Last weekend I covered the final two days of the World Poker Tour (WPT) Season XII World Championship at the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa in Atlantic City. It was the first major poker tournament I had ever been to, much less covered as a journalist. And it was unlike anything I had experienced before.
The tournament was a six-day event that began on Monday, April 21. When I arrived on Friday, just 18 of the original 328 players remained. Those 18 contestants played down to a final table of six. The final six players reconvened Saturday and television cameras taped the “final table.” In the end, Keven Stammen defeated Byron Kaverman heads-up to take home the title and the $1.35 million first-place prize.
I've covered a variety of things in my four-year career -- mainly as a sports reporter. But I've never been so awestruck by a "sporting event" as I was by the roughly 20 hours I spent at the Borgata over the weekend.
Here are my top-10 observations from covering my first poker tournament:
10. Mike Sexton repeatedly makes a lot of bad jokes
Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton has been broadcasting World Poker Tour final tables alongside Vince Van Patten for as long as I can remember. Sexton, to his credit, has had a successful poker playing career in addition to his broadcasting, notably taking down the 2006 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions for $1 million.
But, oh boy, does he make some terrible jokes. It's pretty obvious that much of what Sexton and Van Patten say on TV has been pre-written, edited and built for time constraints. But even when commentating off the cuff, Sexton seems to have a rolodex of tired puns and recycled one-liners.
Case in point: Tony Dunst, a poker pro and host of the WPT's televised segment "The Raw Deal," was one of the final six players at the final table, nursing a short stack all the way to a third-place finish. And every time Dunst went all-in (which was a lot), Sexton stood up and shouted, "Let's see if the 'Raw Deal' can double up and become the 'Real Deal' right now!"
Every. Single. Damn. Time.
9. Cocktail waitresses walk around like usual
Any time you visit a casino, you will see cocktail waitresses walking around asking players if they'd like to order a beverage. What shocked me about the tournament, though, was that the waitresses simply waltzed right into the production set announcing "cocktails!" like it was just any other game.
You'd think that with a televised final table, with millions of dollars on the line and dozens of people manning the production to make sure it runs smoothly, you'd see a more sophisticated drink service. Like, maybe the players would discreetly ask a staff member to run and get them a drink, or something.
I don't know, it all seemed a bit weird to me.
8. Tournament announcers rotate
When you watch the final table of a poker tournament on TV, you notice that there is a person standing behind the table announcing all of the action. But what I didn't realize until now is that the announcers can rotate.
This particular final table featured four different announcers, who rotated every 30 minutes to coincide with the rotation of the dealers. I was not expecting that.
7. Family members are dedicated
I expected to see several of the players' family members in attendance at the final table, and there were. But I was surprised to see a handful of wives and girlfriends hanging out in the tournament area on the marathon-long, second-to-last day.
That's dedication. These women sat in chairs, reading magazines like they were waiting for a doctor's appointment. I find that torturous and, I'm sorry, I couldn't imagine being on the rail for anyone unless it was a final table. (Thankfully, I don't think my wife is making a deep run in a tournament any time soon.)
6. There's cheering in the press box, apparently
Dunst, as mentioned, works for the WPT. In the press area, there were a large number of WPT staffers vocally rooting for Dunst, which I found to be odd, but I suppose it also made a bit of sense.
Rule No. 1 of sports journalism: There's no cheering in the press box. Rule No. 1 of poker: It is not a sport, and thus the other rules do not apply.
5. I found myself rooting for players to bust
Everyone knows that the "no cheering in the press box rule" is baloney. Everyone does it, even if it's in their own minds. Journalists root for great stories. Sometimes, they root for easy stories. Other times, like during incredibly deep-stacked poker tournaments, they just root for it all to end so they can go home and get some sleep.
4. There's a lot of down time
Poker tournaments on TV feature only the best hands, the ones that will make for an interesting 60-minute broadcast.
When you watch a poker tournament live, there is no editing or post production. You don't see hole cards. You just watch players go into the tank and think. Have you ever watched paint dry? It's sort of like that, but at least paint has a scientific excuse. Poker players could do us all a favor and stop taking so much damn time for every decision.
3. It's easy to miss something important
That said, if you turn your eye away from the "action" for even 15 seconds, you might miss a crucial moment and find yourself backtracking to put the pieces together. In poker, you can't just catch the showdown of a hand to know what happened. Every bet, call and fold, in addition to bet sizing, is important. And you don't want to go around asking your fellow reporters to help you catch up, because they're already focusing on the next hand.
2. WPT tapings are a surreal experience
It's hard to explain why I was so taken aback by this, but let me see if I can. During a typical sporting event, everything happens in real time. The broadcasters call the action as they see it. Sideline reporters report on things that just happened. The game is not broken down into pre-recorded segments that will be packaged into a full season of 60-minute TV shows.
A poker tournament is different. The game is going on live, sure. But on the side, Sexton, Van Patten and Lynn Gylmartin are recording generic interludes that have virtually nothing to do with the game itself. And if they mess up, they do it again.
Having majored in broadcast journalism in college and spent several hours in television studios, it was nothing new to me to see an ongoing production. But the combination of that and a live event was just bizarre; you rarely see that anywhere else.
1. The players are very accessible
I think this sums it up pretty nicely:
Poker is the only sport I've covered in which I've gone to the bathroom during a break and peed in a urinal right next to a player.— Dan Podheiser (@danpodheiser) April 26, 2014
Dan Podheiser has covered the gambling industry since 2013, but he has been an avid poker player for more than a decade, starting when he was just 14 years old. When he turned 18, he played online poker regularly on U.S.-friendly sites until Black Friday in April 2011.