Battle Looms for TV Poker

Looks like war to me.

The new World Series of Poker circuit schedule for 2005-06, I'm talking about. The one that rocketed from five events last year to 12 now. The one where seven of Harrah's circuit stops conflict in some way with the World Poker Tour's schedule that has been out for a while.

Looks like war to me.

No. Wait. It has always seemed like war. A one-way war, anyway.

The WPT, see, has been the booster rocket that helped TV poker punch a hole in the sky. The WPT adapted the hole-card camera idea that is the lifeblood of the game's success because we can sit on our couches and know a secret that not even the best players in the world know.

The WPT brought other concepts to make the shows compelling - camera angles, graphics with lingo and pot sizes, poker-savvy Mike Sexton as a lead announcer who was giving poker lessons as he enthusiastically described play -- but the WPT's greatest accomplishment came in concert with the Travel Channel when it became a weekly show.

Must-see TV. Appointment television. Whatever you want to call it, the WPT and the Travel Channel made poker a habit.

But for all that the WPT brought, ESPN held the nuts: a bigger name just by being ESPN and the biggest name -- the World Series of Poker.

Whatever ESPN adapted from the WPT, whatever the WPT took from ESPN, I can't really tell you who did what first in every area. I just know that the WPT's broadcasts are more poker-centric, while ESPN's are more player-centric.

And I always sensed that the WPT seemed to resent ESPN. Understandable. When you are Steve Lipscomb and his group, and when you are trying to launch an idea that no one gave much hope of succeeding, and when you have created this wonderful show that gave life to the poker boom, then you're going to be protective of your baby and want all the credit you believe you deserve.

But while the WPT seemed to resent ESPN, ESPN seemed to simply go about doing what it had always done, not appearing to worry about competition, perhaps because when you own THE franchise you don't have that much competition.

So, for the last couple years, the WPT set its annual tour schedule and ESPN settled into Las Vegas for the World Series. But then Harrah's bought Binion's Horseshoe and the WSOP rights. And then Harrah's added circuit stop that climaxed with $10,000 buy-in main events. And then Harrah's leveraged those events for broadcast on ESPN to create a schedule that runs from mid-July to nearly the end of November.

And now Harrah's has made it 12 circuit stops, and it has done it around and on top of the WPT's schedule.

For instance, Harrah's has scheduled events at the Grand Casino in Tunica, Miss., from Aug. 11 through Aug. 25, which runs into the WPT's regular tournaments at the Bicycle Club in Los Angeles, but the Bike's main event starts Aug. 27.

The WSOP's stop at the Grand Casino in Biloxi, Miss., goes Sept. 29-Oct.12, while the WPT's Aruba event runs from Sept. 26 through Oct. 3.

You get the idea. There are conflicts of some sort - choices to be made by players - in January, February and March. In fact, both tours will be in Tunica with main events scheduled to end on the 26th.

So, what will this mean in the competition between the two biggest names in broadcast poker?

Perhaps changes in schedules that make it easier to pick one circuit over the other. Perhaps better room rates to make one tour more sensible financially. Perhaps more liberal rules on players wearing logos at the table as a way of attracting big names who can't maximize their endorsement dollars.

And what exactly does this mean for poker fans?

It means that your television probably will be filled with more players you've never heard of, but it also means you will have a great opportunity to be one of those players.

ESPN figures to add to its broadcast schedule, and the growing number of $10,000 buy-in main events means more chances to make more money.

What will be interesting is which places the big-name pros choose to go.

Will they play in events that they believe will be filled with more unknown players or will they follow other big names?

Will they make a decision based on blind structures? Many players believe the WSOP events give you more play through the final table than WPT events.

Will they pick events based on geography? All that travel can be expensive, but if you live in Vegas and budget money for tournaments in Nevada and California alone, you could still play in at least 10 big ones.

Each player will make decisions they believe will benefit them most, but just to get some insight on how that might go, here are some answers to those questions from Barry Greenstein, a man who makes his living in cash games and donates his tournament winnings to charity:

"Blind structure will have nothing to do with choosing. Degree of difficulty: For me, I would rather play with the bigger tournament names, since I know what they're capable of. Weak, unknown players are fun, but we have more seasoned unknown players coming out of the woodwork, as I alluded to in one of your earlier columns. ESPN provides better exposure than the Travel Channel, and proximity to one's home will be a factor for many of us, certainly me.

"I didn't play in any of the three $10,000 buy-in events since the World Series. I have to get back to work playing poker, since these tournaments have interfered with me making a living, and I lost the last week in Vegas after the final event.''

Steve Rosenbloom is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, writes a syndicated poker column for the Chicago Tribune, and is the author of the upcoming book "The Best Hand I Ever Played".