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The View From The Booth
IN A MAKESHIFT STUDIO tucked into the far corner of a Foxwoods ballroom, three young poker pros are huddled around a microphone.
“Cards are in the air, guys,” the director warns, and the commentators settle in for what promises to be a very long night. They’re here to provide on-the spot analysis for the live stream webcast of the final table of the World Poker Tour’s Foxwoods event. Once the game starts, they’ll be talking nonstop for eight to twelve hours, except for the occasional short break. They’ve got to keep it interesting, and they can’t make any mistakes. It’s a challenge that only a tournament player could love.
Luckily, the three commentators are all seasoned pros whose idea of a great evening is to cluster around a tiny monitor and talk poker all night long. Hosting the event is Tony Dunst, who does the WPT TV segment The Raw Deal. With him is Jonathan Little, the World Poker Tour champion who agreed to stick around Foxwoods for another day after busting out of the tournament in eighth place. The third guest is Nick “Nicky Numbers” Brancato, Director of Training and Curriculum, as well as an instructor for the WPT Boot Camp.
The three commentators are crammed inside the booth with half a dozen crew, across from a console whose several screens show various camera angles. The director is there too, putting the live show together on the fly. As the players battle it out, he creates an entire broadcast in real time, choosing among several cameras, monitoring the sound, throwing the chip counts and bet sizes up on screen. And yes, they do show the hole cards. That’s why home viewers won’t see the live stream until after a half-hour delay, and it’s why the commentators and the crew are all sequestered.
Meanwhile, outside the broadcast booth, an audience has assembled in the trademark World Poker Tour arena, where longtime hosts Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten will announce the action from their desk. They won’t see the hole cards until several weeks later, when eight hours of poker are edited into three one-hour programs that include Dunst’s Raw Deal, anchor Kimberly Lansing’s player interviews, and appearances by the “Royal Flush Girls.”
Dunst, Lansing, and the Girls were all part of the Season X effort to recruit a larger audience for TV’s premier poker show. The new elements were supposed to bring in three widely diverse groups: entertainment-hungry viewers; sports fans looking for another game to follow; and the new generation of serious online players. The strategy promised something for everyone, and it must have worked: Last season’s audiences were up by about a third, and the program now reaches nearly a million people a week.
With an audience that large, says WPT president Adam Pliska, “We’re likely to get a lot of people who are just poker curious.” The live streaming webcast, he says, is intended for true devotees, the die-hard players who want to see “all the hands, all the action.” Accordingly, this season, the World Poker Tour will livestream all its final tables, even those that are not televised.
“We’ve worked hard to make it something other than the proverbial webcam stuck in the ceiling, so I think it’s a pretty entertaining and high-quality production,” says WPT CEO Steve Heller. He credits their partner, WinnMedia, with creating a live stream that feels “pretty close to a television show.”
COMMENTATING ON THE FLY
Live poker commentary of an eight-hour event has a wildly uneven tempo. Sometimes there are hands that follow quickly upon each other, with barely enough room to analyze the play before the next hand begins. Sometimes, though, there are long spaces for the announcers to fill.
In one of those spaces, Tony asks Jonathan why he busted out of the tournament in eighth place. As WPT’s Season VI Player of the Year with nearly $4 million in lifetime tournament earnings, Jonathan is too seasoned to be defensive. “I did nothing but play my best,” he shrugs. Then he notices that one of the players is getting ready to make a move.
“If he check-raises, I’m going to be feeling pretty good about a fold I made to him yesterday,” Jonathan says.
For a moment, it looks as though the player is not going to check-raise, and Jonathan’s face falls. “No…” he mutters. And then the check-raise comes. Jonathan sighs in relief. “Yes,” he says with a grin. “I’m the best!”
Nick taps his fellow commentator on the shoulder, a signal that he wants his chance at the mike. When he gets it, he questions the value of the check-raise in that spot, pointing out the rainbow board, which makes it unlikely that the check-raiser was on a draw.
“It’s really hard for his opponent to have anything that he’s going to continue with,” Nick points out. “The check-raiser has what is effectively the nuts. If he’s going to make that play here, I’d like to see him check-raise with air sometimes, too.”
The commentary continues, hand after hand. All three players have had years of online experience, and they all speak the new language of poker: range, equity, risk-reward, donk bet, Euro float. Nick looks up stats on PokerStove, the online tool for calculating your equity against a range of hands. They argue about what they would do in the players’ situation.
