ESPN expands WSOP H.O.R.S.E. coverage

25 April 2007

The final table of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tournament at the 2006 World Series of Poker was arguably the most talented final table in tournament-poker ever.

Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, T.J. Cloutier and Patrik Antonius all bowed out before Chip Reese finally defeated Andy Bloch after the longest heads-up match in WSOP history — just over seven hours — to win $1.7 million.

ESPN broadcast the final table in two one-hour episodes in 2006, but this year opted to expand to six episodes covering the entire tournament from start to finish.

In another change from last year, the final table will continue to play all five of poker variants instead of switching to No Limit Hold'em.

"If you took a poll of the H.O.R.S.E. players here today, 95 percent of them would tell you that they would prefer to keep playing the mixed game at the final table," said ESPN analyst Norman Chad during Day One of last year's tournament.

Chip Reese

Chip Reese won last year's $50,000 WSOP H.O.R.S.E. title.

The switch will present some interesting challenges to ESPN, which has only dabbled in presenting games other than Hold'em. In 2004, ESPN broadcast a variety of games, from community card games like Hold'em and Omaha to Seven Card Stud and Razz. Those games, however, were scaled back in the last two years, as tournament coverage focused more on the more fan-familiar Texas Hold'em.

"I think it just came down to Hold'em being more popular to the viewership," said Lon McEachern, Chad's broadcast partner in the ESPN booth. "It's easier to watch because people understand it more."

Part of Chad and McEachern's job will be to educate viewers on how each game is played. This won't be as difficult as it may have been a year ago, since several online poker rooms, like Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, now offer mixed game tournaments and cash games, including H.O.R.S.E.

"Now that the public has become familiar with H.O.R.S.E., I think switching it back to a purely limit game should work fine for television," said Daniel Negreanu, who pushed to get the $50,000 event added to the schedule last year. "The commentators will have a little more work to do, but I think the event will, once again, be a huge success."

McEachern is quick to point out that the format change doesn't only affect the commentators.

"It becomes a graphic nightmare for one thing," McEachern said. "It's not easy for the average viewer to glance at the screen and see who is ahead."

Adding to the complexity is the "E" in H.O.R.S.E. for Seven Stud, Eight or Better, as ESPN has never showcased a split-pot game.

"We had some meetings in New York recently with the production group, and the producer was joking that he'd been spending every waking hour how to present a split pot graphically," McEachern said.

And while Chad asserts that 95 percent of last year's field would have preferred to continue playing H.O.R.S.E. at the final table, there are at least a few who would like to keep it the same.

"I prefer the idea of making it No Limit Hold'em at the final table," Negreanu said. "The more games the better as it will truly test a player's overall poker skills, skills that include both limit and no limit poker."

Regardless of the format, if this year's final table is the same caliber as last year's, the tournament will have plenty of viewers. And McEachern believes that exposing the viewing audience to a variety of games can only be good for poker.

"I'm always for expanding the breadth of what we show from the World Series," McEachern said. "They're great games, and people out there should know that on Friday night, they can play more than just Hold'em."


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