Los Angeles, CA
Television executives in poker are faced with two rigorous obstacles: 1) inaction at the tables, and 2) lack of stimulating dialogue. Both are detrimental to ratings. Lackadaisical ratings gave poker a blemish, which is why the suits in charge of programming banished poker to uncoveted late night slots, where stoners and insomniacs alike watched with an indifferent glaze. The few remaining programs were lost in the shuffle at the farthest ends of the satellite spectrum, embroiled in fierce competition against 1,000 other stations.
Both 441 Productions (the crew responsible for producing the WSOP) and ESPN execs (their taut strings controlled by Disney suits) faced similar challenges with creating a viable product after the inception of the UIGEA and the subsequent bursting of the poker bubble. The "November Nine" was created to combat sluggish ratings, but even with a WSOP Main Event final table delay, everyone on the production side of equation had no control over the people who occupied the final nine seats.
There's nothing that you can do with inaction at the tables. That's poker. Most 8 or 9-handed NL hold'em final tables are in excess of 8 hours, but every single hand gets edited down to 90+ minutes of programing (or 45 minutes if slated for an hour time slot). The guys in the editing rooms are true magicians. They sit in the dark and sift through hours of snooze-inducing footage, then pluck out the highlights and produce a slick final table.
Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock said that his films were just like real life, except with all the dull parts cut out. Televised poker tournaments are nothing like real life because you don't get to see all of the down time. And producers get ulcers when they don't have enough exciting hands to show, or the players don't say anything interesting.
The inception of hole card cameras made televised poker fascinating for the audience -- but albeit on a conditional basis. Conflict is one of the most essential ingredients of compelling entertainment. The other main component are likable (or despicable) characters. If your story lacks interesting characters, then the audience will have no one to root for (or against). And if the story lacks conflict, then no one is going to give a shit and flip the channel.
Inherently, poker is boring from a spectator's perspective (even from a player's perspective -- nothing is more excruciating that being card dead at a slow-paced table). The main culprit is inaction at the tables, as the saying goes... poker is 99% boredom with 1% pure exhilaration. Final tables are not recorded live for that primary reason because the majority of the time nothing of major significance is going to happen. In our contemporary short-attention span society with thousands of other competing entertainment options, you have a tiny window of time to hook somebody in before they get bored and move onto more intellectually stimulating fodder like The Jersey Shore.
By the way, nothing gives producers and reporters a bigger set of blue balls than a tense moment during a potential big hand after someone tanks for several minutes -- but then folds. I have almost a hundred reporter's notebooks with thousands of blue balls-ladden incomplete hands that had the potential for fireworks, but went nowhere. Inaction.
If given the opportunity, slimy television executives would love to manipulate the "characters" at final tables, but luckily, that's one aspect that they can't manipulate. There's always been whispers that some professional sporting events have been rigged. I've had discussions with sports bettors, old-time newspaper beat reporters, bartenders, bookies, and even a couple of tin-foil hat wearing schleps, who all shared conspiracy theories about the MLB, NBA and NFL's attempts to fix playoff games, so they could: 1) maximize profits for TV conglomerates by ensuring the series were played out a full seven games, or 2) manipulate the finals to include a big market team over a small market team. Most of that was bullshit, of course, but a few extremely fuzzy grey instances were tough to ignore because of the obvious lopsided calls that favored one team over another.
When Greg Raymer was the reigning world champion, he once joked that he wished poker was fixed like pro wrestling so he (the champ) would make every final table. Everyone knows that pro wrestling is rigged. I practically grew up on the WWF, and my old man took my brother and I to monthly matches at Madison Square Garden. I was absolutely crushed after the infamous "wrestling is fake" episode from 20/20 aired in 1984. Investigative reporter John Stossel blew the whistle, and to this day I have a memory burn of watching David Schultz bitch slap him while screaming something to the effect, "Does the pain feel fake?" Many years later, we found out that WWF head honcho Vince McMahon ordered Schultz to intimidate Stossel by roughing him up.
In the 1950s, network quiz shows were fixed. In the mid-1990s, Robert Redford directed Quiz Show, a film about the scandal involving the most popular TV show at the time, Twenty One, where NBC execs gave reigning champion Charles Van Doren the questions ahead of time -- which allowed him to continue his reign.
