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October 15, 2018

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WSOP: Finishing what they started

$25 million up for grabs on poker’s biggest stage

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Steve Marcus

Ten players compete for a place at the final table during the WSOP Main Event at the Rio on July 18. The November Nine starts on Sunday.

2016 WSOP Final Table is Determined

Members of the November Nine pose after the final table is determined for the World Series of Poker Main Event, just after midnight on Tuesday, July 19, 2016. Jerry Wong, Griffin Benger, Vojtech Ruzicka, Fernando Pons, Qui Nguyen, Cliff Josephy, Michael Ruane, Gordon Vayo and Kenny Hallaert. Launch slideshow »

The November Nine gets underway on Sunday, even though November doesn’t start until Tuesday, at which point only three players will remain in the World Series of Poker’s main event. A shameless affront to accurate alliteration, it’s the second time the WSOP has shifted its schedule because of a presidential election.

The last nine players in the WSOP’s Main Event, which started in July with a field of 6,737 buying in for $10,000 each and ran for two weeks to get to this point, return to the Rio after a hiatus of more than 100 days.

The players will compete for their share of remaining prize money — more than $25 million. All will get at least $1 million, with the winner banking $8 million in prize money. The champ will also get a monstrous diamond-encrusted bracelet to be held up for a banner portrait that will hang larger-than-life among portraits of 46 previous winners in the Rio.

“It’s live and in prime time. It’s always the highest-rated show of the season for us,” said Seth Palansky, vice president of corporate communications for Caesars Interactive Entertainment, of the live show that follows two months of edited weekly edited broadcasts. “This is poker’s championship, and we’re essentially taking over ESPN in prime time for three days.”

Some players have questioned the utility of the delay to November pretty much since it began. With election years showing the dates are movable, some are wondering what will become of the extended lag time once the partnership deal between the WSOP and ESPN that gave birth to the November Nine expires after next year’s event.

WSOP officials, however, see little reason to go back to a day when there was no extended break. What begins as a poker tournament in July gets transformed into a reality television series in August through October on ESPN, which all culminates in a live finale.

“It started because it simply made good TV,” said Palansky, crediting ESPN and Poker PROductions as partners. “And we’ve extended that to so much more.”

The November Nine concept was created in 2008 with the idea of giving players a break that would allow them to use the delay for promotional efforts and to lock down sponsorship deals.

While some of that does still occur, this was envisioned in a day when online poker sites were still clamoring to put their patches on just about anyone who might cross paths with a camera and the leading social media site was MySpace.

But now the November Nine has become more of an event itself, creating a global promotional opportunity that combines live gaming action with a huge television audience.

This year’s November Nine includes five Americans and one player each from Czechia, Spain, Belgium and Canada.

“We have probably 1,000 people who come as friends and family from all over the country, all over the world,” Palansky said. “They become part of the event as they’re there rooting on their combatants. We make a long weekend of it and poker becomes a spectator sport, really for the first time. If we played through to the next day, none of that would happen.”

But does a delay change the action? There are two delays relevant to the November Nine. The first is the extended break before players return to the table.

How players have prepared for that varies, Palansky said. Some have hired well-known pros as coaches, others have assembled teams to run statistical models of hands and chip-stack situations. “For some, their preparation is physical — working on their eating habits, their sleeping habits or exercise,” he said. “We’ve seen it run the gamut.”

The second relevant delay that changes the game is the one that allows broadcasting of live hole cards -- or “plausibly live,” as ESPN likes to call it. It took a few years for the WSOP, ESPN and the Nevada Gaming Control Board to agree to show all hole cards at the final table on a 30-minute delay. That standard means that every time a player runs a bluff, for example, the rest of the table will know some 30 minutes later.

“Everybody does it a little different, but they all have the same access to the same information, whether or not they have formal coaches or support crews,” Palansky said.

Although TV viewership has decreased from the tournament’s heyday, the WSOP on ESPN still draws a respectable showing, with the November Nine its culmination. In 2015, 5.5 million people tuned in for at least part of the broadcast. And after a few years of declining interest, the last two years have shown the TV audience numbers growing slightly.

With an uptick for November Nine viewing from 2014 to 2015, the preliminary recorded shows are also showing a slight increase in audience size — with the audience growing 2 percent, from 314,000 to 321,000, according to ESPN.

Lest anyone think that moving the 2016 November Nine was more for ratings than good corporate citizenry of protecting American democracy, this year will provide some of the toughest television competition the WSOP has ever faced.

The poker action will be up against Sunday Night Football, NBA and NHL games, and for the first time, the World Series, with Game 5 between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians.

Palansky says that the partnership between the WSOP and ESPN is one that has worked, and one that has matured. “We believe in the November Nine concept and so does ESPN, and that’s why it continues,” he says.

“Maybe you can argue about should it be 103 days or 109 days, or why not 42 days,” Palansky said, adding the WSOP would consider suggestions from ESPN. “But the players have accepted it. These players are here to make the November Nine. That’s their focus all summer. They know what’s in store.”

And that doesn’t matter what month it starts.

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