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Posted by on May 16, 2014 in Blog, General Poker, World Series of Poker | 7 comments

The Best Seat in the House: A Short History of Poker Tournament Reporting

 

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1990 world champion Mansour Matloubi, watched closely by the poker press corps

 

If winning a major poker tournament represents the game’s greatest glory, reporting on such events can sometimes be its worst drudgery.

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 to 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 at 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 remains 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 soap box rant on poker tournament reporting and why its 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 is phenomenal, setting an early standard of excellence which still (in my view) hasn’t been matched, at least in terms of artistic style.

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Gambling Times first issue, in 1977

 

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 1980’s Card Player (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.

 

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The final table layout, first created by Don Larrimore

 

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.

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Here I am with Andy Glazer (at right) in 2004.

 

Max Shapiro was widely-known as a poker humorist, authoring several hundred columns which 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.

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Max Shapiro at a roast in 2005 (photo courtesy of PokerStars blog)

 

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 chat box).  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 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 the 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.

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My better side, taken a few years ago at the WSOP (photo by Wicked Chops)

 

Footnote 1Many 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 which 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 these long lost issue, 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 official write-up).  This is the official summary of the 1997 WSOP Main Event Championship, won by Stu Ungar.  1997 WSOP MAIN EVENT (CONJELCO)

 

7 Comments

  1. i was minorly involved in the days of tournament reporting around the poker boom in the mid 2000’s. i wanted to say that while everyone else before me helped pave the way, and every reporter/website improved what i did, i think i was one of the first to provide live tableside updates for a few WPT/WSOP events. i don’t recall seeing them prior to 2005. at the tunica WPT event i was providing updates until the final 6 tv table, at which time i lost my internet access i believe.

    then in 2005 i was there at the WSOP, wishing i was playing but still reporting. i sort of quit during the long stretch of prelim events because our viewership was so low at the time (pokertrails.com was the site brett jungblut and i launched to cover the ’05 WSOP), but i returned for the main event. i was back in the media room doing hand for hand updates from the start of the final two days of the event until the final hand was dealt like 16 hours after the final table started or whatever it was.

    i’m not bragging about being the first to do live hand for hand updates (was i the first even??? i recall gutshot.co.uk doing updates for the 04 WSOP but it wasn’t really “live” iirc), because i didn’t do a very good job and those after me made following live updates online 100x easier than what i was doing. but i do like to think i was sort of a pioneer in that area of tournament reporting.

    great writeup, it’s amazing to think that in such a sort amount of time, the poker media core has gone from almost nonexistent to a huge collection of reporters who travel the world now.

  2. i do not know jon eaton, nor do i recognize his name. however, i am delighted to find another poker person who eschews the use of capital letters.
    jon? “wsop” and “wpt” work just as well. 🙂

  3. i hate capitalizing unnecessary letters. but i also am rather Inconsistent with it. just one of my many faults.

  4. One name I would mention in the ‘Modern Era” – Dr. Pauly

  5. Hi Nollan,

    It was great for a newbie live tournament reporter to read about the past and where it all started so thanks for that.

    In my time working the circuit I have received far more compliments than criticism. I have always found that if I write a nice report about someone they usually seek me out and thank me.

    I think the main challenges we have today are as follows:

    1. Being spread to thinly across the ground.

    A few years ago I covered a few WSOP $1k/$1.5k Day 1’s on my own. In fact, I cover a lot of tournaments on my own. This doesn’t allow the depth and back story to which you allude to in your article. In times like these you are in and out like a teenager having sex for the first time. I think this does the coverage a disservice, but I am not sure the hirers value this above simple gathering of facts.

    2. Let’s not upset anyone

    Man oh man.

    The worry of not offending anyone is killing the art of live tournament reporting. Opinion is being mowed down in favour of fact based analysis. This way of thinking means that in the future, when you and I are pushing up daisies, the next Nollan Dalla won’t be able to write anything like this because nobody would have been writing anything colourful.

    These days it’s all about brand protection and keeping the players happy.

    Fred raised, Peter re-raised, Fred folded = job well done.

    Now if you have an opinion on what range of hands Fred raised with, or why Peter decided to re-raise him, including some commentary on the back story of the tango = job not well done.

    Opinions are scary. Opinions create worry.

    3. Not Even Understanding Our Value

    What is the role of a live reporter?

    I’m not sure the hirers even know the answer themselves. Are we supposed to be attracted new people into the game, making reporting interesting through our colourful writing, appeasing the players by just writing bare facts, or telling a story?

    It would be great to see someone like PokerNews, for example, undertake a huge survey of everyone involved in poker to actuality ask what they want live reporting to look like and then the product can be delivered.

    Keep up the good work and I will see you in a few weeks for a chat.

    Lee

  6. Long time poker voyeur here…those who play, play, those who can’t, watch?

    Anyway, its amazing to reflect on how far coverage of the game has come. I’ve been going to the WSOP since 95′ and along the way I had the pleasure of getting to know Andy Glazer (RIP). Great guy, I wish he could have hung around long enough to see what poker has become. His insight and reflection would be a fantastic addition to modern day reporting.

    I’ll never forget sitting in the rickety bleachers set up at Binions while watching the final two of the $3,000 NL event between none other than Johnny Chan and Eric Seidel.

    Amazingly, the only people watching were myself, Andy Glazer and one or two half interested spectators. Andy & I were able to sit directly behind Chan, so close that at times we were able to catch his hole cards.

    Eric was able to get measure of redemption that day, yet I’ve never heard it get mentioned since.

    I remember thinking I must have a screw loose since I was so enthralled I would sit there for hours while the rest of the world was oblivious and seemingly uninterested.

    It was music to my ears when the convergence of internet poker, hole card cameras and the World Poker Tour brought the game from the back rooms to the light of day and hasn’t looked back since.

    I still look back fondly to the grimy, smokey feel of Binions with its tinge of danger and a cast of characters that had not only honed their poker game but brought a fascinating touch of hustle that the modern era of poker lacks and will probably never understand.

    I feel fortunate to have experienced it all first hand.

  7. Thanks for the kind words Nolan. FYI I wrote the first write-up of the WSOP myself, and a few others after that. Byron Liggett was a good friend and worked for me for many years. We have ceased publishing in print for the moment, but still have our website: http://www.pokerplayernewspaper.com up on the internet. I do plan to bring Poker Player back in print, but, it will probably be some time before that happens as I am working on a much bigger project, a lottery game that I invented called Daily Digit. I’ll be letting you know more about that in a month or two. Since we ceased the print publication 12 card rooms in Las Vegas have closed. Poker industry people don’t fully appreciate what we did for them, educating and stimulating their players to come back again and again. One major card room lost over a third of their tournament business when they stopped advertising with us. I have the stats to prove that. Keep up the good work with your blog, but, I suggest you tone down the use of expletives.
    Stan Sludikoff

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