[The Strip Sense]

Bad Beat

Try as it might, the poker world just can’t make its sport respectable

Peter Eastgate of Denmark celebrates after winning $9.15 million during the 2008 World Series of Poker at The Rio on Nov. 11.
Photo: Steve Marcus

By now, I thought I’d care. And yet, even given where I’m sitting and whom I’ve spoken to in recent weeks, I just don’t. And if I don’t, I suspect few of you do. Which is the problem.

I’m talking about poker, and I’m writing this from one of just a handful of primo ringside seats allotted to journalists covering the head-to-head match-up that, a few minutes ago, led to the crowning of 22-year-old Peter Eastgate, from Denmark, as the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event champ.

It was an entertaining moment, to be sure. Eastgate’s cheering section broke out into jubilant Danish song—it sounded a bit like the Oompa-Loompa song in a different melody—when he laid out an ace of diamonds for a straight that beat opponent Ivan Demidov’s two pair. Eastgate got $9.15 million, Demidov got $5.8 million, and I got a few hundred bucks for chronicling it for the French wire service AFP.

But beyond my bitterness over the idea that these kids are wealthier than I’ll ever be simply because they play cards well, I just didn’t care. I do care when multimillionaires become richer and more glorious for playing baseball, football and tennis well, so that’s not it.

I just found the entire spectacle to be of absolutely no consequence to me.

And the thing is, I really, really wanted to give a damn. I wanted to care. Because if it’s of no consequence to me, someone who actually enjoys playing poker and has gotten the chance in recent weeks to interview the likes of Doyle Brunson, Chris Moneymaker and Phil Hellmuth for a New York Times piece on the precarious condition of the game, then I can’t quite imagine what they can do to get me—or you—there.

Why does this even matter? Only because the stated intentions of those who rule the World Series of Poker are to turn the game into a full-fledged mainstream sport on par with the leagues that draw tens of millions of TV-viewing fans and earn billions of dollars each year.

That is why they did this fairly weird thing where, after thinning the 6,844 entrants to a final nine, they halted play for four months. As opposed to playing the tournament out all at once as they used to, and having the ESPN audience know well in advance who had won, this gave ESPN a chance to show the bulk of the tournament in weekly installments through the fall leading up to a two-hour finale on Tuesday that was produced in less than 15 hours after Eastgate dispatched Demidov.

“The goal is to make the World Series of Poker more popular than ever and more relevant,” said WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack a week earlier as he gave me a tour of the trailers backstage, where 90 ESPN technicians must process the final feeds. The new schedule “was developing a level of awareness in the pop culture that was very significant. But we stopped to ask, ‘If this were taking place on a basketball court or football field, how would we grow it?’”

And yet, it’s not clear that they’ve succeeded even with this scheduling stunt. The so-called “November Nine” were supposed to go out and evangelize for poker. Back in June, Pollack predicted: “Whereas traditionally, the Main Event resulted in one superstar, the champion, now, the Main Event is going to result in nine superstars, one of which will receive our championship bracelet. We think in the four months in between when we stop play and finish playing, those nine players will become household names.”

Did any of them achieve this? Maybe people in the locality from whence these nine men hail have been treated to stories in the regional media about them. And those who are enthralled by the World Series of Poker, who follow the blogs and read such poker-porn mags as Bluff, probably are familiar with this crew.

But a mainstream sport requires more than that. It needs transcendent players who can reach the finals regularly; the great Brunson told me that the huge number of players in this tournament nowadays means he can never expect to get very far. It’s not just Brunson, though; none of the final-table contestants in the past six or seven years have even come close to a substantial win again. This new fellow, Eastgate? He goes the way of Yang and Gold, his immediate predecessors, off into wealthy anonymity. In all likelihood, I just witnessed the highlight of his life.

Becoming mainstream also requires a certain level of respect from the mass media that poker has not yet and may never receive. I was unable to convince either the Los Angeles Times—which is generally obsessed with all things Vegas—or the New York Times to take stories about the outcome of this, even though Eastgate’s haul is the largest prize of any annual form of skill-based competition in the world. Can you imagine either of those papers ignoring the results of the year’s biggest NASCAR race? Even the AFP was a tough sell, but the international flavor of this finale convinced my editor.

The fact is, despite this year’s scheduling innovation, poker is stuck. It exploded in a dramatic way earlier this decade when two novelties—Internet poker and the hole-card cameras that made televised poker interesting—came together at the same time with phenomenal results. That’s quieted down now here in the U.S., although international growth seems to be impressive.

Americans, though, are fickle, and they see poker as a fad, not a long-term national obsession. That’s even starting to show in Vegas, where the Las Vegas Hilton and Paris both closed their poker rooms. The Excalibur installed these hideous dealerless tables to jump-start interest with technology. The Venetian now has a daily live show called The Real Deal, in which known poker stars face off in a dull game against some lucky audience members. It’s one of many vain attempts around town to find something pokerish that works for the masses.

The game will carry on, and perhaps entries into the World Series will continue to increase along with the purse. But the aim here is to make it a TV spectacle that will draw big ratings and, thus, big bucks.

Time will tell, but I just don’t think that’s in the cards.


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