After two days of watching the 2016 World Series of Poker Main Event on ESPN, I’ve come up with four key takeaways.
Takeaway No. 1: Pace of play and fun attitudes are good for poker
After the needless slow play that hijacked the early portions of the 2015 WSOP final table, and William Kassouf (who was eliminated in 17th place) doing his best Ofer Zvi Stern impression this time around, the pace of play from this year’s November Nine couldn’t have been better.
Thus far, the players are all acting quickly, and “Hollywood” folds have been few and far between. If anything, I think a few players are acting too quickly in some spots.
Players respecting the game and understanding the importance of selling the game as fun is how poker grows, and this is what makes other networks look into poker programming.
There was also the terrific non-verbal exchange between Cliff Josephy, who emphatically but playfully slammed down a small bet to try to elicit a reaction from Qui Nguyen, but even better was Nguyen’s response. After not flinching or acknowledging Josephy’s antics, Nguyen cut out a sizable raise and pump-faked a bet before folding his hand with a smile for Josephy. This type of friendly interchange is the type of thing that will appeal to casual players, as it makes poker look fun to play.
There was also Griffin Benger’s celebration after he won his first hand on Sunday night after some 60 hands of play. The win was nothing more than a simple blind steal, but Benger ran around and hooted and hollered like he just doubled up for the chip lead.
Takeaway No. 2: Qui Nguyen is everything poker has been waiting for
Speaking of “good for poker,” the current chip-leader (by a country mile) is Qui Nguyen, an instinctual player who’s willing to make unorthodox plays. More importantly, Nguyen is pulling off the big bluffs that casual players love to see — the kind of bluffs we really haven’t seen much of in the November Nine era.
Nguyen isn’t playing like everyone else, nor is he following the currently accepted strategies and norms. In fact, Nguyen has Antonio Esfandiari befuddled, and that’s good for the game; poker could do with a lot more unconventional play.
While Nguyen reminds me of Amir Vahedi, the timing of his “non-standard” plays is reminiscent of Chris Moneymaker in the 2003 WSOP. Moneymaker wasn’t supposed to call Dutch Boyd. He wasn’t supposed to bluff the wizened Sammy Farha off the best hand. But he did. And by doing so, he instilled in every kitchen table poker warrior the confidence to play.
It’s not just that Moneymaker (or Nguyen) made non-standard plays; it’s that they’re making the right decision when they deviate from the accepted strategies, solidifying the long-standing belief held by recreational players that there is an intangible part of the game beyond the math and strategies, and if you have the moxie, you can take on the best players in the world.
If he wins, expect a lot of Qui Nguyens to flock to the poker tables with their own non-standard ways of playing, blending a mix of experience, strategy, and gut feelings.[i15-table tableid=20717][i15-table tableid=19346]
Takeaway No. 3: WSOP searching for the live stream sweet spot
I have three different thoughts on this point.
RFID cards; close but no cigar
RFID is definitely the wave of the future for displaying hole cards, but it’s obvious from the ESPN broadcast that the technology isn’t there just yet. ESPN’s live stream has been hampered by lagging card graphics and changing cards.
The latter is more of a “c’mon, man” type of issue, but definitely something that needs to be ironed out to avoid confusion. At one point a player’s cards were shown as AA but changed to AT.
The lag between a player folding and their cards being shown is a much bigger problem, as it’s like watching a movie where the audio and video aren’t lined up properly. It’s pretty distracting and makes the action much harder to process and follow.
Six-handed final table
I also wonder if it’s time to start the final table six-handed. Sunday had some good moments, but Monday night’s action was really fun to watch.
Granted, there were no shortage of big hands and an inordinate amount of action flops on Monday, but the reduced number of players acts as an accelerant for exciting poker. Because of this, I think the WSOP and ESPN should consider the idea of a six-handed “official” final table.
It speeds up the pace of play and increases the number of hands to which players are willing to commit chips, whereas nine-handed play allows short stacks to wait for hands and necessitates tighter play in general.
Speed up the structure
Allen Kessler will probably go through the roof, but do we really need 100+ big blind stacks several hours into the final table?
I’m not saying shave off a day and leave everyone with 10 to 40 BBs, but I think the WSOP broadcast would be more enjoyable to casual viewers if the players had smaller stacks, which would create more action and reduce the overall length of the final table.
Takeaway #4: Scheduling is a head scratcher
As they have in the past (2012), the World Series of Poker, and I assume ESPN, made the decision to move the final table up a week to avoid the election. But the dates they landed on make even less sense than crowning a champion on the night we elect the 45th President of the United States.
Sunday and Monday are never going to be great choices in October or November thanks to the NFL, but making matters worse is the WSOP running smack into the other World Series, and a historic one at that, with the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians both looking to end lengthy championship droughts.
We need to end the November Nine stat. I understand ESPN wants to provide some continuity, and let viewers see the lead-up to the final table, and I get that it takes time to edit their footage down and air the run-up episodes, but at what price?
The final table is the season finale, but ESPN and the WSOP are putting the cart before the horse, and letting regular season games dictate when the Super Bowl happens. The final table is the reason people watch, and if they simply ended the November Nine and let the tournament play to a conclusion in July, the only scheduling conflict would be regular season baseball games.
My suggestion would be to take a day or two off once the final table is determined, and hastily clip together a two-hour broadcast of the first seven days from the Main Event that airs right before the live stream of the final table. After that, they can go to work putting together their typical expanded episodes.