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Top 10 takeaways from the WSOP Main Event coverage so far

26 September 2016

It's that time of year again, folks: ESPN has started its World Series of Poker coverage. That means it's time for poker fans, serious and casual alike, to get confused about which ESPN channel which episode is airing on, double- and triple-check conflicting listings about starting times, hope whatever event is on previously doesn't run long, and eventually give up and watch it on YouTube the next day.

10. The Global Casino Championship is considerably less entertaining than the Main Event

A few days before Main Event coverage started, ESPN aired the 2016 Global Casino Championship final table in the form of two 45-minute episodes.

There's something fundamentally awkward about this event, and I think it some of it has to do with the timing or pacing. It doesn't especially feel fast-paced or like "highlight poker," but I'm pretty sure the actual event consisted of more than 90 minutes of play. The result is that it felt like watching something straight through, like on a Twitch stream, except with more moments of vaguely feeling like I've missed something and trying to pinpoint what it was.

In addition — and other people may disagree with me, probably a lot — I'm finding that televising only the final table of an event is fundamentally unsatisfying storytelling. It's like only watching the final scene of a movie — without all the setup and the whole plot of where we got to where we are, then I don't know who these people are or why I should care about what happens to them, unless I'd already been following a particular event or player via social media. This event in particular apparently has a huge amount of lead-up, most of which there's no footage of. Either give me just the good bits packaged into a tight, drama-like narrative with interesting characters and lots of jokes, or give me the whole hours-long sprawling thing with exhaustive pro analysis so I can try to learn something. I can't with this middle-ground stuff.

More importantly, though, since it was only one table, there was a limited number of people for the commentators to make fun of, which can easily result in running out of material. Though the dude who kept saying "Merry Christmas" certainly did his bit to keep it weird, host Lon McEachern still ended up recycling his joke from last year about Loni Harwood stealing his Twitter handle, and she wasn't even there. (To be fair, it is a very good joke.)

I'm probably not going to watch this again next year unless players whose careers I already follow make it.

9. Coverage still starts after the bubble

The Main Event coverage starts on Day 4, and the money bubble burst near the end of Day 3. This has apparently been standard for ESPN's coverage for a number of years; just as standard, it seems, is everyone complaining about it.

This year it's especially a bummer because, from all accounts at the time, this year's "bubble boy" was pretty hilarious.

There are a handful of ultrashort clips of footage from earlier in the event snuck in, just to showcase that all the super-famous pros who didn't last into Day 4 had indeed shown up. But Episode 1 kicks off with 357 players remaining — about a third of everyone who got paid.

8. The women were crushing it — for a while

While (spoiler alert) no woman makes the final table this year, these early episodes feature strong showings by former Last Women Standing Maria Ho and Gaelle Baumann. We also see a lot of Melanie Weisner, who, after winning a monster pot at the end of Day 4, remains high on the leaderboard for most of the first four episodes.

Unfortunately, as Norman Chad keeps pointing out, leaderboards don't mean anything, so the predictable tizzy the industry got into when Weisner became chip leader — at the time, spawning some thinkpieces floating the idea that a woman Main Event winner would be good for poker, as if everyone hasn't been saying that for years — was just people getting ahead of themselves. Day 5 saw Maria Ho get eliminated away from the cameras in the first 10 minutes of Episode 3; Stacy Matuson bust near the end of Episode 4 shortly after the most controversial and painful-to-watch hand of the tournament thus far (more on that later); and Melanie Weisner get coolered near the end of Episode 5 with Ac-Kd against Farhad Jamasi's 5c-3c. As of the end of Episode 6, only Gaelle Baumann is left.

Well, it was fun while it lasted.

7. That Guy

Every story needs a villain, but different types of villains function in different ways. Some are so over-the-top they're mostly just entertaining; others are a little more everyday, but may hit closer to home. There's a reason that schoolkids (and former schoolkids) reading Harry Potter all calmly accept that Voldemort is obviously a bad guy, but hate Dolores Umbridge.

I was a huge fan of last year's designated D-Bag Who Wouldn't Shut Up, socially incompetent poker bro Justin Schwartz. If he were a villain in a movie he would be an actual troll, of the sort that lives under a bridge and turns to stone in the sunlight. Possibly he would turn out to have A Heart of Gold and teach the audience an Important Lesson about judging by appearances; depends on the movie.

This year's featured D-Bag Who Won't Shut Up is fast-talking lawyer William Kassouf, and personally, even just watching him berate Stacy Matuson with an unstoppable slew of pseudo-explanatory statements almost made me gnaw my own fingers off. It's really the patina of insultingly false friendliness that sets me off — he's not "just being friendly"; he knows it; I know it; Stacy Matuson knows it; tournament director Jack Effel knows it; any human who witnesses it knows it, so the repeated insistence that he is "just being friendly" is highly effective for driving everyone within earshot up the wall. If Kassouf (or his table persona; I'm sure he's perfectly nice in real life) were a movie villain, it'd be in the sort of Lifetime movie that gets shown in college seminars to teach people about psychological abuse.

