Who knows what we’re missing at the WSOP?

rio in las vegas

The World Series of Poker in Las Vegas is the best of times and the worst of times for poker fans in the United Kingdom. Some of the most exciting talent in the world is competing in some of the most significant tournaments of the year, and they are all happening back-to-back over seven weeks. But if you actually want to follow any of the action in real time, you have to adopt the sleeping hours of a badger. Tournament days in the Rio kick off between 8pm and 10pm, UK time, and wrap up about ten hours later.

So it is that for most of us attempting to live normal (ie, diurnal) lives, we get to watch the insignificant early stages of proceedings before drifting into slumber, then peel crust from our eyes some hours later to glimpse winners’ photos. “It’s like a dream come true,” the champions say. Quite literally for those of us on BST.

I’ve got into the habit now of trying to read over what happened through the night via the various reporting outlets in Vegas, many of whose writers I know personally. But there’s something that just doesn’t quite work about live tournament coverage when you’re reading it after the event; there has to have been a really spectacular, explosive moment to have you poring over hand-by-hand stuff, and there’s rarely enough biographical information provided about some of the lesser-known players to make you care what they got up to.

This is a persistent problem surrounding poker tournament coverage, and one that grows even more apparent when you’re watching from afar. On the European Poker Tour, which I have covered for many years, we are always trying to strike a balance between nitty-gritty hand-by-hand stuff (which starts dry and only becomes more desiccated the longer the days drag on) and the stories about the personnel involved. You often hear people say, “I like live poker because of the personalities”, but this claim is not borne out when you look at the traffic figures for articles online.

We’ve written countless pieces about “unknown” players on the EPT, who have the most amazing life stories away from poker. But the minute Daniel Negreanu wins a hand in a totally standard spot, and you write about it, you’ll get ten times the traffic for that article based on star-power alone. (We actually tested this out once in a deeply unscientific experiment: a colleague wrote an article about Tom Dwan not being at a poker tournament we were covering and, sure enough, that got more traffic than almost all the pieces we wrote about players who were actually there.)

A lot of this is simply unavoidable and is the nature of all of our reading habits. However, I also think some of the reporters on the ground can do a lot more to seek out stories beyond ace-king out-flipping pocket jacks. There have been some absolutely corking final table line-ups already this Series — in terms of “known” players involved — and, as ever, there have been a handful of so-called “friends and family” finals, where only those closest to the personnel will know them from Adam.

But there seems to be an astonishing lack of desire to turn these affairs into something more appealing for a distant but interested spectator. For example, I tuned in to live stream for some of the early stages of the final table of Event #8, the “Millionaire Maker”, which was one of the flagship events this year. In the couple of hours I watched, I learned that one of the players was from Texas and “looked like he was from Texas” and another one of them had a dog — information gleaned by the commentators, no doubt, via the bio sheets every player fills in, and an observation based on a player’s age, table demeanour and shirt.

Unfortunately, these nuggets, as inspiring as they were, weren’t quite enough for me to form an emotional bond with the players, which, essentially, is what a spectator needs in order to follow a sporting event. I mean, I was rooting for Andrew Teng mainly because I’ve had a couple of conversations with him at airports en route to EPT events, and he’s always happily given a chip count when I’ve asked. That’s really all it takes.

This tournament was won by Jonathan Dimmig, who became the first millionaire of the Series. And there’s a chance I’ll now see him at some more events and have the chance to get to know a little more. Equally, he may decide to take his million dollars and invest it in his life’s work to invent a cure for hangovers, or a personal jet-pack for all. It’s just I’ll never know about that, because nobody bothered to find out.