If execs could rig the November Nine, they'd have Phil Ivey make the table every year. The fact that Ivey made the 2009 November Nine was a serendipitous gift from the poker gods, but even with Ivey's appearance, the rest of the final table wasn't enough to keep everyone inside the Penn & Teller Theatre for the entire evening. Moments after Ivey busted, the majority of the theatre emptied out.
Therein lies the problem. With a sporting contest, it's impossible to predict the outcome of the final table. And since it's an actual sporting contest with non-performers, you never know what sort of interaction you'll get among the participants. I recall one WSOP Main Event when Phil Hellmuth got moved to the TV table. The rest of his table included amateurs and everyone was quiet -- even Hellmuth. It got so bad that Mr. Showbiz himself bluntly recommended, "If you want a shot at getting on TV so all of your friends and family can see you, then you gotta liven up and say something... say anything. I can't be the only who talks the other time. If everyone keeps quiet, they are gonna move our table out and bring in a new one."
Casting is the key to success. If the cast has believable chemistry, then the program will become a hit and generate a shit-ton of advertising revenue. If I was a TV exec, and I could rig a final table, sort of like casting a reality show, I'd be looking for these types of combatants...
1. Respected old timer - Leathered face. Cowboy hat. Distinct drawl. Anyone come to mind? Yep, good old Texas Dolly. Heck, why not have him at EVERY televised final table. He earned it.Of course, these roles are interchangeable. For instance the villain could also be a hotshot online pro. The sensual female could also be the celebrity, and the celebrity could very well be an actual comedian.
2. Brash young online pro - Online poker rooms are the biggest advertisers, so they want a cocky kid with killer skills to entice younger viewers to open up online poker accounts.
3. Cinderella - Everyone loves to root for the underdog, especially a total fish out of water. This role often went to the middle-aged family guy with a beer gut -- your next door neighbor or the guy sitting in the cubicle across from you. Who would've thunk that Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer would have became role models for thirty-something and forty-something all over America. As much as everyone wants the life of Ivey, it's easier for Middle America to identity with a regular looking guy like Dennis Phillips.
4. Phil Ivey - No comment.
5. Sensual Woman - The Don Drapers at big time advertising companies manipulate our suppressed sexual psyche. It's got something to do with our Puritanical roots and the simple fact that men become Pavlov's frothing dog whenever they see a pair of boobies.
6. Funny Guy - You need comic relief, especially during all of those down moments.
7. The Villain - I can't explain it, but we're obsessed with things we despise. My life is too short to get bent out of shape over a dickhead or douchenozzle, but a huge portion of the populous loves to be haters. They get off on it. Like a drug. Hate is our real national past time. That's why Phil Hellmuth is a marketing genius because he plays up to the crowd as the prototypical bad guy. He even dresses the part by wearing all black -- something right out of classic John Ford westerns, where the bad guy always wore the black cowboy hat.
8. Celebrity - You need someone famous because Americans are obsessed with the celebrity culture. A good looking guy would instantly boost female viewers -- even if they don't care about poker, many of them like to look at pretty things.
9. Foreigner - A quirky accent instantly adds intrigue and mystery.
What eventually sunk Celebrity Poker Showdown was that it became unwatchable for advanced poker players due to the atrocious skill level exhibited by said celebs. Sure, my mother loved the show because she was more interested in the celebrities than which one of them was a better post-flop player. That's why intriguing shows like High Stakes Poker are not palatable for mass consumption because the show can be difficult to follow if you don't have a rudimentary background in poker.
If online poker rooms did not subsidize specific programs (UB propped up Poker Tonite, PokerStars has their Big Game, and Full Tilt's has Poker After Dark), we know those shows wouldn't exist. If the online rooms did not purchase voluminous ad buys on ESPN during the WSOP, would be any poker on TV? I view the WSOP as a battle zone for the ongoing cold war between Full Tilt and PokerStars -- like the Korean War, a proxy war between two super powers.
