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Addressing the Poker Purists

by Matt Lessinger |  Published: Dec 28, 2011

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Matt LessingerIn case anyone has been living in a poker cave for the past month, Pius Heinz became the WSOP main event champion at a final table with a brand new televised format. The most significant changes were:

1. The coverage was on a fifteen minute delay, rather than being shown two days after the fact, so it was practically live. This change was long overdue. In years past, how could any poker fan living in the Internet age avoid hearing about who won before the TV coverage aired? They probably even heard about some of the most pivotal hands, which made watching the final table extremely anti-climactic. This year, we were all equally in suspense, and you could practically feel the tension through the TV.

2. Every hand was televised, not just the highlights. Another long overdue change. In 2008, Peter Eastgate and Ivan Demidov played over 100 hands of tremendous heads-up poker by all accounts. But thanks to ESPN, I believe we saw only two or three of those hands. That was an absolute travesty. It was riveting to watch Pius Heinz and Martin Staszko duke it out essentially in real time. If we had seen only a fraction of their heads-up play, I think a lot of us would have felt cheated.

3. At the conclusion of every hand the participants’ hole cards were shown. This was clearly the most significant change, since it forever altered the dynamic of the final table. Between hands, the players were able to go to their friends in the stands, who were watching the televised feed, and find out fifteen minutes after the fact what their opponents had in key hands. It was an unprecedented availability of information to live tournament players, and it had an obvious effect on everyone’s strategy.

At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I don’t consider myself resistant to change, but it felt strange for players to know what their opponents had in previous hands that weren’t shown down. After all, part of the formula for successful poker is to show down as few hands as possible so that your opponents can’t get a read on your play. But in this case, if a player made a big laydown, he would not have to sit there for long and question whether he made the right play. He could wait a few minutes, find out, and adjust his strategy accordingly. So again, with all these things in mind, I had to wonder whether or not it was a good idea.

After having watched the entire final table, and being glued to the screen the entire time, I have to admit that I loved it. Overall the quality of play was superb, possibly the best that there’s ever been at a WSOP main event final table. Players were making adjustments, mixing up their game, and the bottom line is that everyone played like they belonged there. It felt like no-limit hold’em the way it was meant to be played.
Clearly, not everyone felt the same as I did. I’ve had conversations with several fellow players who I would classify as purists, who felt that the integrity of the final table was compromised in some way. In so many words, they thought that it was not truly poker if you could find out what your opponents had in previous uncalled hands.

My response towards them is simple: Poker hasn’t truly been the same game since 1998, when online poker was first launched. At that point, it became a game that looks like poker and has many of the same rules, but is simply not the same. I’m not saying that as a complaint of any sort; I’m one of the few people I know who gravitated to online poker immediately after its inception. I still remember having two tables open on Paradise Poker and marveling at how cool that was. But that in itself was an example of how you could not call it poker anymore. After all, I don’t know a single live casino or cardroom that will let you play in two games at once.

Over the past thirteen years, the differences between online poker and what has traditionally been known as “poker” have gotten more and more significant. Some of the world’s most successful players can navigate a dozen tables or more at once, and their poker-playing ability might not even be the biggest key to their success. Instead it is their ability to multi-task, while making optimal use of tracking software, statistical programs, and other online tools. In many ways online poker plays more like a video game than a card game; it just happens to be played with cards, or in this case, the visual representation of cards.

My point is that if you’re a purist who is complaining about what constitutes “poker,” your complaint should have come a long time ago. This year’s final table was just part of the natural progression that has been happening for years, and it should probably have come even sooner. For example, I don’t know any online multi-tablers who are personally witnessing every hand that takes place between their opponents and then noting what they had. They let software do that for them, and then make the best possible use of that information. At the WSOP final table, the friends in the stands were basically acting as the software, giving the players information which they could then process and use to the best of their abilities. And whoever was making the best use of that information had an advantage, just as they would online.

I feel like the purists might be losing sight of the bigger picture, which is how tremendously viewer-friendly, riveting, and enjoyable this year’s final table broadcast was, and the increased ratings as compared to years past only confirms that. Poker is constantly evolving in every way, so I’m thankful that the coverage and format of the main event are evolving as well.

Fifty years ago, poker wasn’t poker without smoking, marking cards, and perhaps bringing a gun to the game. I think we’re doing just fine without any of that. Fifty years from now, we will barely recognize poker the way it’s being played today, and that’s the way it should be. Hopefully the purists can bring themselves to accept the inevitable changes that will always be part of the world of poker. ♠

Matt Lessinger is the author of The Book of Bluffs: How to Bluff and Win at Poker, available everywhere. You can find Matt’s other articles at www.cardplayer.com.