By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

Poker TV history was made Wednesday night with Fox Sports Net's live broadcast of the final table of a $10,000 buy-in hold 'em tournament from the Turning Stone Casino in upstate New York.

Conventional wisdom during the era of TV poker -- all two years of it -- has been that this would be a mistake, for the following valid reasons:

  • Too many boring and non-competitive hands, most of which are edited out in the ESPN broadcasts of the World Series of Poker and the Travel Channel's broadcasts of the World Poker Tour.

  • No control of the length of the show, unlike the ESPN broadcasts, which are edited to an hour, and the WPT shows, which are two hours long. This is a problem for two reasons: 1.) keeping an audience interested for as long as eight hours (or, possibly, even longer); and 2.) selling advertising for a show of unspecified length and dubious audience interest.

  • No chance to create interesting, audience-involving characters through mini-interviews and even the occasional mini-documentary, both staples of the ESPN and Travel Channel broadcasts.

    Despite these barriers to good TV -- and there were, in fact, many boring and non-competitive hands ... the show went on for almost eight hours ... and there were no interviews with or documentaries about the combatants -- to this viewer, the show was a surprising and fascinating success.

    First of all, it was much more like the actual experience of tournament players, which, if you last long enough, always includes many mind-numbing hours of fold ... fold ... fold. In that sense, the difference between the FSN broadcast and traditional poker shows is like the difference between an actual sporting event and a documentary about a sporting event.

    Second of all, there was a lot more suspense. The winners had not already been revealed in various publications and on various websites. As one faithful reader -- Adam of State College, Pennsylvania -- wrote:

    "When (Phil) Ivey went all-in and caught the 8, it was -- and I realize I am a poker-aholic when I say this -- just like watching an overtime field goal attempt in the NFL. That was true drama because it was 8:15 and live, so you didn't know if that was the end or not, as apposed to edited telecasts where when it is 9:58, you know it is the final hand."

    Most important, thanks to the brilliant and insightful commentary by Howard "The Professor" Lederer, one of the best players in the world, the entire show was a master class in top-level professional poker. You couldn't have had more of a chance to upgrade your game if Lederer came to your house and tutored you for eight hours.

    Until Lederer came along, the role of TV poker color man invariably went to a mythmaker, as best exemplified by Vince Van Patten on the WPT and Norman Chad on World Series of Poker broadcasts. Van Patten's style is strictly Hollywood Pom-Pom, where everybody who makes a final table at the WPT is "great" and every winning play is an act of pure poker genius. Chad is more of a post-modern ironist, given to myth-making metaphors like, "Dan Harrington is also a great backgammon player. So, basically, if he sits down at your table to play any game, you want to jump up and leave."

    Lederer's "lessons" were both specific and general. An excellent example of the former:

    In a key showdown hand between the last two players -- Phil Ivey, whom many observers believe is now the best in the world, and an unknown 21-year-old from the poker backwater of Seymour, Connecticut, named John D'Agostino -- Ivey was dealt an unsuited A-2 and D'Agostino an unsuited 9-6. Because Ivey played his hand cautiously, D'Agostino was able to see an inexpensive flop, which hit him almost perfectly -- 9-9-x.

    As Lederer explained it, D'Agostino's task here was to milk whatever he could out of Ivey, which is easier said than done since Ivey possesses the instincts of a psychic. Before D'Agostino bet, Lederer suggested that a small but enticing bet of about half the pot would probably do the trick, since that size bet might intrigue Ivey instead of scaring him off. This, of course, was exactly what happened. And when a deuce came on the turn, Ivey was hooked for a couple more half-pot-sized bets -- enough money by the end of the hand to give D'Agostino the chip lead.

    Throughout, Lederer provided a roadmap for how top pros like Ivey think about the game. During one hand, for example, D'Agostino bet a powerhouse a little too quickly, and Lederer pointed out how -- and why -- Ivey had picked up on that. Sure enough, after thinking about the hand for a few moments, Ivey laid down a pretty strong hand of his own and saved himself a lot of money.

    Lederer also revealed many of the other subtle gifts that make Ivey the great player he is, like his ability to constantly change pace and confuse D'Agostino.

    Still, despite Ivey's obvious advantages, D'Agostino kept the head-to-head showdown extremely close for almost two hours, on one occasion even putting Ivey all-in when Ivey was at a small statistical disadvantage. D'Agostino had 7-7 and Ivey A-8 unsuited before the flop, making D'Agostino something like a 54-percent-to-46 percent favorite. However, an 8 came on the flop -- as well as another 8 on the river -- and Ivey lived to win the title and the $500,000 top prize that went with it.

    The result? An exciting and enlightening broadcast.

    I'm not sure what the ratings were or whether Fox made money on this groundbreaking show, two factors which could affect whether that network or anybody else will try another live telecast in the future.

    But if Howard Lederer is there to provide color, here's hoping.

    Mystery solved ... perhaps
    On Friday, I printed a "Letter of the Week," which wondered about the long white hairs that seemed to be dangling from Men the Master's ears in an ESPN broadcast from the 2004 World Series of Poker.

    Several readers e-mailed explanations, including Bing of Edison, New Jersey, who wrote:

    "I think those hairs are growing from a mole on the side of Men's face. I grew up in the U.S., but my Chinese mom tells me that Asians believe letting hairs grow from moles without trimming them gives you good luck. Strange but true?"

    Last week: DNP (did not play)

    CTD (career-to-date): plus $7,750

    Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for and also writing a book for HarperCollins. You can watch the 2004 World Series of Poker Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.

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