Behind The Scenes

Raising stakes for WSOP: ‘Live’

Brian Rast, winner of the $50,000 Poker Players’ Championship, w/ ESPN WSOP sideline reporter Kara Scott

Editor’s note: Coverage of the 2011 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event begins Friday night from the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. For the first time, poker’s marquee event will feature ‘live’ unedited hole cards on a 30-minute delay and an unprecedented 40 hours of coverage in high definition on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN3.com. Front Row sits down with coordinating producer Jamie Horowitz to discuss some of the exciting changes planned for coverage of this year’s event.

FR: What are the new elements fans can expect from ESPN’s WSOP coverage this year?

JH: This year marks a re-imagination of ESPN’s poker coverage. We have listened to the fans’ desire for more “poker talk,” so we will try to show the game from the inside. We have a lot of cool things planned. For the first time ever, ESPN will have a sideline reporter [Kara Scott] to get immediate reaction from players as they get up from the table. Fans will hear directly from the most famous pros in a new analysis feature where top professionals analyze hands after the fact. Former FBI agent Joe Navarro will have a segment in each show reporting what he sees as it relates to physical tells. We will have at-home features with the game’s top pros, offering a glimpse of their lives away from the table. There is also a brand-new poker arena that will present the competition more like a big-time sporting event than a poker show. All this — coupled with a great production crew from Poker PROductions — adds up to a new way to showcase the most famous poker tournament in the world. 

FR: What do you think fans will like best about the live coverage on ESPN2?

JH: Fans will see exactly how the day and game develops. Small exchanges between players can lead to big confrontations.  In the posted shows, we feel an obligation to focus on the big confrontations.  On ESPN2, to use a boxing analogy, we will celebrate the jabs, the dancing around the ring, and the corner talk as much as the knockouts. Live coverage allows the announcers to go more in-depth, so for fans who are interested in learning about the game, the live coverage should show a side of the tournament we don’t always get to see.

FR: Will the weekly packaged shows be similar to previous years?

JH: Yes and no.  Lon McEachern and Norman Chad are back as our talent, and they are as integral to the event as the big stars.  And the event is still unparalleled — almost 7,000 people will enter the main event and the champion will win nearly nine million dollars.  I love what WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart said: “We’re very proud because people have been labeling poker or the World Series of Poker as a fad for the better part of a decade now.” The point is that we aren’t looking to destroy what already works well. We are merely looking to bring things to the show that we haven’t done before.

Some of the new things: Big picture: The event will be treated like a sporting event, from the arena and atmosphere to the elements in the production.   There is a new opening animation and new music.  The graphic package will have tweaks to display flags showing where each player is from. The Jack Link’s Wild Card hand will have choices for the viewers, so they can play along with the talent in guessing the player’s hand. All these are small things that end up making the viewer experience more enjoyable. I promise you that it will be clear to viewers that something is different about this year’s coverage.

FR: How has the WSOP responded to ESPN’s new approach?

JH: WSOP has responded very positively. The WSOP is very much a partner with ESPN. We are both in the same business – we want the WSOP to continue to flourish and we want to continue to tell the most compelling stories to the fans.

FR: The new WSOP arena seems like a major addition. What was the thinking behind this?

JH: The poker arena is a major addition and change.  It’s been a huge hit. The vision was to create an arena that welcomed players and fans while also making it feel like a sporting event. It was placed in the center of the back of the room to make it as inviting as possible.  When you walk into the Amazon Room, it can’t be missed.  The arena gives the event a big-time sporting event feel, from the LED paneling to the player entrance tunnel to press row. It’s like going to a Lakers game at Staples. The lighting structure was designed in the shape of a World Series of Poker bracelet. If you know this little nugget, it makes looking at the lighting that much cooler.

FR: What are your expectations for the event this year?

JH: We heard the doubters pointing to a tough economy and the legal troubles of online poker, but the WSOP is as robust as ever. This year’s Main Event has 6,865 entries – the third-largest field ever. And for the 58 events overall that make up the entire tournament, the WSOP has 75,672 entries – that’s higher than the previous record of 72,966 of last year. And yes, the total prize money of $192 million is also a record. Rumors of poker’s demise seem vastly overstated.

FR: For those who have not been to the WSOP, what’s it like?

JH: The WSOP is like nothing else in sports. You walk into the Amazon Room in the Rio Casino and look around at the 7,000 players – it’s 500 pros and 6,500 amateurs with a dream. That’s the eternal genius of the event. Anyone can win. We’ve said it for years. An amateur golfer can’t roll up to Augusta and take on Phil Mickelson, but an amateur poker player can take on Phil Hellmuth. It’s been called the last American gold rush. From all over the country, all over the world players come with the dream of being crowned poker champion. And for one person that dream will come true.

To read more about ESPN’s planned coverage, ESPN’s 2011 WSOP release and this story in Thursday’s USA Today.

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