Friday, June 10, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Norman Chad doesn't understand why World Series of Poker players can't lighten up.
"I'm thinking, 'How is this not joyful? We're playing poker,'" said the longtime WSOP commentator and occasional tournament participant. "Sometimes, I offer to buy drinks for the table and I'll have no takers. I can't believe that."
To the benefit of the viewers who've watched him during the event, Chad doesn't check his fun-loving attitude when he enters the broadcast booth. Known for his laid-back, self-deprecating on-air humor that includes jokes about his ex-wives, Chad helped fuel a boom in poker when he surged onto the poker scene with ESPN's inaugural coverage of the 2003 WSOP main event championship.
He's been going strong ever since, and he's back in Vegas this year to broadcast to millions of viewers across the world.
Chad says his signature on-air persona comes naturally from his "self-deprecating and self-effacing” personality. A former sports copy editor who still writes a column for the Washington Post, Chad enjoys playing in four to five annual pre-main event tournaments himself, and finding “needles in the haystack" among the 7,000-plus main event participants who come from around the world.
He sat down with the Sun to chat more about this year’s upcoming World Series, his on-air persona and the direction of the once-surging poker industry.
Have you ever been close to winning a bracelet?
Actually, I never even thought I would cash. In World Series events, only the top 10 percent of players in a tournament cash, or make money. I’ve played in over 30 events, and didn’t cash in my first 12. I’ve cashed four times in total, and once I made a final table.
You cashed on your 13th event, then?
Yeah, I think it was for 35th or 40th place out of 400, and I couldn’t believe how good it felt. I thought I never really cared, because I don’t really play poker. I barely crawled over the line to cash, I had very few chips left. But when I cashed, when I got to the money, I couldn’t believe how ecstatic I felt. It has been downhill since then (laughs).
This year they changed it — it’s going to be 15 percent of each field in the cash. But in the past, nine out of 10 people walked away losers.
When did you start playing poker?
I played socially through college, you know, wild-card games. Nothing noble. Nobody really played (Texas) Hold ‘em at the time.
How has the World Series grown since ESPN started broadcasting in 2003?
Not that many people were playing poker until Chris Moneymaker’s run in 2003. We had what we called the TV poker boom, and everybody started playing Hold ‘em.
Before that, there was a smaller boom when the movie "Rounders" came out in the late 1990s. It was a pretty good movie, it had Matt Damon, and that created more interest in poker. But the boom as we know it today began in 2003, which is when Chris Moneymaker won. It wasn’t just ESPN’s first year on TV, but also the World Poker Tour’s first year on TV, on the Travel Channel. That was coincidental. Online poker had just started to get bigger, that was a huge deal. So the combination of all of those together created the poker boom that has pretty much lasted. It has flattened out, but it has lasted.
We had our biggest field in 2006, with over 8,000 entries, when Jamie Gold won the main event. But in the years after that, Black Friday, the shutdown of online poker sites in the U.S., really set the industry back. It has since flattened out.
Do you think the recession had anything to do with that?
The recession might have had some impact, but gambling in general, most of the time is recession free. I don’t know where people keep finding the money in bad times, but they do. The online poker shutdown was the biggest factor in flattening the poker boom.
Online poker still hasn’t come back on a national level. Only three states: Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware, allow it now. But you have to be in that state to play there, it’s a very small pool. The great thing about online before is you could play 24 hours a day or night, because it was worldwide and there were always a huge amount of people playing games. It’s not just the state of Nevada, where you’ll only have 100 or 200 people playing online at a time. Before, it was literally tens of thousands of people around the world. It’s not going to work just state-by-state. Right now Nevada and New Jersey are talking about having a state-to-state pact where players the two states can play together to increase the pool. Because the pools are too small.
With the loss of online poker in the U.S., poker plateaued. The key to TV, ESPN used to re-run the World Series episodes literally hundreds of times a year. The reason they could do that is because the online poker sites, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, would advertise. So they would advertise on that, all of the time. Once the online poker was shut down, ESPN lost that advertising money, so they don’t air it nearly as much anymore. So it has plateaued. The ratings are lower than they were 10 years ago, but they’ve flattened out and stayed the same the past few years.