“If I was those guys, I’d be looking to see if there was a betting pattern,” Nick says after identifying a major tell.
“In this spot, if I was Christian [Harder], I’d be three-betting more,” Jonathan says a few minutes later.
At another point, someone makes a tiny river bet, giving his opponent enormous odds to call. Jonathan bemoans the poor play…and the missed call.
“Even if the caller doesn’t have much of a hand, he only has to be right one in six times – and he will be,” Jonathan says. “You could actually consider calling there with nothing.”
Nick nods vigorously. “I think that’s a great point.”
These guys would be the first to admit that they can’t always execute at the level they’re calling for, especially when they can’t see the hole cards. Nobody could – what they’re asking for is poker perfection. Yet their high poker standards mean everything to them. They’ve spent years learning the plays, learning the numbers – and learning detachment. They are so practiced at focusing on decisions, not results, that Jonathan can’t even remember the hand that won him his WPT Championship.
“I liked you before,” Nick says when Jonathan insists that the cards didn’t matter. “Now I love you. That’s what it means not to think about results!”
Still, the commentary can’t help but take on a personal tone. That’s partly because each commentator is a poker pro, a breed notoriously intolerant of mistakes. But it’s also because, unlike most sports announcers, they’re not commenting on strangers. This is their world.
“Christian is a friend of mine,” Tony says at one point, referring to player Christian Harder. “But from the perspective of wanting to see excellent poker, I’d love to see [opponent Daniel] Santoro just pound him.”
DEALING WITH A GAME-CHANGER
So how do you make poker interesting for an entire eight-hour final table? Is there any commercial potential in a sport that lasts so long? If you already have a popular television broadcast, why do you need a live stream, too?
Mike Sexton has been the host of that television broadcast from the beginning – and there is no bigger supporter of livestreamed poker than he is.
“I think viewers love it, and I think it’s the next step to take in progressing poker forward,” Mike says. “And I think there’s also potential earning value. I can see them charging people to watch a live stream where they can see the cards, like pay-per-view boxing. I think it’s great!”
Some players have questioned whether showing everyone’s hole cards during a game will change the way poker is played. Mike brushes these concerns aside, comparing them to some players’ initial reluctance to show their hole cards at all.
“I can remember when we first started the WPT, people didn’t want to show their hole cards,” he says. “I mean, Erik Seidel was adamantly against it. And what’s ironic about it is that Erik has gone on since that time to make more money in tournament poker than just about anybody. And it would never have happened -- there would have been no poker TV shows, and no giant prize pools -- had you not been able to show those hole cards."
“So I think players have to adjust, they have to adapt, and they have to recognize that they have to do their part in advancing poker, so that poker can become a better sport for everybody.”
CREATING A NEW POKER AUDIENCE
Even if live streaming becomes standard, Mike believes there’s still room for the tighter, faster one-hour show. “When people are going to watch the live stream of poker, they’re gonna be diehard poker fans,” he says. He believes these fans want to see exactly the hands that the TV shows edit out, the ones thrown away before the flop.
“Many viewers that watch TV shows now would be bored watching all that,” he says.
But if you leave that out, “it doesn’t give the full picture of what’s really happened at the table.
“I can remember when the Devilfish [Dave Ulliott] won our event in Tunica one year,” Mike continues. “He dominated the final table like no player I’ve ever seen in the history of poker. Raised every single pot, came over the top of everybody, had a massive chip lead – everybody else had about the same amount of chips, so they were just trying to hang on, and he just gradually, continually increased his stack. And I mean, guys like Phil Ivey were sitting at that table as well! And when the TV show came on, they just showed the hands where Devilfish raised the pot, and his opponent was down to a short stack and moved in, and Devilfish called ’em with like a king-seven, so it looked like he was playing bad."
“But the truth is, it was complete domination on his part, how he commanded that table. It just didn’t come across on the air.”
Poker lovers want to see that kind of play, Mike believes, and he’s glad live streaming will be available to show it to them.
Nick takes it one step further. He believes that showing every hand of a poker tournament – whether livestreamed or on television – will actually create a new audience of poker fans, as long as the commentary is there to educate them.
“It’s very difficult for people to be really into something when they don’t understand it well,” he says. Good poker commentary that shows every hand could build that understanding.
“When you have a game that is dumb, like Deal or No Deal, you need to create excitement somehow, whether from the money or something else,” he continues. “But when you have a game like poker that is beautiful and complex, it doesn’t have to be about that at all. All you need to do is focus on the game.”
