The Best Seat in the House: A Short History of Poker Tournament Reporting
If winning a major poker tournament represents the game’s greatest glory, reporting on such events can sometimes be its worst drudgery.
In this column, I look back at poker writing and tournament reporting over the years and gives thanks to those who blazed the trail to the present day.
The best seat in the house rarely means actually being seated. More typically, tournament reporting means standing on one’s feet for hours at a time. It means arriving earlier and leaving much later than players. If you think sitting at a poker table and playing in a tournament is work, then try standing for a very long while and then running back and forth to a laptop regularly in order to update player chip counts for what might be as many as a dozen poker tables. Most egregious of all, however — tournament reporters rarely receive much notice from anyone, except in the rare instances (relatively speaking) when some detail gets reported wrongly.
Frankly, the poker community disappoints me to a great extent — and by this, I mean the players. Many are thankless and have become spoiled. I’ve worked with dozens of dedicated poker enthusiasts over the years, including many who have worked for the very biggest poker websites to the smallest foreign-language outlets struggling to survive. When these reporters initially start out, they’re often thrown straight into the fire. These young writers are almost always eager to do a good job. But they rarely get a simple thank you or a kind word from anyone. That’s even the case today. Think about it. When’s the last time you showed some appreciation to someone working hard to do a good job out on the floor, someone who is actively contributing to the game and not just its legacy, but yours, as well?
Were it not for many of those fine people standing out on the floor at most major tournaments, no one anywhere else would be able to follow what’s going on or read about it later. Right now, you can log on to many websites and read about poker hands that happened moments earlier, or many years ago. That priceless news and information will stay up forever (hopefully), most likely thanks to someone in his early 20s, who might not even still be involved in the game. Never mind Twitter, which is limited to 140 characters in a single post, pretty much useless as a descriptive tool. Tournament reporters give the real story and then some. They’re the only impartial witnesses of what really goes on. Without them, there is no record. There is no history. What happens is forgotten.
Take, for instance, the earliest days of the World Series of Poker. Other than the Main Event Championship, gold bracelet events weren’t even covered for the first twenty years, or so. Even Main Event records from the early era remain scratchy. Try to find records of anything from the 1970s or 1980s. You can’t. How unfortunate that someone wasn’t standing there reporting on the historic victories back then by Johnny Moss, Puggy Pearson, Doyle Brunson, Sailor Roberts, Bobby Baldwin, and all the rest. Fortunately, we have a few rare photographs. But that’s it. Even the players who were present and still living have mostly forgotten what in many cases remain the most important hands in poker history. As in disappeared. They’re forgotten. They’re gone forever because no one was there with a pen and paper.
So, that’s my soapbox rant on poker tournament reporting and why it’s essential. Now, let’s acknowledge some key people, by name, who deserve a collective round of applause.
Stanley Sludikoff, the founder of Gambling Times (magazine), who now owns and publishes Poker Player, was one of the very first pioneers in poker reporting. He was the first journalist to recognize that a much wider audience existed for poker coverage. Go back and look at the groundbreaking stories published in Gambling Times during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The glossy imagery and character-driven storytelling are phenomenal, setting an early standard of excellence which still (in my view) hasn’t been matched, at least in terms of artistic style.
Sludikoff dispatched the very best writers he could find to cover poker’s biggest events — including the WSOP, the Grand Prix of Poker, the Super Bowl of Poker, and other big attractions of the day. He also assigned stories to be written on the biggest cash games in the world (virtually all of them in Las Vegas), providing curious outsiders with what amounted to a privileged seat at the kings’ table right along with the big boys. These writers wrote stories that in many cases were so utterly riveting, they could have appeared in the mainstream press. [See Footnote 1]
In the late 1980s, CardPlayer (magazine) was founded by Phil and June Field. The publication began as a newsletter but quickly grew into a real magazine, with full-length features and regular columnists. Some years later, Linda Johnson along with her business partners, purchased Card Player, and the publication became widely acknowledged as the industry’s leading voice and vehicle of promotion. Card Player set a new standard of reporting, which began to list virtually all tournament results played anywhere in North America. Getting your name listed in Card Player became associated with bragging rights. That was a big deal. Everyone who played poker seriously read the magazine and checked out the back pages, containing the latest tournament results. [See Footnote 2]
As tournament fields and prize pools increased over the years, those who played in them wanted to read and know more about what had happened. So, host casinos began hiring reporters on a contract basis to provide daily (mostly in-house) coverage. Reports were written which charted final tables, recounted key hands, interviewed players, and provided a general overview which pretty much remained the way tournaments were covered for the next two decades.
Another early tournament reporter who deserves mention is Byron Leggett, who passed away only a few years ago. Leggett hung around Las Vegas working the less-prestigious but more common events which were held throughout the year, such as the Queens Poker Classic and other sporadic tourneys that were big draws during the 1990s. Dana Smith (a.k.a. Shane Smith) and Lynne Loomis were the first two females to break the old-boys network. They too worked and covered many poker tournaments up until the time of the poker boom, when coverage exploded across multiple media outlets and mushroomed beyond just print into video, blogging, podcasting, and other advancing technologies. [See Footnote 3]
The late 1990s was the golden age for tournament narratives, ushering in three outstanding writers who took tournament reporting to astonishing new heights. Each in his own way viewed poker not merely as a game, but a metaphor for something larger and more profound. They consistently pushed boundaries and discovered new ways of telling old stories, in the end making the reports themselves often more interesting and entertaining than the events they purportedly were designed to cover.
