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ESPN enters unchartered waters with Main Event final table telecast

3 November 2008

By Gary Trask

As soon as you hear the catchy, opening riff to ESPN's World Series of Poker coverage and you see that giant poker chip bounce across your TV screen, your heart rate immediately begins to rise.

You see the faces Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth and you feel as though you know them as well as your own brother-in-law. You're well aware of Norman Chad's marital problems. And while you've never actually stepped foot inside the Milwaukee's Best Light No Limit Lounge, if you ever did, the dimly lit room with the ESPN Featured Table sitting in the middle of it would feel as comfortable and cozy to you as your own living room.

If any or all of the above scenarios apply to you, Jamie Horowitz is the person you can thank – or, maybe more appropriately, blame for your irrepressible desire to actually spend two hours each week watching poker on TV.


The ESPN cameras will be inside the Penn & Teller Theater to document all of the final table action when the cards go in the air Sunday morning. (photo by Phil Ellsworth/ESPN)

Horowitz, 32, is a senior producer for ESPN and has been the man behind the curtain for the network's coverage of the World Series of Poker for the last three years. He and his staff's job is to take hordes of tape depicting thousands of people playing poker for more than 12 hours at a time, into two, neat, one-hour weekly packages. The shows are fast-paced and entertaining, but also must feature enough actual poker to keep the hard-core viewers happy. Yet they can not come across as too technical, because that would turn off the casual fan.

"It's a challenge, no doubt about it," says Horowitz, a Boston native who prior to joining ESPN in 2006 helped create and produce The National Heads-Up Poker Championship on NBC. "I think what we've always done a good job of doing is detailing previously unknown players' journeys to the top of the poker world. People feel like they know Chris Moneymaker or Greg Raymer or Jamie Gold, just by spending a few hours watching these guys play poker on ESPN. That's always great to hear because that tells me we're doing our job."

Ratings are way up for this year's WSOP coverage, but next week the stakes for Horowitz and his staff will be raised. For the first time in the history of its coverage, ESPN will be producing "same-day coverage" of the Main Event's final table on Nov. 11, making the usual formidable task of producing a captivating weekly poker program significantly more difficult.

TV was the driving force behind the WSOP's decision to put the brakes on this year's Main Event and play the final table 117 days after the nine finalists were decided. The thinking was that instead of having its viewers already aware of the winner as they were watching the weekly coverage, the drama would increase dramatically if the crowning of the 2008 Main Event champ was delayed. Thus, the November Nine was created.

But from Horowitz's end, actually pulling the whole thing off is going to be much more complicated than you may think. ESPN's coverage of the WSOP is done much differently than your typical sporting event. It's actually a lot more like the production of a show like Survivor than it is Monday Night Football.

Roughly 7,000 hours of coverage was recorded inside the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino during this year's WSOP. All of that tape was shipped back to New York where a company called 441 Productions was responsible for the editing and production of the shows over the course of more than two months. The aforementioned Chad and his partner, Lon McEachern, taped voiceovers to go along with the footage and – Ta-Dah! – 16 one-hour telecasts of poker were in the can.


ESPN Senior Producer Jamie Horowitz will have a staff of 70 people on hand in Las Vegas to help him pull off the network's first attempt at "same day" WSOP coverage. (photo by Eric Harkins/IMPDI)

The same strategy will be used for next week's final table, expect for some major differences.

"This is a show that very often takes several weeks or a month to put together and this time it's going to be produced in a matter of hours," Horowitz explains. "We're heading into uncharted waters. It's an ambitious undertaking. But we're excited about it."

The cards will go in the air for the final table inside the Penn & Teller Theater on Sunday, Nov. 9 at 10 a.m. Las Vegas time and that's when the ESPN cameras will begin a marathon session of taping. Play will continue until the November Nine is dwindled down to two players. Nobody knows how long this will take, but a good guess is anywhere between 10 and 13 hours, meaning it will likely last until the wee hours of Monday morning.

Less than 24 hours later -- Monday night at 10 p.m. -- the heads-up action will commence. Once again, guessing exactly how long it will take to be decided is likely an exercise in futility. No matter how long it takes to crown the new $9.1 million champion, the ESPN crew is staring a strict deadline in the face. ESPN's final table coverage will air Tuesday night at 6 p.m. Las Vegas time.

