In light of the bore fest that was the World Series of Poker Main Event, I continue my series of post fallout articles by asking the players to have a look at what they can do to rise to the challenge.
Not only did the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event final table earn Joe McKeehen $7.6m in prize money. It also confirmed poker’s position amongst the most boring sports in the world.
The feedback from players, media members and fans alike was unanimous. Poker makes the heart weep out of sheer frustration. We must have changes to the game. Cards should be kept in the quietened corners of the casino.
Alex Weldon wrote a well thought out piece for parttimepoker.com. Is it the player’s fault or the game itself? Weldon seems to come down on the side of the game being at fault, with the players gently pushing it into the abyss. It’s a reasoned argument, and one I felt compelled to add my two cents worth.
When I think of boring sports cricket and snooker, immediately spring to mind. The governing bodies of both sports are aware of this, as are the players. It’s no secret. And when you think about it, cricket and snooker aren’t the only scoundrels in this den of ours. Most sports consist of long periods of nothingness punctuated by a heart-stopping moment.
I hate snooker, but as I watch Ronnie O’Sullivan complete a 147 break in a world record 5-minutes and 20-seconds, salient slivers of salty saline slip slowly down the side of my face.
How is that possible?
I don’t even like the sport.
As O’Sullivan lifts a glass of water towards the crowd to indicate his nerves – he could have fooled me – the commentator said, “The speed in which he plays…that’s what gets people on the edge of their seats.”
This got me thinking?
How boring would snooker be if every game involved Ronnie O’Sullivan versus Ronnie O’Sullivan? While it’s true that the game of snooker desperately needs some rule changes to get more people ‘off their seats’ the tracks of my tears remind me of the magic that can be created within the confines of a potentially dull framework.
Attack v Defence
I used to play table tennis to a decent standard when I was an imp. My coach told me that I could have represented Wales if I could solve the riddle of my game.
I was too defensive.
I was highly coachable, but try as I might I could not change my approach to the game. I was the lad standing 30 feet away from the table knocking the top spin back over the net. I was not aggressive enough because I was afraid of making a mistake.
When you watch Ronnie O’Sullivan waltzing around the snooker table, there is no fear of making a mistake. He isn’t thinking about making a defensive play. He plays without fear. His natural talents are allowed to shine. He enjoys what he is doing.
As Weldon points out in his piece the WSOP final table combatants were afraid of making a mistake. They didn’t want to attack because the stakes were too high. The constitutional question they all faced must have been (a) do I go on the attack and try to win this thing and, therefore, earn more money, or do I (b) sit back and wait for the elimination of others and win more money?
We face these choices every day, and we often choose the path of least resistance.
One could even argue that it’s biological.
In 2011, I was working at the final table of the European Poker Tour (EPT) Main Event in Deauville. For anyone watching, the event will be remembered for two things. Martin Jacobson refusing a deal with Lucien Cohen, when heads-up, and then losing the title, and Cohen’s stupid plastic rat.
Not for me.
I will always remember that event for the speed at which Alex Wice made his decisions. The Canadian finished third. He was the Ronnie O’Sullivan of poker. He would get you off your seat. Another player that plays with a fast-paced verve is Sam Trickett. There will be hundreds more.
When I was a lad, I made it through to the final of the Welsh Boys Football Skills competition. During the first few rounds, I outscored everyone at heading, tackling, dribbling and shooting. There were four of us in the final and I brought a significant points advantage with me. There was only one problem. The final was a contest of who could do the most kick-ups and I couldn’t do kick-ups.
The rules were simple. We would compete for three rounds. There were 13-highlighted parts of your body, and your task was to touch those parts of your body while keeping the ball airborne. Your score would be the amount of time the ball was kept airborne, in minutes, multiplied by the number of body parts the ball struck.
By the end of the third round, I was last.
My father was the only person with me. He knew absolutely nothing about football. He spent most of his time smoking cigarettes outside.
“I thought you could do kick-ups?” My Dad enquired.
“I can,” I said between tears, “but only with my right foot.”
My Dad thought for a while.
“Right, this is what I want you to do.” Said my Dad. “Kick the ball in the air and touch one of the 13 parts of your body on the chart. Then control the ball on the floor. Do the same again. Control the ball on the floor again. Do that for all 13 body parts as quickly as you can and then keep the ball in the air with your right foot until the time runs out.”
“But that’s cheating,” I said.
“It’s called tactics,” said my Dad.
“I will look like a right dick,” I told my Dad.
“Do you want to win or not?” said my Dad as he walked outside for another fag.
So I did what he told me.
Everyone stood staring at me as if I was a mole at a party full of moose. I looked ridiculous, but by the time they counted the scores, I had won.
“Did it work?” Asked my Dad afterwards.
“Yeah,” I said delightedly.
“Good, now hurry up, I want to get to the pub.”
If you watch anybody doing football kick-ups, you will be entertained. Not if you watched me. The victory was down to my father’s tactics, but I had reduced the entertainment value of the tournament to zero. More than that, I had made a mockery of the event. I wasn’t a real champion, but I didn’t tell my mates that.
My kick-up tactics are happening all over the world of sport, and poker is no exception. As the stakes increase (generally financially) tactics come into play more thus diminishing entertainment value.
Take football for example.
How many teams now play defensive football waiting for their opponent’s to make a mistake before hitting them on the counter-attack? How many teams park the bus. Hands up if you have tied a noose around your neck watching your team playing away in the Champions league?
All of these problems exist because the game allows them to exist, but it’s also the intervention of human beings, that has the final say. It’s the players working within that framework that choose to be a Ronnie O’Sullivan or an Ofi Zvi Stern.
More eyeballs are gazing at the Tour de France than any other sporting event in the world. It’s boring. The only excitement comes with a mass crash or a finishing line sprint. The likes of Nigel Benn and Prince Naseem Hamed used to make boxing come alive; now it’s boring. Golf is boring. Football is boring. American Football is boring; Baseball is boring. Rugby is boring.
Light is emerging from the end of the tunnel, and I am not talking about a freight train.
Cricket suffers the same problems as poker. Test cricket was putting people to sleep. They didn’t disband Test cricket. They created T20 cricket. A new form of the game that created for the sole purpose of providing more entertainment. It works.
Snooker will head the same way.
Players like O’Sullivan would like a shot clock and a bonus ball system to inject more life into the game. If snooker doesn’t change, the game will not grow and eventually the prize money will peter out.
If poker is to become a professional sport, then the game will have to change. How many of us play hybrid versions of poker in our home games? Why do we do this? We do this because we get bored playing Texas Hold’em.
These types of games are sneaking into the EPT side event schedule. They have existed in the biggest cash games in the world for years. Hopefully, promulgated by the introduction of the Global Poker League (GPL) it’s only a matter of time before a fast paced version of poker is created to appease the masses of fans waiting to be enthralled.
But the players have a responsibility also.
Ronnie O’Sullivan shows that a game as boring as snooker can bring a man to tears. Unfortunately, the snails of poker can do the same thing.
We do have Ronnie O’Sullivan’s in the poker world; we now need a game that will allow them to take us to the edge of our seats, and hopefully, make one or two of us fall off.