Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The FTT Guide To Televised Poker

I'll level with you, Dear Reader... I've been watching *way* too much televised poker recently. It's all part of, oddly, trying to get in better physical shape and reduce down to my college weight (I'm less than 10 pounds away, but those are, of course, the hardest). I also play enough poker, for enough money, to want to Not Suck So Much At It. So, well, there you have it.

My method is to set up my weights and exercise bike in front of the Man Space Television and use the coursing, low-level hatred that my brain generates for much of this drivel to power through my workout. It might be taking years off my life from the bile and blood pressure, but hey, at least I'll leave a tough old man corpse. That's all that any of us can hope for, right?

Anyway, the new poker viewer might not know which of the literally half-dozen active poker series on television to watch. So consider this scouting report a kind of public service. Only, as you will see, without the service.

Each showed is ranked from 1 to 10 blood vessels in your head, one being a mild amount of stress, 10 being a full "Scanners" style meltdown. Please note that while these shows may make you slightly more versed in poker vernacular, the resulting brain cell loss will more than make up for any gain you might get to your game.

Poker After Dark (NBC)

PAD is a single table set where top money players play in a controlled set, with small piles of chips and obscene bricks of cash. The vibe is like a home game, provided your home game has crazed millionaires in it, and armed guards at the door to watch over the cash that, in all likelihood, is coated with enough cocaine to kill a horse.

Level of play:
Expert to the point of meta. The people who play PAD have made the decision to spend their lives at poker tables, as if this was in any way healthy or sane. (Note: I didn't say it wasn't lucrative.) So the play is fast, players are frequently calling each other's hole cards out loud, and if you want to play these people after watching PAD, you are out of your freaking mind.

Watch for:
Poker train wrecks like Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow freaking out after, horror of horrors, they don't win. Greek tragedy ain't got nothing on Hellmuth getting re-raised, and I think they like to keep Matusow around to see if he'll eventually become homeless and/or violent. Someone, for the love of God, has to stop Hellmuth.

Wacky Fact: People track PAD "championships" as if it were not, well, a fairly small achievement to be the last person standing in a small table, no matter how good the competition is. The championship trick is just getting invited.

Potent. NBC has spent its money on the at-table talent, and since there's nothing but lifers at this table, there isn't more than two or three unused oxygen atoms in the room. So your commentary, if you can call it that, is usually left to basic points that anyone with eyes and a mild amount of poker experience can see. ("Ferguson's trying to accumulate chips." Wow, thanks.)

PAD gets its Smack It In The Face Moments from the players trying to "make good TV", which generally involves watching Hellmuth barter for insurance like a complete pussy on pots in situations where the math is out there and obvious. Someone, for the love of God, Stop Hellmuth.

Titty Factor: High class. PAD features post-wipeout interviews with losing players, as done by the "If you have to ask, you can't afford" stylings of Leeann Tweeden; she's classy, and knows just enough about what's going on at the table that the players look her in the eye. Besides, these are lifer poker players. They'd much rather talk about cards and how crappy the guy is who just beat them than to make a move on the help.

Overall rating: 5 Blood Vessels. Oh, and if you're watching this thing at 2am on a weeknight without the use of a DVR, You May Have A Gambling Problem.

Heartland Poker Tour (SNY and syndication, one presumes)

The HPT takes you to all of those places that you wouldn't go to on a bet to show you that, by gosh and by golly, poker is played in the hinterlands, too! The vibe is two steps up from public access, and final tables are usually mixes of Web players who can barely shave against old bluffers who can barely stand. Luckily, thanks to the healthy lifestyle of a pro gambler, the kids can see what they'll look like in ten years. Yeah, you're right. Four.

Level of play: Highly variable, but tighter than you might imagine. You watch HPT to hear the hosts sing the praises of some rank amateur as he catches cards early, then turn on him like a cheap suit when he runs cold and makes a badly timed bluff. The fact that they are seeing the hole cards makes them very, very smart.

Watch for: Perhaps the most craptastic theme song ever sets the tone. Then you get nonstop pimping for the crappy casino du jour, all the way down to specific callouts for the restaurant, spa and, I'm sure at some point, individual Native American hookers that re-enacted the Trail of Tears in the luxurious executive suite 30 minutes before airtime. You normally have to go to the downmarket rooms in Atlantic City or Reno to get this kind of pure flopsweat.

Wacky Fact: Like all of these shows, the hosts make a big deal out of the money being made by the top finishers. However, given the expense of entering these things, this payday is going to have to cover a lot of blank shots to be the kind of Manna From Heaven that the announcers are making it out to be. But hey, getting five figures is well and truly Life Changing, especially if your life isn't worth that much. We're getting that double wide, honey!