"My hope is that we're not still editing at 5:55," Horowitz says in a half-serious tone.

ESPN will have 70 people in Las Vegas for the final table. A "poker compound," as Horowitz describes it, has been built in the parking lot of the Rio, complete with a temporary production studio, just like the one at 441 Productions back in New York. The unit will house 15 tape editors sitting in bays not much bigger than the cubicle you sit in at work while as many as 10 producers will be watching the action live on monitors, detailing the action and noting interesting hands. As each member of the November Nine is eliminated, virtual chaos will begin.

"As soon as a knockout is finished, we'll break the tapes out of the camera and we're going to have a golf cart waiting outside the door of the theater ready to rush that tape to the parking lot," Horowitz explains. "We'll be editing on the go. The editors in those booths won't be watching the live action. They'll be dealing with what's already happened."

The planning for the event has been something Horowitz admits is much more complex than previous events he has produced.

"We've marked out hour-by-hour what everyone's responsibility is going to be on November 3rd all the way through November 12th," says Horowitz, who has four Sports Emmys on his mantle for his work on NBC's coverage of the 2000 Summer Olympics and the NBA. "It was almost a victory of sorts when we started to put together the schedules and we realized that we could balance it so everybody would get three hours a sleep on November 9th, 10th and 11th. We're cutting it that close.


The ESPN team -- including announcer Lon McEachern (shown at right) -- will be editing on the go as they attempt to capture all of the highlights of the WSOP Main Event final table. (photo by Eric Harkins/IMPDI)

"But you can only do so much preparation. There are some things that are in our control and some things that are not. If we have historically long final table and play goes deep into Tuesday, then all of those plans may get wiped out."

In addition to the final table coverage, ESPN will also air a preview show on Tuesday, Nov. 4. During the last three months, the ESPN cameras and a producer have spent a few days with each of the nine final tableists and their stories will be told during this one-hour special that will also run on Nov. 11, the hour before the final table coverage begins.

"We'll try to give a sense to what life has been like for these nine players during the last 117 days and how their life has changed by making the final table," says Horowitz, who says the network did not consider moving the show from the WSOP's regular Tuesday night spot, even with the U.S. presidential election taking place the same day.

"We'll see Craig Marquis buy a new car, a sofa and a kegerator. We'll show Dennis Phillips throw out the first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals game and we followed Darus Suharto to work and his home poker game. It was a lot of fun."

If the reaction from the preview show and the final table coverage is similar to what it has been for the previous episodes of this year's WSOP, the folks at ESPN will be leave Las Vegas with a smile on their face. The Oct. 21 WSOP episode that showed the field of 6,844 get down to 27 players was the most-watched poker show on ESPN in more than two years. Overall, household ratings for the 2008 coverage is up 23% compared to last year.

It is those kind of numbers that help ESPN and the WSOP justify the controversial decision to pause the Main Event for nearly four months.

"When we embarked on this journey we weren't just looking for a special night on November 11th. We wanted to make the entire series more exciting as we build things up to the final table and I think we've accomplished that," Horowitz says. "I think what you'll see [on Nov. 11] is a little more emphasis on the actual poker and a little less on the features. But for the most part we don't want to change too much. We already have a pretty good model.

"This is going to be a historic night for poker. We're feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement. Anytime you embark on something you've never done before, there are going to be a lot of questions. But I think we have a good plan. We have one goal at every tournament, and that's to document the highest level of poker that there is. That's what we're hoping to do [next week]."

ESPN enters unchartered waters with Main Event final table telecast is republished from
Gary Trask
Gary is an expert on all things gambling. The Boston native has worked as a writer and editor for more than 15 years, including a few at Casino City and was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's Media Committee.

No Limit Hold'em tournaments are a favorite of Gary's, but he also enjoys a night of dealer's choice with a variety of games like Seven-Card No Peek, Guts or Five-Card Draw with a qualifier. In addition to playing cards, another of Gary's interests is golf, a game that allows his two favorite hobbies to collide quite naturally.

Gary Trask Websites:!/casinocityGT