So since 2010 or 2011, popularity has stayed the same?
Yeah, pretty much. It went down from its height in 2005 to 2008, and the last five years, it has pretty much stayed the same. One way the World Series is trying to bring interest to it is the November Nine. The whole thing used to take place in July. Now, they play out the taped episodes until the beginning of November and do the final table live in the Penn and Teller Theater (at the Rio). It has been a good pick-me-up for the ratings.
You’re known for your quirky personality and being candid on air. Is that just how you are?
It comes naturally, it doesn’t take anything extra for me to do it. Because I’m naturally self-deprecating and self-effacing. And when you look at the roadmap of my personal and professional careers, I have reason to be self-deprecating, because there have been a lot of failures. So I always think it’s good to laugh at yourself, and particularly, when you’re doing this type of job, I do think that you wear better on people if you’re able to make fun of yourself. You’re not the smartest guy in the room, you’re not arrogant, you’re not smug, you’re actually going to make fun of yourself. I have been married several times, I have had a lot of personal and professional failure. It comes easily and I’m glad people appreciate it. I don’t want to get in the way of the telecast, just to entertain.
As someone who’s synonymous with the ESPN broadcast that has contributed to this poker boom, do you think you’re in part responsible for helping make the game so popular?
I hope I didn’t hurt it, but I’ve always said Lon (McEachern, an ESPN broadcast colleague) and I were always passengers in the getaway car when this thing took off and I really believe that. The first production company that created how the broadcast looked on ESPN, those guys always give me much more credit than I deserve. They say I’m the hidden gem, and I think that’s 100 percent incorrect. I think you can take two of the three Pep Boys, just put them in the booth and the poker boom was going to happen. We just happened to be there and we didn’t foul it up.
What do you enjoy most about broadcasting the World Series?
One thing we used to show that we don’t show anymore are the events leading up to the Main Event.
The fields are so large, that for a lot of these people it’s the only time these people will ever be on TV. It’s a big deal for them. It’s great to find out their stories and different backgrounds. So I miss those bracelet events that we don’t show anymore. Because we always have a handful of people, half of them are at the final table for the first time, all of them are on TV for the first time. I love meeting them.
Hopefully, when we come down to the end you’re not just going to have nine anonymous 21-year-old internet pros, which you can because they’re all so good. You can’t help but love people like the logger from Maryland who’s making his first trip to Vegas or the retired tech guy from San Francisco with the floppy hat, and the 75-year-old toy manufacturer from Belgium. The list goes on. I love seeing those people come through. They’re fun to watch, and it’s good to know we’re going to have a few of those people come through.
We had a guy come through a few years ago, Darvin Moon. He walked out of the woods of Maryland, he’s a logger. He said he’s never coming back to Las Vegas, and he finished second. He came from central casting somewhere. He came out of the woods and went back into the woods.
Do other players approach you on the gaming floor and the poker table?
I’m usually recognized, but apparently I don’t come across as approachable. The only place I get recognized is at a poker table. I’ve always found tournaments feel more like a funeral home. People are always kind of tense, and it’s up to me to loosen them up. I’m going to CVS to buy Starburst. When I start asking people if they want Starburst and I toss them around the table, it’s like giving them Dom Perignon, it loosens everybody up. People loosen up and then we have a better time. But at World Series Events, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of joy. I’m thinking, "How is this not joyful? We’re playing poker.” I always tell people to loosen up. Sometimes I offer to buy drinks for the table and I’ll have no takers. I can’t believe it. Please, somebody order a beer!
You called a couple years of the World Series at Binion’s, before it moved to the Rio. Any memories?
Right, the first two years was at Binion’s. I’m glad we got two years of it, at least. But it could not have sustained the poker boom. They didn’t have enough seats for 800 players when that’s all we had. Now 7,000 players, are you kidding me? But that was so much fun to play there. Downtown just has so much more character. The Rio is a great physical facility for it, now, the convention floors are humongous, but it feels corporate, it feels sterile. Binion’s felt like somebody was going to come in and shoot you. It just had a feel of old, Wild Wild West gambling. It spills onto the street, it’s never closed. It was just that old Las Vegas feel.