Nick “Nicky Numbers” Brancato just loves talking about poker.
A World Series of Poker Circuit champion who has played over 2 million hands online, he’s also Director of
Training and Curriculum, as well as an instructor, for the World Poker Tour Boot Camp. There he spends about half his time each month sharing his knowledge about cash and tournament play.
But that’s not enough poker talk for Nick Brancato, who three years ago began doing live poker commentary for the WSOP. Last November, Nick began commentating for the World Poker Tour as well.
“The new live commentary is extremely fun because you’re getting to see final tables in their entirety – with hole cards!” Nick says. “Meanwhile, you’re trying to depict the action as thoroughly and clearly as you can, so that the audience feels like what they’re seeing is as close to being there as possible. And then you’re trying to also give as much strategic information as you can, so that everyone can learn from the play as they’re watching it. You want everyone to understand what’s going on at the table, and why.”
THE CHALLENGE OF LIVE COMMENTARY
When asked about the challenges of doing live commentary, Nick ticks them off one by one. There’s the lack of complete information. Although there might be several cameras covering the action, the commentators see only what the home audience sees, which doesn’t always include chips counts, pot sizes, or bet sizes. Since correct poker play depends on the mathematical relationships between stack, pot, and bet, it’s hard to offer correct analysis without knowing those things.
Then there’s the lack of time. Sometimes you want to give full analysis of a play, but before you finish a thorough discussion, the players have already begun a new hand. Nick likens it to those moments in a sports broadcast where there’s just no time for an instant replay.
You also have to be careful that you don’t “cheat.” Yes, you know all the hole cards. But you have to remember that the players don’t.
“If somebody reraises, and you know that they have nothing, you can’t just say that their opponent should four-bet,” Nick explains. “You have to analyze the play based on what’s happened at the table before. If somebody hasn’t reraised in the past, and they’re playing reasonably tight, you want their opponent to give them credit for a legitimate hand, even though you know they’re making a move.”
One aspect of live commentary that is not a challenge for Nick is stamina – even through several hours of final table play.
“I think stamina could be an issue for some people,” he allows. “But for me it’s not, because I’m used to teaching at the WPT Boot Camps. Even though we take breaks and have lunch, I’m always talking to people and answering their questions. So for ten hours a day, I might be talking the vast majority of the time.”
BREAKING IT DOWN FOR THE AUDIENCE
What Nick loves about commentating is pretty much what he loves about teaching, and about analyzing his own play: the chance to think through a hand from every angle possible.
“You’re trying to analyze each decision point,” he explains. “You’re saying, ‘Okay, Player 1 has these cards preflop. What’s he doing? Why is he doing that? Does his play have a positive expected value? Is there a better decision he could be making that would have a higher expected value? Is he just flat-out making a mistake? Are two things close, and the decision could go either way? Or is one choice okay, but a second choice is much better, and a third choice is terrible?"
“Then you explain the logic behind what he might be doing, right or wrong. No player acts without regard for logic. They’re doing something that they think is right for some reason at the time. So one of your big jobs as a commentator is to figure out what that reason is and explain it to the audience. Even if what they’re doing is wrong, or bad, or could be better, you’re saying, ‘This player is doing X, and this is probably why.’"
“The next level is explaining what they should be doing. Maybe what they did is perfect – optimal. Or maybe it’s super-suboptimal, and there’s something that’s completely unexploitable from a game-theoretical standpoint that you just know is mathematically true that they should be doing instead, because it just works!"
“Or maybe frequency is a factor. Maybe a certain move could be right if you did it some of the time, but not every time. Or maybe they’re doing something that might be right in certain spots, but the player didn’t pick his spots well."
“So you’re trying to take in all the details of a situation and figure out what the players are thinking, and then you explain what the best strategies to implement would be. If you know them! If you don’t know them, then it’s also important that you say, ‘This is a difficult spot. It’s not clear what’s right or wrong here. It could really go either way.’”
In fact, Nick says, “doing commentary is much harder than playing.”
Playing poker, he says, “is very second nature to me. I’ve played over 2 million hands, so a lot of the decisions are very automatic for me."
“With commentary,” he says, “you have all this other work to do! You have all these additional things that you’re trying to accomplish in an unknown time period.”
But the main reason commentary is harder than playing, Nick says, is the responsibility.
“Thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people are depending on your commentary being accurate,” he says. “That’s a huge responsibility. If you make a big mistake or if you do it badly, you can ruin it for everybody. When you’re playing, the only person you could let down is yourself.”