Here are two thoughts for you as we enter this hot Summer weekend.
This past Wednesday was the fulltiltpoket.net championship. The 1-day event featured 23 of the best players putting in a $20,000 entry fee, with the winner pocketing $250,000. What made this special was that the event was live, so anything could happen at any time. The event was also slated for 4 hours, but since poker is an 'all-in' sort of sport where a match can end at any time, the match could have lasted for only 30 minutes, which would have meant that a lot of tap-dancing was needed.
Of course, FOX sports and Fulltiltpoker.net added stops to make sure that the event didn't finish in 30 minutes. The first one - and most important one - was that the first person at the table won nothing and the second person out won $11,000, which was only a little more than half of what they put in. Those rules guaranteed to see the players feeling each other out until the end, and even that was slow - the event ran a good 15 minutes over the 4 hour time limit, which meant that the second guarantee that the event would last for more than 4 hours - a match between Howard Lederer and a player of the audience's choosing (which turned out to be Daniel Negreanu), was to be played after the cameras turned off and was to be aired at a later date (and yes, I know who won that, but we'll wait for the show to be aired so it can be recapped). I also won't reveal who the tournament winner is (wait for the recap, which will be coming), but I will say that for a 4 hour plus live event, it certainly didn't feel like it. The time flew by and I didn't realize that we were at the 4 hour limit until Jason Block immed me to remind me about the Game Show Congress meeting (by the way, you are all going to the Game Show Congress, right? Don't forget to register at www.gameshowcongress.com - FREE PLUG!)
Though this isn't the first live telecast that has been aired, this is potentially a ground-breaking one. The last time a live show was aired, the idea was a novelty. This time around, the idea could be perceived as more of a test balloon to answer this question - is the general public ready to see a national poker majors event live in it's entirety? If the ratings dictate yes, then this won't be the last time that we see this sort of event airing.
With CBS purchasing the ProJo series, each major network now either has a major poker property or has a sister station with a major poker property. NBC has the World Poker Tour on The Travel Channel, while ABC has the World Series of Poker on ESPN and FOX has the Poker Superstars Invitational and fulltiltpoker.net on FOX Sports Net.
The thought of the American people getting behind in mass numbers to watch a live poker event isn't as far-fetched as you may think. How big are the Olympics, ratings-wise? Huge, as networks make sure to not stick any major programming against it. Let's take a look at American's viewing habits. We love the Olympics and/or any major sporting competition. We have shown that we can watch events for hours at a time (The Super Bowl) and we have also shown that we will watch consecutive live sporting events for a given time (The Winter and Summer Olympics). With no major sports except baseball going on in the Summer, there is only 1 other major event that happens from late June to late July - the World Series of Poker. Add the fact that the poker shows are the highest rated shows on each of the preceding networks (and on both ESPN and the Travel Channel, the ratings are more than double the second most popular show, according to the New York Times), the thought is almost obvious - why not a span of live events?
I have absolutely nothing to base this on, but I predict one of the networks will pull the trigger and give us just that. The most obvious choice would be a live telecast of the final table of each World Series of Poker event. If you could stick those telecasts on ESPN 2, then you could save baseball for ESPN, and the deuce's ratings would go through the roof. That solves your prime time fixings for the Summer and you would get the masses of those elusive 18-49 male demographics to glue their eyeballs on to the action, where you can see the real drama of someone's life savings turn on a single card. Could you imagine the ratings if the final table of the Main Event went live on ESPN on Friday, July 15th? Could you imaging the number of guys who would take the day off just to watch? I know I would seriously consider it. If you posted it on a Sunday, then that could be your Summer 'super Bowl', where guys get together for hours to watch these guys compete for a 7.5 million dollar payday.
If ESPN doesn't step up to the plate, then CBS, NBC or FOX, with their outlet of cable channels, could. If you didn't want to compete against the WSOP, then a 2 week stretch in mid-February after the Super Bowl but before the NCAA Conference Tournaments could also fill the trick, as there is not much going on. Sure, you have basketball and hockey, but until the post-season rolls around, who pays attention to that?
Regardless, a weekly live televised poker tournament or a series of live tournaments spanning over a specific time frame is going to be a matter of not if, but of when. I'm sure this past Wednesday, some network executive was taking notes. We'll be finding out soon enough if they liked what they saw.
The jury is still out on whether we have Ken Jennings' heir-apparent, but David Madden is ripping up his opposition. As of this writing, he is well over 6 digits and if he ends the season as the champ, is in position to be at around the $300,000 level when he does so. Should he be successful, then he would be second in total regular season winnings, with only Jennings himself in front of him.
What impresses me the most about him is that from a strategic point of view, Madden plays the game better than Jennings. Before you all accuse me of blasphemy, let's look at their styles. Jennings' approach is to out-buzzer you and eventually blow you out of the water with his vast wealth of knowledge. That works great against regular competition, but when matched up against Tournament of Champion caliber quality contestants, he needed to have something more in the tank, and he didn't, hence getting steamrolled by eventual Ultimate Tournament Champion Brad Rutter. Here's where Madden outshines Jennings - he has a specific plan, and uses it in each match that he's in.
When we start the show, Madden immediately goes Daily Double hunting. It's easy to see why - he wants to force the players to out-play him, instead of getting lucky with a Daily Double at the end of a round and putting them in range to either surpass him in Double Jeopardy or to defeat him in Final Jeopardy. It's a very smart move that forces the players to come get him, and it's a move that also adds to the intimidation of trying to knock him off of his perch.
There are 2 strategies that he plays extremely well in Double Jeopardy. In the Double Jeopardy rounds themselves, when he finds the Daily Doubles, he doesn't bet $1,000 or $2,000 on a whim - every bet that he has made has been calculated. He has bet $5 when he doesn't want to open the door to $6,000 when he wants to put an opponent away. He takes no prisoners and he doesn't let anyone stick around when he can make the Final Jeopardy a moot point.
The second strategy is the 'Board Hopping' aka 'Chuck Forrest' model of playing. By selecting a different category for each consecutive turn on the board, you are not letting contestants get into a rhythm of answering questions, and you are also forcing them to play topics without necessarily remembering the category, which often leads to mistakes by Madden's opponents. There have been a number of times where opponents have been ruled incorrect because they responded with an answer that was not in the style of the category, and at least twice during Madden's run, late blunders by people trying to catch Madden have resulted in them falling out of range come Final Jeopardy. This is the play of someone who has not only studied the history of Jeopardy, but who has mastered it and is looking to make some history of their own.
Is David Madden the best Jeopardy player ever? The jury is still out on that and we may not know this until November or December, but one thing is for certain - this is the best 'player' that we have seen in years. It is for these reasons that I am more excited about his run than Ken Jennings' run. This is truly 'Must See-TV', because we are watching someone who is not only smart and quick, but who realizes the facets of the game and who implements them for his advantage. Only time will tell if Madden is the best, but the comparisons of the style of Madden to the style of Jennings and Rutter may come sooner than you think.
In the spirit of plugging, Gordon would also love David Madden to attend the Game Show Congress in August. Any David Madden fans can e-mail Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org