by Paul “Dr. Pauly” McGuire
The 1981 World Series of Poker main event was the first poker tournament poker I watched on television. Fifteen years ago I sat in my apartment in New York City, flipping through the slim pickings of late-late night television and eventually stopped on ESPN2. I watched the final table of the 1981 main event, which was hosted by legendary sportscaster Curt Gowdy.
I had never seen a poker tournament before. I sat in awe and wonderment at the action as Stu Ungar held on to win his second main event in a row after he beat out Perry Green, a furrier from Alaska. Ungar faded a field of 75 players—nine tables—to win $375,000.
I immediately identified with Ungar because we were both from New York City and I felt compelled to root for the hometown guy. Ungar was also the youngest guy at a table slugging it out in Las Vegas against colorful characters twice his age.
In 2002 I caught the poker bug and was thrilled when I stumbled upon the WSOP main event on ESPN. It was deja vu all over again. I sat in bewilderment as Phil Hellmuth lost a prop bet and had his head shaved because he said that amateur Robert Varkonyi was not going to win. Unfortunately for Hellmuth, Varkonyi won the world championship that year, and the Poker Brat walked out of Binion’s Horseshoe slightly humiliated and with a lot less hair.
One year later, I watched Chris Moneymaker take down the main event. As the saying goes, the rest was history, and within a year, I’d have online poker accounts at a half-dozen virtual card rooms.
All of the final table broadcasts (from Ungar to Moneymaker) were recorded and edited for time constraints, then aired several months after the final hand was dealt. Even though I knew who had won in 2002 and 2003, I still enjoyed watching the hands play out.
Technological advances between 1981 and 2005—the year I covered my first main event as a reporter—changed how the WSOP was covered by the media. The new wave of online media satisfied readers with instant results. Magazines and newspapers faced an overwhelming obstacle due to the lag that existed between the time reporters submitted their copy to the moment the publications were printed and distributed.
The internet allowed real-time information to be transmitted all over the world. Within minutes of a player being eliminated from the main event, poker fans from Iowa to Ireland could read about the bustout hand on different websites, blogs, and forums.
Although WSOP results were readily available online, fans had to wait a few months to view video of the final table. By then, the news was old and viewers lost interest. Ratings drastically declined. The November Nine was created to bolster ratings and minimize the time (under 24 hours) before online outlets reported the winner. It was only a matter of time before ESPN met their viewers’ insatiable demand for live coverage and treated poker like a “real” sport instead of an edited television program.
Parts of the 2011 WSOP main event were aired semi-live on ESPN2 and streamed online at ESPN3.com. In order to protect the integrity of the game and prevent cheating, the feed was broadcast on a delay. Even with a slight delay, the ratings were so impressive that the suits in Bristol, Connecticut and WSOP executives in Las Vegas wanted to broadcast the final table live on ESPN/ESPN2 and stream it on ESPN3.com. The decision was a huge success.
The ratings for this year’s nearly-live broadcast of the main event final table were very impressive, so much so, that the future of the November Nine is now in jeopardy. I wouldn’t be surprised if the concept is axed and the 2012 main event is played out to its conclusion in July, with wall-to-wall coverage of the final table on the ESPN networks.
Paul ‘Dr. Pauly’ McGuire is the author of the book ‘Lost Vegas’. You can read his poker blog, Tao of Poker, over at www.taopoker.com.