I'm still critical of how heavily the station went to bat for Blumenfield and Steinberg, but they do both seem like pretty cool guys. Tom Cannuli and his epic rail were just so full of joy and love, it was heartwarming to watch. And Josh Beckley seriously leveled up between July and November.

And whether you want to tell the story so Joe McKeehen is the menacing bad guy or the indefatigable nerd hero, it's clear — even to clueless old me — that he was a complete boss at that table. And that's what I want to see when I decide to check out a new thing: someone being a boss at it.

So, griping aside — you got me, ESPN. I'll be watching again next year for sure.

Want some commentary by people who know what they're talking about? Check out:
A newbie's view of the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event is republished from
Clare Fitzgerald

As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.