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How the ESPN final-table telecast differed from reality

17 November 2008

I like watching poker on TV. I really do. And I especially like watching poker on ESPN. They produce a great show and do a very good job at capturing the major storylines, building drama and showcasing the most important and dynamic portions of any tournament, including the Main Event. In fact, their final table telecast for the World Series of Poker Main Event, where they had essentially two days to edit and produce what was a first-rate show, is a brilliant testament to the fine skills and ability of the people working on ESPN's coverage. They did an excellent job of capturing the excitement, the drama and the characters that were involved in the World Series of Poker Main Event.



But the event that played out on TV isn't the same event that I watched unfold in person. And that's understandable. ESPN had to condense over 15 hours of play, including four hours of heads-up action, into less than two hours of air time (when you account for commercials). And much like the NBC's Olympic coverage, ESPN has to gear its broadcast toward the casual fan, because the hard-core fans are going to watch no matter what. And by definition, that type of broadcast is going to include more interviews, vignettes and crowd shots, and fewer actual hands. In fact, an analysis by Casino City's Gary Trask shows that ESPN aired 24 hands out of the 274 that were played at the final table.




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The final nine players enjoy a laugh backstage before play begins. Photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City




With ESPN's time constraints in mind, let's take a look back at what actually happened, and how it came across on TV.



On ESPN, it looked like Dennis Phillips was the early aggressor. In fact, the first two hands they showed involved Phillips folding to Ylon Schwartz and Ivan Demidov. In reality, Phillips folded on the first 15 hands. And for the first couple of hours, play was very tight with very few flops being dealt as players worked off some nerves and tried to feel their way around the table. The first elimination (Craig Marquis), which happened fairly early in the ESPN telecast, took four hours of play to reach in real time. After that, play opened up dramatically. As for Phillips' folding ace-king to Demidov's ace-queen, it looked as bad at the table as it did on TV. At the ESPN viewing party for the final table telecast, Darus Suharto pegged the hand before the broadcast began.



"I guarantee Dennis had Ace-King there," Suharto told us. "And Demidov probably had Ace-Queen or something." And after the hand was shown on TV, fellow PokerStars pro Daniel Negreanu came racing over to tell Suharto and others just how badly Phillips played that hand.



"He played that awful," Negreanu said. "That's one of the worst plays I've ever seen."



The real aggressors at the final table were Schwartz, Demidov and eventual Main Event champion Peter Eastgate. While the mid-level stacks were waiting for Kim (the shortest of the short stacks) to get eliminated and the short stacks were waiting for a hand to make a stand on, these three moved aggressively to pick up chips, often taking pots before a flop was ever seen. In fact, as play progressed deep into the night, it became pretty clear that one of those three was going to win the tournament.




Schwartz's aggressiveness surprised many players he had been considered a very tight player back in July. Demidov's play surprised no one. Judging by the players' reactions, he put the crazy in the phrase "crazy Ivan." And Eastgate was often pegged as the dangerous one by players as they busted out of the tournament.



In fact, Phillips told Casino City that he was happy that Eastgate "was on his right" because he was constantly raising and re-raising. Kim noted that Demidov and Eastgate were players to watch, and that Schwartz was playing very aggressively.





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Dennis Phillips had around 300 people supporting him at the

final table.
Photo by Vin Narayanan, Casino City




Another element of the final table that didn't translate well on TV is just how raucous the crowd watching the final table was. There were more than 1,000 fans in the arena for most of the night, proudly chanting cheers and sounding horns EVERY time one of their players was involved in a hand. The noise was loud, constant and, at times, deafening. It created an electric atmosphere that made watching more than 15 hours of poker feel interesting. Unfortunately, it didn't look like ESPN had cameras up in the crowd to capture the excitement. Like us, they probably weren't expecting much from the crowd. So you'll have to take our word for it. The wide-angle reaction shots ESPN showed of the standing-room only crowd didn't do justice to the amazing scene on display.



But the biggest divergence of what really happened and what happened on TV came during heads-up play. First, there was a nearly 21-hour break in the action (a break not mentioned in the ESPN telecast), so even though the players wore the same clothes and looked the same (at the request of ESPN), they were feeling fresh and ready for another long session of poker. Had the tournament been played straight through, heads-up play might have been significantly shorter as all the players were beginning to show serious signs of fatigue by the time things came to a halt on Sunday night/Monday morning at the close of Day 1 action.



Also, on ESPN, heads-up play lasted two hands. In reality, heads-up play was a snooze-inducing four-plus hours. Demidov was the early aggressor in heads-up action, winning several hands in the beginning of the night -- often, without a showdown -- to take the chip lead. But Eastgate steadied the ship, reclaimed the lead, and then went on to victory. To ESPN's credit, they did show the two most interesting hands in heads-up play. But it was still odd to see just two hands after they'd played for over four hours.




Ultimately, ESPN did an excellent job covering the final table. But if you want to know "what really happened," combine this column with what you've seen on the ESPN telecast and
Gary Trask's analysis
of the final table and you'll have a pretty complete picture.


How the ESPN final-table telecast differed from reality is republished from CasinoVendors.com.
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Vin Narayanan

Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.

Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for USATODAY.com, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.