Editorial: Finding the Balance in Poker between Entertainment and Skill

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The opinions in this editorial do not reflect the positions of the ownership or management of Poker News Daily.

Earlier this month, one of the poker programs that is set to debut in 2014, Poker Night in America, headed off to film their first episode in New York. QuadJacksMarco Valerio was able to go along with the eclectic crowd (lucky dog!) that included Gavin Smith, Eli Elezra, Phil Laak and Mike Matusow (among others) for that filming. In a recent editorial from Valerio, he popped a question that bedevils the poker world – and the televised poker programming – that we are seeing today.

“Has being a character in poker definitively become more important, from a media perspective, that actually being good at poker?” Valerio queried in his piece. “Make no mistake,” he continues, “I would not want “dull” people on my show either…nobody’s denying that animated poker players make for unique entertainment. But at what point would poker talent alone make the industry feel comfortable with putting you on display?”

The question is a thorny one that has been borne from the explosion of poker over the last fifteen years. Back in the early 2000s, the players that became “household names” were the intriguing and animated players that graced the television screens of such productions as the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour and a variety of other outlets. There was The Legend, Doyle Brunson, whose story should have already been made into a movie; there was the “Poker Brat,” Phil Hellmuth, whose non-stop ranting, whining and general antics entertained audiences; there was Matusow, Laak and a host of others that, while extremely skilled at the game of poker, were also notable for their appearance and general “entertainment” value that they brought to the tables.

Around the end of the 2000s, however, we began to see a morphing of the players who came to the felt. Weaned on years of online poker (let’s admit it, not the most social of activities for what is supposed to be a “social game”), these players were well versed in the numbers behind the game, the probabilities of certain actions and (perhaps most importantly) presenting an impenetrable façade that revealed nothing to their opponents. In live events, they sit behind sunglasses, hide their heads in oversized hoodies and speak and react almost as much as a statue of Buddha. These players, also tremendously skilled, don’t bring the “entertainment” factor that some in the poker community would like.

There has to be some middle ground that can be found on poker broadcasts of all types that would put this issue to rest. I personally don’t want a table of court jesters showing up on a television screen but, then again, I don’t want a table full of automatons who take ten minutes to decide what to do with 8-2 off suit on a K-Q-J flop. The middle ground could be found with poker programming that exists today and, potentially, with Poker Night in America.

Programs such as the WSOP, the WPT and such would potentially be better if they tried to approach the game from an educational aspect. Recent broadcasts have started discussing such minutiae as VPIP (voluntarily putting chips in the pot), three-bet percentages, premium hand percentages and the like, which appeals to those who want to learn about the game. We have to remember, however, that there are the “casual” fans (of which Valerio believes that iGaming and televised poker are trying to reach at the expense of the “hardcore” fans) who are more interested in the people.

With that said, however, there is a large contingent of the poker world who doesn’t want the “colorful” part of poker on their television broadcasts. I don’t know how many times I have heard or read from people that they have quit watching such shows as the WSOP and the WPT because there isn’t enough focus on the poker (let’s be honest, the Royal Flush Girls playing volleyball on the beach is visually entertaining, but it doesn’t provide much to the poker broadcast). In showing a stunning elimination, these folks ask to see what built up to that climactic moment rather than just the “all-in” that is the end result. Additionally, they just don’t want to see the “bust out” hands, they want to see how some of the best poker players in the world work their magic, even if it is a hand that doesn’t result in someone getting knocked out.

It is a fine line that the producers of many poker shows have to walk and there’s really no viable answer in the end (save for an ESPN-like 24-hour network that does nothing but poker programming). We can only hope that, as poker productions continue to hit the airwaves, that there is some look at appealing to both sides of the equation, finding a balance so to speak, between the “hardcore” and the “casual” fans of the game of poker, a game that we all genuinely love.

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