It was some time around the 2005 World Series of Poker that people started asking what "the next poker" would be en masse. Some said blackjack, some backgammon, but industry insiders would point out that the world hadn't even been exposed to the original poker yet. They were right.
Texas hold 'em has been played in some shape or form since at least the 1920s, but the game as we know it today wasn't formalized until some 40 years later. In settings like the WSOP and major casinos, it was the game of choice because it was easy to rake and adjudicate over, but home-game players across the US --some 55 million in number even before the Moneymaker boom-- were more likely to know wild-card games like "black Chicago" and "iron cross" than they were "the Cadillac of poker."
The rounders of old, more beggars than choosers as finding good games went, understood that to eke out a living, they needed to be prepared to play whatever the house was spreading. They also understood that, if you got too strong a reputation for a single game, folks weren't likely to play it against you for much money unless compromises were made. The compromises, more often than not, came in the form of a diverse spread of games designed to test the complete skill set of the competitive poker player.
It's funny how history repeats itself.
The world learned hold 'em and then flocked to Vegas. 2,576 in the 2004 WSOP, 5,619 in 2005. Suddenly, the same main event that had once been looked upon as the family reunion that crowned a deserving world champion was becoming a crap shoot. The stars of the game were outnumbered and their chances of making the final table were becoming too narrow to be acceptable. The old school wanted the old game back. The corporate World Series gave it to them.
After the 2005 event, Harrah's gave the players a voice. The Players Advisory Committee included stalwarts Daniel Negreanu, Jesus Ferguson, Howard Lederer and Annie Duke, and as much as they were reaping the rewards of the game's growth, they recognized something needed to be done to preserve the natural order of things. A means needed to be created to feature the stars and the games they'd always played.
Eight or better, seven-card stud
Five games incorporated into one format with a buy-in so large that only the true professionals would stake their claims. "This," they would say "will find us a players' champion." Some would argue that it reeked of elitism, but none could question the skill involved with the format especially when the results came in.
When the dust settled on the 2006 $50,000 HORSE event's penultimate day, the players left standing were universally considered the greatest collection of poker talent to grace one table in WSOP history. Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Phil Ivey, T.J. Cloutier, Dewey Tomko, Jim Bechtel, Andy Bloch, David Singer and Patrik Antonius. That list still sends shivers up my spine.
In the end, it was Reese who emerged victorious. It was a result that proved incredibly satisfying for a community longing for a superstar champion, but not everyone was sated. The final table used no-limit Texas hold 'em in the hopes of making the event more accessible to the public. In 2007, in a decision that proved incredibly satisfying for any former critics of the event, the WSOP and ESPN decided to make the public more accessible to the event.
Tuesday night will see first of three weeks worth of HORSE, the coverage picking up with 52 players remaining from what was originally a 148 player field. When we get to the final table on Oct. 30, the game won't change; it will be the stars of the game playing the toughest poker there is. We're talking about a tournament so tough that Joe Hachem opted not to play solely because he felt it wouldn't be a profitable venture.
By the time tomorrow night is done, another 31 will be gone. As per usual, I'm not going to tell you who they'll be, but I can tell you you're going to see Reese try to defend his title. You'll see Bloch try to prove he was no fluke a year ago. You'll see 11-time hold'em bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth try to prove wrong those who say that's the only game he can play at a world-class level. That's only the tip of the iceberg.
As spectacular as the poker is, it's the programming that should prove revolutionary. If you've been looking for razz or stud on television before now, you've counted your successes on one hand. If you've looked for high/low games, there haven't been successes to count.
If you don't know the games, you're in the majority, and the producers have accounted for your education. A new, color-coded graphic display is going to give us the math on both halves of the high/low pot. The games will be explained. After four years of watching and learning and breathing, eating and drinking hold 'em, it's time for something new. The world once watched these shows and learned hold 'em from their example. Now, they're going to have their horizons broadened.
Welcome to the next poker. Same as the old poker.
Gary Wise covered the WSOP for worldseriesofpoker.com. You can hear him on his podcast, Wise Hand Poker, Wednesday nights at 8 ET at www.roundersradio.com.