Obnoxiousness: Fairly high, as the color commentators are clearly studying at the altar of Norm Chad, only without any kind of actual talent. (And Norman's not exactly waking the ghosts of Edward R. Murrow, kids.) HPT is also big on calling out goofy pre-flop card combination and repeating them. "He's got 9-5 off-suit, the Dolly Parton hand!" Ha Ha Ha Ha! And he's folding it, because that's a crap hand that really doesn't need to be named! Let's all chuckle some more at your lame and often repeated joke!

Oh, and the fact that the color commentator (Fred Bevill) talks with a lisp and, in moments of "humor", talks about playing poker while wearing a diaper? That's just special. Short bus special.

Titty Factor: Oh dear. All I can think is that the producers must not know about HD, or have some deep-seated fascination with make up, because HPT's women look like they put it on with the Homer Simpson Cosmetics Shotgun. HPT's gets a small nod for the help's willingness to appear on camera in bathing attire (dammit, these hotel rooms aren't selling themselves!), but in terms of eye candy, it's more Big League Chew than sweet dark chocolate. If you catch my drift.

Overall rating: 6 blood vessels. You know how people who live near the oceans in the US have this sneering condescension towards flyover country? It's not all unjustified.

World Poker Tour
(Fox Sports, presumed syndication)

The WPT occupies the same space to ESPN's "World Series of Poker" that, say, the old CNN "Sports Night" occupied to "SportsCenter" -- a clear second place finisher that tries to do different things, but is so dreadfully un-hip as to just seem more than a little sad. Which is a shame, really, as it's got some things going for it. Basically, you're watching the last two hours of edited highlights from a large scale tournament, starting with a final table of six players. Eventually, There Can Be Only One. Original, no?

Level of play: Some of the best on television, and it's not hurt by the fact that the WPT isn't afraid to show what the game is really like at this level -- which is to say, a ton of hands that never get to a flop, let alone the river. The winning players also bring home enough money that you'll see some of the upper crust players at these final tables.

Watch for: The wild, manic depressive swings of false drama when someone takes a pot. It's like the WPT hosts are being paid by the exclamation point. They also *live* for the quirky occupation amateur player. I saw an episode the other night with a 59-year-old funeral director, and I'm pretty sure they had to declare the broadcast booth a hazmat area from the amount of jizz joy this seemed to provoke.

Wacky Fact: When they get to the final heads up, they trot out the best skanks that the local casino has to offer (costuming helps here, but not enough) to shower the table in not really enough bundles of cash to be all that impressive. They also give the winner a set of World Poker Tour chips because, for heaven's sake, you wouldn't want to win hundreds of thousands of dollars without getting a version of the home game. Finally, they make the winners toast with long neck bottles of Budweiser, which is high comedy when you see some Internet pre-pube or Euro high roller have to fake his way into drinking that. You may have just won hundreds of thousands of dollars, champ, but you're still surrounded by morons. Congrats!

Obnoxiousness: Quite high, as the commentators really are that far over the top. And while their production might be more true to life, the breathlessness over a pre-flop fold really does make you want to hurt someone. Finally, since the money is good enough, you actually have big crowds at the rail at these events, which might be the worst thing to ever happen to poker. If you're spending your life cheering on people who you are not related to at poker championships, you might have a bigger life problem than even the people spending their lives at poker tables.

Titty Factor:
If you've seen HPT, you've seen WPT, only with a slightly more international tilt, which is to say that the hostess will not be wearing leopard trailer park prints. It won't make you regret your HD coverage as much, but you also won't get superfluous bikini shots.

Overall rating:
8 blood vessels, if only for the hosts. Seriously, they are that bad.

High Stakes Poker (Game Show Network)

Like Poker After Dark, but want to see it with more of a cheesy casual setting, cash all over the place and preening announcers? You're in luck!

Level of play: Meta fast playing with strong undercurrents of personal abuse. Something to keep in mind with these cozy little pro shows is that you're much more likely to see a female face or two, and they're also much more likely to do well. One suspects that this is because the top female players just don't have the time to spend working their way through the hyper-patient big tournament shows, but let's face it, folks... if you're playing poker for a living, you've got the time to spend, regardless of the presence of ovaries.

Watch for: Nasty in-fighting towards black sheep players, more cash than you see outside of a drug runner's car trunk, and wildly tired announcer in-fighting. It's also, perhaps, the clearest window into the world of a high stakes cash game. It also gets some major props to the fact that the players are actually buying in, so when you see someone take a bad beat, that's their own money leaving them -- rather than some arbitrary and inflated amount of chips.