Enter Charlie Sheen. Say what you want about him, but he's exactly what someone needs for televised poker. Someone who will say anything and stand up to table bullies like Phil Hellmuth and Tony G.
Hellmuth: You friggin' bi-polar donkey. You get it all in with K-J like that and suck out?And let's not forget a little verbal jousting with The G...
Charlie Sheen: I'm bi-winning. I win here and I win there. Now what? If I'm bipolar, aren't there moments where a guy like crashes in the corner like, 'Oh my God, it's all my mom's fault!' Shut up! Shut up! Stop! Move forward.
Hellmuth: Keep playing like that and you'll go broke.
Charlie Sheen: Defeat is not an option. You picked a fight with a warlock.
Hellmuth: I'm not afraid. I can dodge bullets, baby!
Charlie Sheen: I'm sorry, man, but I've got magic. I've got poetry in my fingertips. Most of the time -- and this includes naps -- I'm an F-18, bro. And I will destroy you in the air. I will deploy my ordinance to the ground.
Hellmuth: What have you been smoking, pal?
Charlie Sheen: I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available because if you try it once you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body. It's too much
Tony G: I'm gonna rip you apart so hard!As a member of the poker media, one of my least favorite duties involves interviewing pros. I know a few of my colleagues that turn on their recorders, let the pro say what they want, then type it up verbatim. I refuse to do that. Besides, the majority of pros give dull interviews because they've been coached into not revealing anything too spicy or saying anything incendiary. Alas, they routinely dodge the tough questions especially on hot-button issues. And on the rare chance I extracted anything with a little sizzle, the quote almost always got mercilessly killed by spineless editors at the request of fascist PR ruffians. Killed quotes occurred too many times to me early in my career as a reporter. The KGB-esque means of censoring poker media is one of the many aspects of the industry that I loathe, which is why I rarely interview sponsored pros for publications, because I know that any of the juicy quotes will be extracted from my articles. Luckily, Tao of Poker is one of the few bastions of uncensored self-expression in poker.
Charlie Sheen: I fire back once and this contaminated little maggot can't handle my power and can't handle the truth. I wish him nothing but pain in his silly travels especially if they wind up in my octagon. Clearly I have defeated this earthworm with my words -- imagine what I would have done with my fire breathing fists.
Tony G: You're the worst player in the world! Get on your bike Charlie and pedal back to Hollywood!
Charlie Sheen: The scoreboard doesn't lie. Never has. So what we all have is a marriage of the hearts. And to sully, contaminate, or radically disrespect this unit with a shameful contract is something I'll leave to the amateurs and bible grippers.
Tony G: Feel my power!
Charlie Sheen: Pfffffttttt.... when you see how I party man, it's epic. The run I was on made Sinatra, Flynn, Jagger, Richards, all of them, just look like droopy-eyed, armless children.
Why is the industry as a whole overly sensitive these days? It's not like poker is a milk and cookies entity appealing to G-rated audiences. Its origins have always been shady. Although the rougher edges have been smoothed out, the dark underbelly and criminal element continues to thrive. Maybe poker has become too corporate these days? Or maybe the machine has gotten too big that the PR watch dogs are stomping out dissension?
British pro Luke Schwartz is the closest thing poker has to Charlie Sheen, but even that hooligan resembles Mother Theresa more than the transcendent deviant known as Charlie Sheen, who has admittedly banged seven-gram rocks of pure cocaine and slept with more porn stars than Rocco Siffredi.
Until more tiger-blooded players barge into the limelight, the industry desperately needs Charlie Sheen for a season or two to liven things up and get some well-needed mainstream exposure. Heck, poker has welcomed many other more obscure and lesser-talented Hollywood types in hopes of getting noticed by the glitterati.
It's time to juice up the circus and turn Charlie Sheen wild in the poker kingdom. He'd give us interviews that I'd actually read and watch. Oh, and the best part? We'd get to gawk at his entourage of porn stars hovering on the rail.
"I am special," extolled Charlie Sheen, "And I will never be one of you."
By the way, check out Change100's new column for Tao of Fear titled: Winning! Charle Sheen News. Oh, and our buddy JT whipped up a new batch of t-shirts inspired by Charlie.