Poker needs to undergo a serious makeover if it is to be presented to potential investors as an eSport worthy of pulling in a paying crowd.
This is it.
Iaron Lightbourne is holding pocket sevens and Craig McCorkell is holding [Ac] [Td]. The winner will receive £200,000, but it’s not about the money. This is about the title. The winner becomes a World Poker Tour (WPT) Champion. The loser is forgotten about in five cards time.
The flop is [Jc] [5d] [5h]. Both players are on their feet. They are both laughing. It’s nervousness. The turn is the [8s]. Lightbourne reaches for his jacket and slips it on. The river is the [Qc]. Lightbourne is the champion. He shakes McCorkell’s hand. The Tournament Director announces the victory on his mic, and there is a quiet applause from around the room. It sounds like the type you hear at a lawn bowls match.
It’s not exactly riveting is it?
I grew up watching the WPT on the TV. It looked amazing. It was exhilarating. It made me want to be a professional poker player. It was the best poker show on TV hands down.
Then I got a job working as a live reporter in poker. I would get to feel the rapport. I would bathe in the exhilaration. I would be swept up by the fervour.
It didn’t happen.
It was a sham.
If poker is going to move to the next level, and by that I mean ride the same crest of a wave that eSports is currently surfing, then something has to change. We cannot sell this product. Nobody will want to watch it. It doesn’t work as live entertainment. It’s boring, tedious and frustrating.
I will follow the progress of the Global Poker League (GPL) with interest. It’s success lies in its saleability. It’s not just the players that need to gather at the altar. It’s the fans and the men and women with deep pockets. How can we sell merchandise and tickets for live events when nobody will be interested in watching?
We need to be interesting.
The start of a final table is akin to hanging around waiting for a band to start. There is dormant anticipation. There are smiles. Then people politely take their seats. The Tournament Director mumbles ’Shuffle Up and Deal’ the best he can, or maybe some guest nobody cares about will mutter those words, and the silence sets in.
Let’s think about the entrance to a darts or wrestling match. Those entrances are designed to achieve two goals. They whip the fans into a frenzy. They get them excited and in turn it raises the decibel level in the arena. Secondly, it gets the emotions stirring in the bellies of the competitors.
There should be music, there should be lights, there should be an entrance worthy of a final table.
The game has made great strides towards improving the online visibility of our game. The live streaming and hole-cam technology is amazing. Imagine how wonderful the live event could be if we also brought that up to speed.
There were no supporters when Lightbourne won his title. There was no reason for anyone to watch, and if they wanted to, there was very little to see anyway. I have found this to be the same at every live event I have covered, in every live tournament operator I have worked for.
Those that turn up can’t see anything anyway. Where are the giant TV screens? Where is the commentary? Where is the music and fanfare each time there is a break, or when something amazing happens in the game? One of the best parts of the darts experience is the dancing at the commencement of each break. We need the same injection of music to get the fans going in poker.
Why don’t we make attendance at events more interactive?
Why not introduce betting around the final table? Why not interview the fans?
At the very least, players should be able to see bet sizing, chip stacks, the flop, turn, river and over turned hole cards. You should also be able to see the cards that would have come on the turn and river.
Commentary is also important at this juncture. There needs to be a description of the action, and it needs to be delivered with some gusto. Hand Jesse May a microphone and the act of knitting a scarf suddenly becomes interesting.
The game at the final table needs to change drastically if it’s going to be accepted as an eSport.
Play at the final table is often boring and slow. I don’t know whether it’s the stakes, the lack of atmosphere, a lack of hands or plain fear, but something goes missing when the final table begins.
This should be the pinnacle of a tournament, but it lacks everything that made the tournament so great in the first place.
A clock should be mandatory. The players need to be pressurised into making decisions. This would increase mistakes, and also lead to excitement for the fans. Over time players will adapt, mistakes will lessen, but the excitement will still remain.
The rules also have to change.
Nobody wants to see every hand checked down to the river. Nobody wants to see fold after fold. There has to be a change in the way the final table is played. I am not suggested the entire game of poker changes, but the final table has to be different if it is to be sold as entertainment.
We need to immortalise the moment a player wins the title. I have been at the tail end of a tournament when the trophy has been handed to the winner and the only sound is the caretaker sweeping up the place.
Where is the 1978 World Cup style ticker tape? Where is the music? Where is the fanfare? Where is the screaming and cheering crowd? Where are the Wembley steps?
We need to pull out all of the stops to make this moment as magical as possible. It’s too tepid. It’s disinfected. It’s devoid of any interest.
We can do this.
In some respects we have done this.
I have witnessed some amazing scenes at WSOP final tables, and we haven’t been able to see any of the action. In a few days time the WSOP Main Event final table will end in an explosion of colour and incredible celebration.
So the question remains: why isn’t this the case at every major final table?