A few weeks ago, I was one of millions of Americans who got sucked into watching something on TV that I ordinarily would never, ever care about.
It was a Monday, I was overdue on more than one assignment—including that week’s Strip Sense entry—and I don’t usually watch sports on TV anyway. But the human drama of a hobbled Tiger Woods somehow managing one amazing comeback after another in the U.S. Open was so compelling that it even made watching privileged people using a crooked metal stick to hit a small white ball across a water-guzzlingly lush and exclusive private park worth my attention.
That said, had it not been for Tiger, such a close match with such great heroics surely wouldn’t have drawn my interest.
And that is the probably insurmountable problem that ails the World Series of Poker as its most prestigious event begins this weekend: There are no transcendent stars. What’s more, thanks to the very same factors that earlier this decade turned the WSOP into one of the fastest-growing professional competitive events— how’s that for avoiding the word “sport”?—of our time, there also never will be.
“You can’t buy your way onto an NBA court; you can’t buy your way onto an NFL field,” said Jeffrey Pollack, WSOP executive director. “You can, however, enter the World Series of Poker and potentially walk away as a world champion. We offer a brand of hope that’s more accessible than any other global sports brand.”
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Well, that’s great, but where does that leave poker? Without mystique, that’s where. With nobody who has ever attained the same household-name status of a Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Andre Agassi. Ask any group of 55-year-old women emerging from a third viewing of Sex and the City, and they’ll all know who each is.
Ask the same people who Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey or Johnny Chan are; very few will know. Try Joe Hachem, Jamie Gold and Jerry Yang, the most recent three multimillionaire winners of the WSOP’s $10,000 buy-in No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em tournament—aka the Main Event—and expect the blankest of stares.
Being a victim of one’s own success is a cliché, but there is no better way to explain why TV ratings have been in decline for the WSOP. The meteoric rise in the fascination with poker in general and its richest tournament in particular boiled down to the notion, borne of the boom in Internet poker that turned every Midwest frat boy and bored Silicon Valley code geek into a rounder, that everyone is equal at the table. TV poker shows became so popular even my teenage niece watched, a sure indicator of fad status.
The allure was simple: Anyone can win. Even me.
And yet here’s the problem: Anyone can win. Even whatsisname.
Weren’t we all proud when one of us—then-27-year-old Chris Moneymaker—won the Main Event in 2003? Moneymaker bested 838 players—including all the big names—in his very first live poker tournament.
Empowerment is nice in the short run, but competitive-game fans actually want someone to admire, to develop crushes on, to learn from. Four more amateur no-names later, the WSOP crown is more a crapshoot than a command performance. We don’t want democracy in skill-based contests; we want to know that there’s greatness in our era, that we’re witnesses to greatness as our forefathers witnessed the Babe and Broadway Joe. All the better if there’s some sort of McEnroe-Connors rivalry, providing greatness in different flavors for different viewers. And how could that exist in the structure of the WSOP Main Event?
It can’t and won’t. Several poker luminaries—Yang and Pollack most recently—insisted to me a pro will one day again win it all. Legendary player Howard Lederer is more realistic; he told me last year he had to come to grips earlier this decade with the fact that his chance to win the most prestigious tournament had probably passed.
And even if a pro broke through one year, so what? It’s been 20 years since the last WSOP champ repeater, and that was back when nobody watched it on ESPN. The Main Event is now too vast—last year there were 6,358 contestants, up 757 percent from Moneymaker’s year—and pros are so enormously outnumbered. An individual’s personal skills can only take one so far with all of those variables.
Pollack’s 2008 solution is interesting, if a bit naive. Once the Main Event reaches its final table of nine, play will stop until November. Then ESPN will air the tournament to that point, followed by a tape-delayed final round to heighten suspense. The nine finalists, then, have the intervening months to get famous.
“Whereas traditionally, the Main Event resulted in one superstar, the champion, now, the Main Event is going to result in nine superstars, one of which will receive our championship bracelet,” Pollack said. “We think in the four months in between when we stop play and finish playing, those nine players will become household names.”
Have past poker champs in the Internet poker era actually become “superstars,” though? I agree there will be more suspense, that newspapers around the world will do profiles of their local WSOP finalists, each of whom will likely already be guaranteed at least $1 million. If there’s a woman or an interesting minority in the mix, I can see that being of even greater intrigue.
But I suspect they’ll all be far more like shooting stars. And next year at this time, you’ll be hard-pressed yet again to name the champ.