All arrived on the poker scene at about the same time. The late Andy Glazer earned a law degree but found poker to be too enticing to bypass, in the process demolishing conventional-style reporting with everything from philosophical quotes to movie references in order to drive home a salient point. Glazer’s reports raised the bar on poker literature yet again to unprecedented heights. His works remain among the best narratives ever written.
Max Shapiro was widely-known as a poker humorist, authoring several hundred columns that appeared in Card Player for nearly 20 years. But he also showed a more serious side with his tournament reporting, much of which was based in the Los Angeles area, which by the mid-1990s had come to surpass Las Vegas as the tournament epicenter of the world. Shapiro covered dozens of big events between 1995 to the present day. He was (and remains) consistently solid in the way he gives the facts, with his own spin based on many years of experience.
Mike Paulle, better known as the gentle giant due to his size and stature, also became widely revered by readers and a hot commodity on the tournament scene. Paulle fostered close relationships with many players and engrained himself into the scene he was covering, often producing wildly entertaining results. He even baited and occasionally jarred with players. Paulle’s reports read more like the society pages of a hip cocktail party than simply a poker competition. Yet in many ways, that type of coverage made the events even more appealing. Every player was eager to get the “Paulle treatment.” That meant you were important enough to be noticed, as though you’d arrived. If Paulle knew your name, you were really a somebody.
ConJelCo was the first company and website to partner with a major casino and provide extensive coverage. The popular site, which sells gambling books, allied with Binion’s Horseshoe and provided official coverage for several years during the 90s, even employing Glazer, Paulle, and another talented writer named Tom Sims.
Beginning around 2002, Internet coverage changed everything. Instead of reports which were published the following day, much like a daily newspaper, online coverage meant poker tournaments and results could be relayed in real time. This new technology (first debuting at PokerPages.com, and next at the U.K.’s Gutshot Poker) set off a far more intense new wave of coverage, and increasing competition among outlets. Poker websites competed among themselves for the best talent and sought exclusive access. In the end, the public (including players) benefited the most since reporting was increasingly expected to be all-inclusive and instantaneous.
Internet poker deserves special mention. When the popularity of online poker began to explode around 2004, some sites began reporting on their internal poker events just as though they were major land-based tournaments. Foremost among them was PokerStars.com, which hired a former television reporter named Brad Willis to somehow craft a narrative surrounding big online tournaments, among other reporting activities. However, Willis’ task was far more of a challenge than his predecessors. He had to write about players who he couldn’t see and who were mostly anonymous. They provided absolutely no background about themselves. They certainly didn’t talk and rarely even chatted while online (via the chatbox). Imagine how difficult it is to make an interesting story out of “JackMeOff123” in a heads-up showdown versus “RaiseItUp 789.” I would have asserted such reporting couldn’t have possibly been done until I saw the magic of Willis taking tournament reporting into another dimension.
Print reporting (including online coverage) continues to provide far greater depth than anything that’s possible on television. Unfortunately, the constraints of broadcasting allow for a limited number of hands to be shown and a small number of players to be featured. However, with live tournament reporting of the kind we now see online, the boundaries have become endless. Hundreds of hands and chronologies are now listed, often in multiple languages. Thousands of players can see their name in print (sometimes for the first time) and follow the progress and elimination of everyone.
Here’s where an article like this gets tricky. There are so many excellent writers and reporters covering the poker tournament scene today that I won’t try listing them. The major sites like PokerNews, CardPlayer, Bluff, and PokerListings all do outstanding work. But I’m just as impressed with the international poker press which somehow consistently puts out an equally high-quality product. Once again, readers/players are the ultimate beneficiaries. No matter that we might be in California. We can still follow poker tournaments going on in Europe or Australia, in real-time.
I didn’t write my first poker tournament report until 1996. What I learned largely came from all these people listed above. Yet as much as I look to the past, I also believe it’s essential to evolve along with the game and change with it. Accordingly, I’ve learned a thing or two from younger tournament reporters who have come into the game in more recent years. In fact, the way tournaments are reported today is far more comprehensive, interesting, diverse, and accurate than ever before.
Obviously, I’m biased towards the written word. Creating imagery through appropriate words and phrases seems infinitely more entertaining than passively watching and eavesdropping on a few minutes of television. Writing also allows for more backstories, the re-creation of atmosphere which is so important, and even speculation and second-guessing as to what happened. It’s kind of like saying the book is usually better than the movie.
Oddly enough, I’ve never particularly enjoyed doing tournament reporting. The hours are long. And, it can become tedious. Even though I’m not really known as a tournament reporter — it’s hard to believe this — but I believe I’ve covered more poker tournaments than anyone else in history. That is, if you add up all the WSOP gold bracelet events stretching back into the 1990s, about half the WSOP Circuit events over the past ten years, the Jack Binion World Poker Open (now defunct), the Queens Poker Classic (now defunct), the United States Poker Championships, and a few odd events here and there over the years. It all adds up to about 1,500 poker tournaments and close to a billion dollars and lots of gold — along with a lot of empty coffee cups.
All this is just a long-winded way of saying, I’ve had the best seat in the house for a very long time.
In a future write-up, I’ll share some of my favorite poker tournament memories over the years.
Footnote 1 — Many years ago, I visited the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. which has a record of just about everything published inside the United States dating back to the early 1880s. This might be the only archives that contains every poker-related publication in existence. I spent an entire week rummaging through every back issue of Gambling Times and was astonished at the quality of writing, reporting, and photography. If you come across any of this long-lost issues, keep them. They’re treasures.
Footnote 2 — I joined Card Player as a regular columnist starting in 1993.
Footnote 3 — Here’s a great example of tournament reporting, by Tom Sims (which includes Ken Adams’s official write-up). This is the official summary of the 1997 WSOP Main Event Championship, won by Stu Ungar.