Wacky Fact: Since it's just a cash game, there are no trophies, no bracelets, no hostesses and spectator theaters; you know this is, at least, a different show. It's also just plain freaky to see that much cash being tossed around without anyone seeming to, you know, sweat freaking bullets over it, or to watch players re-buy for a mere $100,000 more. It's very easy, in watching poker on television, to divorce yourself from the reality that people lose money while gambling; HSP makes that very, very clear. Good times!

Obnoxiousness: Almost off the charts, especially in a bad economy. I keep expecting to see bank presidents show up with bailout cash. At least when they play with chips, it seems like a game that I could play, rather than the poker equivalent of Marie Antoinette and her court. But at least it's different from the rest of this motley mess.

Titty Factor: Almost non-existent, unless your idea of action is a fat guy in need of support, or a woman who might have been solid twenty years in real time, or three years in poker time, ago. Besides, she knows you're lying.

Overall rating: 9 blood vessels. That view into How The Other Side plays comes at a terrible, terrible price.

Best Damn Poker Show
(Fox Sports)

Want to watch bad poker and a worse reality television show, all at once? Then put your dignity in a blind trust and come on down to the abuse of Hellmuth and Annie Duke!

Yes, it's "Survivor" Poker, as The Poker Brat (psst, Phil! That's not a compliment!) and the only female player who will be seen on HD willingly watch a bunch of neophytes try to get on the "teams" of either player. I'd tell you more about it, but I'm still having blackouts.

Level of play: A weak home game, especially at the early levels as the true non-players gets weeded out. If you want to see truly erratic and inexplicable play that *doesn't* work, this is your show.

Watch for: The extraordinary amounts of pain that being near Bad Poker seems to cause Hellmuth and Duke, followed by their less sincere but still eviscerating "You're Out" monologues to the worst players. Watching someone nod and smile while being told they suck is just shadenfraudey fun. Also, if you are a very bad player, this might be the speed you need to learn something. Your first lesson might be to try breathing through your nose.

Wacky fact: Everything but the poker here is excruciating, and the poker is also, well, excruciating. It's like a netherworld of dumb. Watch this long enough, and I think you forget how to use the remote.

Obnoxiousness: You have a show that gives Phil Hellmuth the complete mouth job to his ego. Remarkably, he's less over-the-top than Duke, who really seems to be trying to be a bigger bitch than Phil. It's kind of fascinating, on a scientific level; think of it as the "Metal Machine Music" of televised poker.

Titty factor: Your choices are Duke or nothing, at least in the single episode I was able to watch before smashing my head into a wall. Go with nothing.

Overall rating:
10. All-in. Quads on the flop. I can't give you much more, Captain! My head's breaking up!

World Series of Poker (ESPN)

Probably the only poker show that 90% of the general public has ever seen, and just like everything else the Lemur does, incredibly destructive to the event that it covers. Play that funky slide riff, white boy!

Level of play: Wildly variable, and actively awful for routine players. The biggest problem with WSOP is that it's edited purely for theatric purposes. So if you see someone make an awful misread and go into a pot as a 4-to-1 underdog, you are more or less even money to see them suck out on the river, then dance around like Jonathan Papelbon on meth, like they did a good thing... because the Lemur is in no way interested in televising poker. They are interested in televising spectacle.

Watch for: The worst bad beats this side of dominatrixes working a Republican convention. You've never seen so much runner-runner, single out suckouts. You also get to see the dregs of humanity that have someone scrapped their way into a massive, big money tournament; the first few days of their bigger events are more or less indistinguishable from people who dress up in costume to go watch games.

Wacky fact: Norman Chad has ex-wives! Waka waka!

Other than when Chad's trying too hard and the Suck-Tastic Highlights, the Lemur actually keeps things in check. They also get a major plus from actually calling Hellmuth (yes, him again! He's very special! Just ask him!) on his crap. Sidebar features are kept to a tasteful and not too terrible minimum, and they did, after all, pioneer the art form, as it were.

Titty factor: Almost nonexistent, because the Lemur is serious. Also, they are, let's remember, owned by Big Mouse.

Overall rating: Five blood vessels, if only for the production values that make you cringe less than anyone else in the field. But folks, please, stop encouraging bad players to dance around like people with ADD. We're not asking for too much, are we?


The Truth said...

Phil Hellmuth has never lost a tournament in his life. Somebody always get's lucky when he doesn't win.

Anonymous said...

The question is:which will last the longest? i'd bet on the HPT

DMtShooter said...

In that the HPT probably pays people in buffet coupons, sure.

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