Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why the Hell Would Anyone Watch Televised Poker?

I watch a lot of poker on TV. Yes, I am fully aware that this makes me a complete tool, but in my defense, my mother also watches a lot of poker on TV.

Hmmm, somehow that doesn't make me feel any less lame now that I see it written out and all ...

I hear you now, snickering behind your computer screen, mocking me. Who in their right mind would want to watch a card game on TV? Why that's almost as ridiculous as broadcasting dominoes or Scrabble on ESPN!

And yet, here we are, with televised poker bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars a year and spawning a surge of popularity that recently resulted in the largest monetary prize pool of any event in history. Depending on your age and philosophical bent, this is either:

  1. A sign of the coming apocalypse.
  2. A sign of the death and decline of Western civilization.
  3. A sign that you need to put down that lottery ticket and get your fat rump to a casino stat!
  4. A sign that finally other people are understanding how cool poker is.

So why do I like poker on TV? Poker, while not a sport, nonetheless shares many of the same attributes that make watching sports on TV fun. It's quick, there's a clear winner (and perhaps even more importantly, a clear loser), it's easy to learn but hard to master, and the results are unpredictable. Chaos can rule, but always within boundaries. And the home viewer gets to feel superior because they have access to information not available to the players "in the field".

What makes poker particularly compelling to watch on TV is the same thing that makes "Oedipus" a great play -- you know what's happening even though the actors on stage do not. Because you can see the cards that are hidden from all of the other players, you know that Barry Greenstein does not, in fact, have the best hand with his pocket aces, even though it's completely rational for Barry to think that he does.

It's like watching a horror movie, screaming at the screen "DO NOT GO INTO THAT SHOWER!", knowing all the while that she's damnsure going to walk into the shower.

It's like the sick fascination you have watching a good friend hooking up with a total psycho, knowing full well that she's nuts and he's going to regret it, but he can't see it at all. You want to look away, but you can't.

It's like a great detective show, watching people furiously thinking through multiple possibilities, appreciating how intelligent and canny they are for settling on the right answer. We already know whodunnit, but they do not, and therein lies the fascination. Watching these guys work a table really lets you appreciate how good they are, it lets you taste, at least for a moment, what it is like to be in their shoes, running the odds, asking your gut if you really think you have the best hand or not.

Watching poker on TV gives you the chance to feel like you've won or lost thousands of dollars without having to actually risk it, much like watching football gives you the chance to feel like you just pounded the living crap out of another guy without having to actually risk getting hurt.

It's the knowing of what everyone at the table has, while simultaneously they do not, that makes televised poker fun to watch. I've tried to sit through some ESPN World Poker Tour broadcasts from before the days when they had the "hole cam" that let viewers see what each player had. It was awful, exactly what you first think of when you hear "televised poker" -- a bunch of out of shape schlubs sitting around a table staring at each other. It's the hole cam that makes the WSoP and other TV poker events so much fun, that transforms it from "just a card game" to gripping human melodrama rife with Greek tragedy.

Well, that and watching Phil Hellmuth and Mike "The Mouth" Matusow getting taken for their entire bankrolls -- multiple times -- by the real cash game pros on "High Stakes Poker". Seeing those guys get rolled is almost as much fun as watching Oklahoma lose a football game.


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