Friday, May 9, 2008 | 2 a.m.
I’m not quite ready to turn in my membership card to the poker purists’ club.
After all, I still prefer mixed games to a steady diet of no-limit Texas hold ’em.
I just read a terrific new book on razz, of all things.
Heck, I even have the official video of the 1973 World Series of Poker ranked No. 3 on my list of all-time best documentaries, behind only “Crumb” and “The Last Waltz.”
I break ranks with the purists, though, in my reaction to the announcement that this year’s World Series main event will include a 117-day hiatus, from the time the final table is determined on July 14 to its conclusion Nov. 9-10. Purists greeted the news with predictable outrage: It will interrupt the flow of the tournament, according to the consensus of the old-schoolers, and tarnish the sanctity of the competition.
I see it as a good move, an idea that’s creative and innovative and could provide a boost for poker during a period when major tournament fields have been shrinking.
The recent World Poker Tour Championship, for example, drew 545 entrants, a decline of nearly 15 percent from the field of 639 it attracted in 2007.
Last year’s World Series of Poker championship event drew 6,358 players, a decline of 27.5 percent from the previous year’s 8,773.
This year’s World Series main event, scheduled to begin July 3 at the Rio, figures to sustain another drop-off in the size of the field. World Series officials do not speculate on the number of entrants. Offshore sports books, which take bets on the size of the field, have not released the over/under yet but I’ll set it at 5,450.
The 16-week delay, culminating in a Nov. 11 ESPN broadcast of the final table less than 24 hours after it concludes, should succeed in creating buzz and building excitement and a sense of anticipation around the final nine participants — and ultimately, big-time tournament poker.
Yet judging by the purists’ reaction, you would have thought the final table was going to be played atop a giant tank of water with trap doors beneath every chair that would snap open each time a player was eliminated, sending him free-falling into the drink.
You would have thought the final nine players were going to (shudder) all live together in a house, engage in “colorful” interactions and settle their differences by challenging one another to fights in the octagon.
Instead, the World Series of Poker will remain a live competitive event first and a TV show second, Jeffrey Pollack, World Series commissioner, stressed in announcing the new format for 2008.
It’s significant that no moratorium or embargo on the results of the final table will be imposed on any media reporting on the tournament. If organizers ever did try that, the World Series of Poker would be doomed as an entity worthy of being taken any more seriously than, say, ESPN’s “Dream Job.”
Although I’m not so concerned about interrupting the flow or the purity of the event, I did come up with a couple of potential drawbacks to the new format.
One is the possibility that the finalists, the players we’ll be hearing so much about for 117 days thanks in part to the ESPN hype machine, will end up being nine boring men. (If one or more are women, by definition they won’t be boring. Only one woman, Barbara Enright in 1995, has reached the final table.)
It could be a disaster from a publicity standpoint if all nine are monosyllabic 20-somethings who got lucky as Internet qualifiers. The guy in Seat 6 plays 12 tables at once online! Oh yeah? Seat 7 plays 18 tables at once ... Zzzzzz.
If the past two final tables are an indication, however, at least half of the final qualifiers will bring intriguing story lines to the championship table. To wit, in 2006 and 2007 alone we had, among others:
• A humanitarian devoted to rescuing aging chimpanzees (Lee Watkinson).
• A native Laotian who spent years in a refugee camp in Thailand hiding out from communist soldiers in his youth (Jerry Yang).
• A Hollywood wheeler-dealer who dedicated his tournament to his dying father (Jamie Gold).
• One of the most accomplished young pros in the game (Allen Cunningham).
• An aspiring theoretical physicist with a doctorate in physics from Stanford (Michael Binger).
Granted, if half have compelling stories, the others could well be as dull and uninspiring as the menu at the Poker Kitchen at the Rio. If we’re really lucky, they might be able to articulate the nuances of playing ace-king from out of position.
The other potential drawback is that the World Series final table could become lost in the noise generated by the NFL and college football seasons, which figure to be peaking in November. Avoiding such a conflict was one reason for the traditional spring or summer scheduling of the World Series of Poker.
Here again, I see the positives outweighing the negatives. I’m high enough on poker in general and the World Series in particular to predict that in the ratings book as well as in the hearts and minds of America, the final table from Las Vegas will crush Ball State at Miami of Ohio, also penciled in for Nov. 11.