With the dramatic reduction in the number of events ESPN chose to cover this year, it was a bit surprising to find that one of the ones that made the cut was not a bracelet event at all, but the Ante Up for Africa charity tourney. On one hand, the decision was quite understandable, because the number of celebrities that participated in the event added an aura of glitz to the telecast that attracts more casual viewers. However, it was disappointing from a poker player’s point-of-view, as the level of play in a charity event, even among the pros, tends not to be nearly as high as in a full-fledged WSOP tournament. Here’s how the telecast played out.
The opening montage made it clear that the focus of this week’s telecast was going to be on the personalities, not the pros. They showed shots of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Alexander, Sarah Silverman, Brad Garrett, Nelly, Charles Barkley, and Herschel Walker, as well as the co-hosts for the event, Don Cheadle and Annie Duke, who did make the requisite, “Thank God Joan Rivers isn’t here!” comment during the telecast.
The first hour focused on the hijinks of the celebrities, as we saw Herschel Walker try and call time out during a hand, Charles Barkley not raise enough for a legitimate bet, and Brad Garret offer to go home with Jen Tilly after she was knocked out. “Phil won’t even know I’m there. I’m quiet as a church mouse,” cracked the comedian, who has come off as a very funny man during the past few seasons of WSOP coverage, but tonight seemed more manic than humorous.
Some of Norman Chad’s best lines were reserved for Ben Affleck. “That’s a worse flop for Affleck than Gigli!” said the color commentator, during one hand for the actor. He even got a shot in at Affleck through his best friend, Matt Damon. When Damon flopped a full house with 10-6 offsuit, and hemmed and hawed before checking, Chad commented, “That’s as bad an acting job as Ben Affleck in Jersey Girl!”
Despite the purpose of the event being to raise money and awareness for the situation in Darfur, only one small segment was devoted to the issue, a very brief interview with Duke and Cheadle, in which they spoke of having raised over two million dollars for the cause, and having tried to create a platform for educating the public about the genocide that has taken place there. Although they are clearly sincere about the poker community wanting to be part of helping solve a huge problem, ESPN showed no particular interest in helping bring the story further into the light. Instead, they ignored the purpose of the evening in exchange for Hollywood laughs around the table.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the evening was the interaction between Matt Damon and Erik Seidel at the table. If you remember, one of the crucial scenes in Rounders involved Damon’s character watching Johnny Chan finish off Seidel after flopping the nut straight against Seidel’s top pair, which he used to eventually trap Teddy KGB at the end of the movie. Although Seidel has won 8 WSOP bracelets, he may be even better known for being, as was said on the telecast, “the poster boy for losing at poker.” With Damon and Seidel sitting side-by-side, there was quite a bit of banter between the two of them, until Seidel flopped an ace, and Damon went all-in with just a pair of tens. After Damon was eliminated, Annie Duke walked up to the table and asked Seidel if that was the make-up for Rounders. Seidel, as always the gentleman, just laughed.
Despite all the attention on the Hollywood and sports personalities, the final table of nine was composed of all professionals, with 18 total bracelets spread among the players, who included Jen Harman, Chris Ferguson, Seidel, Johnny “World” Hennigan (the defending champion in the event), and Rafe Furst, plus non-bracelet winners Phil Gordon, Adam Richardson, Matt Kay and Alex Bolotin. Unfortunately, the blind format for the tournament turned the final table into an all-in festival worse than any of the old WPT blind structures.
Almost from the beginning of the final table “action,” players were all-in in the blinds, which completely eliminated any post-flop play whatsoever. Chad even commented at one point that the game was supposed to be poker, but it had just turned into the big wheel at a carnival, where you just spin the wheel and see whose number comes up. He also moaned that if people were learning how to play poker on television, they would now play even worse! Yes, it was that sort of final half-hour for ESPN, and to make matters worse for them, all of the big-name pros went out earliest, leaving Seidel, Furst, Richardson, and Bolotin left in the game. Before one hand, Furst suggested that everyone just go all-in and be done with it (talk about a comment on the quality of the game), but he wound up the only folded hand when Seidel, Richardson, and Bolotin went all-in pre-flop, Seidel with A-2, Richardson with Q-7 and Bolotin with 7-3 (about average for the hands that were played at the end of the show).
Seidel spiked two pair on the 2-A-5 flop (with two clubs). However, Bolotin made his inside straight when the hit on the turn. But Richardson was the only player with a club, and the on the river gave him the nut flush and the pot. So what we had was a hand that could have come out of a free play game on a .net poker website basically deciding a championship on national television. It was not poker’s finest moment.
Bolotin finally knocked out Furst when his 4-3 beat Rafe’s A-8 suited, and then beat Richardson heads-up when his A-J held up against Richardson’s 7-5. And yes, both Furst and Richardson were all-in on their blinds.
ESPN had an opportunity to bring attention to one of the most disgraceful situations in the world, and they chose to basically ignore it. They could have aired a show on some of the amazing accomplishments in this year’s WSOP, such as Lisandro’s triple crown or Ivey’s two bracelets , and they decided not to. Instead, they gave us a celebrity puff piece, where comedians and comediennes were funny, stars showed why they are actors and not poker players and pros wound up playing an impossible format with no discernible poker skills necessary or desired. There were a few laughs, but give me the $50,000 HORSE tourney any day.
Next week: The Main Event begins
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