After deliberately escalating the situation by engaging in what was basically a version of the "I'm not touching you" game so beloved of first-graders, gloating over Matuson's fold, and needling the TD, Kassouf gets a penalty and then, predictably, whines for the camera about how he's really the victim here.

Excuse me, I need a drink.

Melanie Weisner gained the chip lead at the end of day four.

Melanie Weisner gained the chip lead at the end of day four.

6. That other guy (the good kind)

Undisputed show-stealer of these early episodes is Austin, Texas-based pro Alex Keating, accompanied by his beard. Apparently hellbent on single-handedly dismantling an entire poker tournament culture of looking stoic and paying attention, Keating makes jokes, does a magic trick, and is the subject of a lengthy human-interest profile showcasing that Austin is great, all the dudes he knows are great, said great dudes all think he's great, and poker is pretty great too.

Obviously, Keating's aggressive friendliness and irrepressible clowning also serve to distract his opponents a bit, but at least everyone is having a good time now, especially the people who need to package this into a TV show.

5. Lon and Norm have not changed in the slightest

I didn't expect them to, as they have a particular dynamic that's been well established over the course of years and seems to be working for them.

The ratio of "running gags" — in other words, making the same joke multiple times — to new jokes is a bit heavily weighted on the running gag side. This may be by design, making the commentary seem nice and familiar, or it may be because poker hasn't changed all that much since last year. Side effect: New jokes seem extra funny.

4. So far, we have not caught anyone playing Pokemon Go during the tournament

There might be some sort of copyright reasons behind the lack of footage, but I'm 100% certain it's not because nobody was playing Pokemon Go during the tournament. Running deep in the Main Event seems intuitively like the sort of thing that would spur one to put the phone away and keep one's attention undivided, but gamers gonna game. I also distinctly remember my Twitter feed in the weeks following the game's release on July 6 consisting largely of pictures of Pokemon on poker tables, and Day 4 of the Main Event was only on July 14.

3. As the field gets smaller, the cameras have more freedom to focus on who they like

This may seem counterintuitive, and at some point, it will see diminishing returns and eventually become untrue. But right in the beginning when the field is still 200-plus, it's kind of obligatory to follow big-name pros and former champions, leaving limited time for introducing us to amusing unknowns. While some big-name pros become big names partly by being very media-friendly and getting in front of the cameras a lot, others do it by winning large, important tournaments.

Former Main Event champions especially are of interest to follow by virtue of being former Main Event champions, but not always by virtue of providing really great television. To some degree there must be ways to ameliorate this — perhaps a deeper look into how their lives have changed since the last time we saw them, since most Main Event champions aren't necessarily making the final 300 or so players every year.

As the number of obligatory follows drops, the show can select the most entertaining people out of what is still a pretty decent-sized group and get to know each of them a little bit better.

2. So far, we're short on special features

This has been both good and bad.

In the good column, the Side Action Championship appears to be gone. I think. I hope. I assume that if it still were happening, it would have started by now, so I'm going to take its not having started by now as a good sign.

In the less good column, unless something's been left out of the YouTube versions of the episodes, there's only been two hands of Pro Analysis so far. We have seen more actual, legit hand analysis from Norman Chad, which is not very on brand for Norman Chad.

In the "improving" column, we're seeing more exit interviews from Kara Scott, who for at least the second year in a row was largely absent from the first two episodes, even though more people exit in those.

1. Not too much focus on the final nine

For those of you who are avoiding such information: Spoiler alert.

We really haven't seen much of the eventual November Nine — not even the biggest names at the table, with only a few hands from Griffin Benger and nothing from Cliff Josephy that I can recall.

We've seen quite a bit of Gordon Vayo, including a profile, but a good amount of his screen time seems to have happened by virtue of his sitting right next to William Kassouf (who does not make the final table, but a quick look at Hendon Mob suggests he'll be entertaining and/or plaguing us for at least a few more weeks). Michael Ruane spends a lot of time at the featured table, though he also spends most of it being overshadowed by Keating.

We've seen a bit of Kenny Hallaert and will probably see more of him soon, both since he is a fairly well-known figure and because he's a tournament director instead of a full-time pro. As of Episode 6, though, his most memorable moment was when a (seemingly drunk) lady on the rail shouted at him that he was "cuter than heck," leading to a whole string of jokes from Norman Chad while introducing the other players.
Top 10 takeaways from the WSOP Main Event coverage so far 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.