WSOP Final Table Delay, Say What?

17 May, 2008 (11:02) in Site News written by James Yates

In case you haven’t heard, the WSOP officials have decided to attempt something entirely new for this year’s World Series of Poker Main Event. They’re going to allow the tournament to carry on as usual until the enormous field of players is reduced to only the nine-player final table, but once it is established….the tournament directors will then immediately halt all play. At that point, the players remaining will be given a 16-week hiatus before the actual play at the final table will begin. Say what? Why? Something as unexpected as this definitely needs some clarification.

Firstly, why violate the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” ethos? Surely there’s a logical reason for this change. Thankfully for us one of the most trusted pros in Poker, Daniel Negreanu, has been willing to share his insight into the reasoning behind the move. Daniel, if you’ve been living under a Poker rock for the last 10 years, is among the most talented and popular players to have ever played the game and is certainly near the top of my very-short list of favorites. However, in this instance I’m finding it hard to follow his line.

Somewhat surprisingly Daniel is whole-heartedly behind this new format, which at least makes me want to give it a chance, but after reading the specifics of his endorsement of the change I’m not entirely sure. I’ll try to play Devil’s Advocate in an attempt to explain why. From Daniel’s initial blog post about the subject:

The reason for the three month delay is so that the WSOP broadcast schedule can air both the preliminary events as well as the lead into the final table. That many episodes takes about three months to air. There isn’t time to air all of the main event episodes leading up to the final table so that an “almost live” final table could air immediately after that. The only way to do that is to delay the final table until after the ESPN shows air.

Ok, there’s the first piece of the puzzle. ESPN and Harrah’s, the casino hosting the event, have pushed/decided to institute the change. ESPN, as we all know, is the exclusive broadcaster for the WSOP events, including all of the preliminaries. So in a nutshell, they are aiming to build up suspense for the final table by stopping it mid-tournament and then airing all of the sub-events beforehand leading into a now more-anticipated Final table. More:

This decision obviously will change the dynamic of the final table, but it also offers some great opportunities for poker to get some more mainstream media attention. The nine players at the final table will become quasi celebrities, much like reality TV stars. None of the players would be obligated to do any interviews or media in general, but if they chose to, the opportunities would be there.

Here’s even more validation. The players who are fortunate enough I mean skilled enough to make the final table will then be showered with both endorsements and ample media attention for the 16-week break, allowing them to cash in on any and all opportunities that come their way. Players becoming famous and making loads of “free” money is something all of us surely would like to have a chance at. Well, I’m probably 50% on board by now, but transversing the internet and various forums I encountered a number of players who had vehement opinions in opposition to the tournament changes. They challenged that the notable players in favor of the adjustments (and it’s not just DN to be sure, he’s just the most trustworthy and “wordy” source) had miscalculated the amount of good these changes would do for the game we all love. I may have just put it a bit more nicely and way less bluntly, but you get the point. They weren’t too happy about it. Following up, Daniel posted another blog which contained the following excerpt:

The bottom line is this: if Harrah’s and/or ESPN doesn’t profit handsomely from the WSOP… then we are all screwed. If they don’t make enough money to justify the headache of trying to accommodate thousands of sometimes, demanding poker players, then who will run this thing?

We need to take a step back to the Becky Behnen era circa 2004 and realize that the WSOP was almost a thing of the past. The tradition, the history, all of it could have disappeared if Harrah’s didn’t buy the Horseshoe along with the rights to the WSOP.

That’s when it hit me. They are afraid that Poker has lost its popularity, its surge, and willing to abruptly start taking some fairly large chances to recapture it. The comments above, which have been echoed in close form by many of the other supporters, remind me directly of Chicken Little’s “the sky is falling” mentality. Why is there suddenly a panic-mode sweeping over the games most popular event? Are there behind the scenes reasons we’re not aware of? Always. But I’m not completely convinced that delaying the final table will have the rebounding effect that the organizers had in mind, particularly concerning the unknown cast of characters who will be taking center stage. Here are some more thoughts.

What if the nine players aren’t what we expected? This could happen on a very minor scale. Perhaps none of them have any type of TV-worthy personality. Not that I doubt ESPN’s ability to make anyone into a star, but you can only make Bill Gates so cool…you know? But unfortunately, it could impact the game in more damaging ways we haven’t yet considered. In fact, what if during the interim break some of the more industrious internet-based reporters find out one of the players is a really, really bad person? For example, what happens when we discover the chip-leader has a rap sheet a mile long? Do you think they’ll be able to spin it off in a believable manner, and would we even want them to? What if the motley-crew of contestants are more like what the general, non-Poker player visualizes when they talk disparagingly about Poker: the back-room type with a gambling/drinking problem and loads of other baggage? Ouch, and I’m not even really getting into the potential curve-balls and logistical nightmares that are possible when you start to think that 16-weeks is a looooooooong time for someone to screw-up or at least get way out of line with how most of us want the game represented.

What if it’s not what they expected after all? Let’s say it’s already happened and a) the new format didn’t make the kind of coverage/money/hype it expected or b) there is a huge outbreak of negative comments deriding the format, media, etc. Now what? Will we have Phil Hellmuth climbing up to a large 20ft high diving board where he will cannon-ball jump through a burning hoop into a pool of poker chips while simultaneously shouting “I’m all-in baby!” in an outdoor $100,000 buy-in reality-tv extravaganza where the players eliminated are sent off the island in shame? Wow, I hope so!

What if it’s really not about Poker’s dwindling popularity, but just about the money? While it’s easy to sit and judge from the outside, you certainly don’t have to think too hard to at least consider Money as a major deciding factor in the change. When I first heard about the delay, I instantly thought, “Why 16 weeks? Why not a few days, a week or even a month?” But as we’ve already read, this would not allow all the underlying episodes, with accompanying build-up advertising, to be broadcast. The suspicious nature inside of me also understands that the “major” players will all have books, training courses and various merchandise to plug during the extended break, so there is a money-making opportunity to protect by endorsing the new format, although I’m not sure that would be a likely overriding motive for most considering it may actually end up damaging the game and indirectly their livelihood. So where does this leave us?

Sigh.

After all of the self-discussion I can only come to one conclusion, and it’s the same one I started with. I am thoroughly confused and very skeptical, but ultimately hopeful that it will all work out in the end. Part of me wants a big-name pro to make it to the final nine so the new change can be validated and Poker becomes even more popular. The other half, though, just isn’t so optimistic that even that unlikely occurrence will be enough to convince me of the validity of the change. It just seems like all of a sudden the WSOP is all-in and hoping for a card, when it could have been content to sit atop the charts as a dominating chip leader. Part of the drama, as always, will be watching how it all turns out. GL WSOP!

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