ESPN – Poker is lacking the heroes and villains it so desperately needs
ESPN Senior Writer
here were smiles and fun to be had for the players at the 2016 World Series of Poker main event final table, but without conflict, it lacked stakes for all but the immediate family and friends of each player. Tim Fiorvanti / ESPN
It makes sense, of course, but it also makes me nostalgic for a time where the stakes didn't make players go into their shells. The walkway leading into the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio in Las Vegas is lined with oversized photographs of past WSOP main event champions. I didn't recognize the past eight champions, all in their 20s, who looked more like fraternity pledges than poker champions. But I stopped when I got to Jamie Gold's photo. Ten years ago Gold, who was a talent agent turned television producer, won the 2006 WSOP main event and $12 million, still a record, while outlasting a field of 8,773 entrants -- also a record. It was the high water mark of a game that would soon see a significant dip in interest and participation.
Gold was an antagonist and a polarizing figure during his improbable run a decade ago, and one of my favorite players to watch. He talked big while bluffing with nothing, sweet-talked players into reluctantly folding better hands by telling them he would show them his hand and even flashed one of his cards to Michael Binger at the final table, causing Binger to lay down the winning hand. The reasons his antics were frowned upon by purists were the same reasons I enjoyed watching him play.
"You need to have players talking to have heroes and villains," Gold told me over the phone after the first day of the final table. "Once you take away the character side of it, you're killing the entertainment value and the reason why advertisers, sponsors and viewers would want to watch. I wasn't that special, but I had an opportunity to create a character by speaking. Viewers want to watch personalities and have a storyline and an arc play out on television. For the most part, poker on television has become this mundane, mind-numbing endeavor."
Even worse than the television viewing experience, however, is the live viewing experience. At least viewers at home are able to see the players' hands while listening to the entertaining trio of Lon McEachern, Norman Chad and Esfandiari in the broadcast booth. But not even the personalities of the announcers can make up for the disconnect between the viewers and the players at the table.
Until that connection can once again be made, my poker needs will continue to be met away from my television -- relegated instead to losing money to my little brother.
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