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Best of Gary Trask
LAS VEGAS – It doesn't matter if he's sitting down for breakfast, teeing it up at a local golf course or trying to get in on a small stakes poker game somewhere on the Strip.
Lon McEachern can't go anywhere in Las Vegas without being recognized.
"I actually get a real kick out of it," said ESPN's main anchor for the World Series of Poker as he worked the Amazon Ballroom on Wednesday during the Main Event at the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino. "Almost everyone I meet is very nice. They're not intrusive. Poker has a passionate fan base, so I enjoy talking to them and hearing how much they love watching our coverage."
It was just a few years ago that the only strangers who wanted to speak to McEachern were those looking for a prime rate on their mortgage. In 2002, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, McEachern wasn't having much luck nailing down the kind of freelance TV assignments that had kept him busy for the last decade or so. Then he received a phone call from a friend in the banking business asking him if he wanted to come on board as a mortgage lender for Washington Mutual in Sunnyvale, Calif. With a wife, two college-aged kids and not much TV work on the horizon, McEachern accepted the job.
One of the few television jobs he did manage to land in 2002, however, was a stint as the announcer, along with color man Gabe Kaplan, for ESPN's World Series of Poker coverage. The broadcast totaled two hours of actual coverage. But the following year ESPN sensed poker's rise in popularity. With 441 Productions out of Manhattan taking over production of the event, it planned to increase the coverage to seven hours. And it wanted McEachern to continue as the lead announcer.
"I was actually sitting in my office at Washington Mutual when I got the call asking [me to work the 2003 WSOP]," he said. "They asked if I could manage to get the time off from my day job. Luckily I had the vacation time and my bosses were sports fans and open to the idea of me juggling things and giving it a shot."
It just so happened that 2003 was the year that Chris Moneymaker shocked the world and won the Main Event, setting off the poker boom. ESPN's coverage of the event was the vehicle for fans across the world to see all of the action from Las Vegas and the men calling the shots were McEachern and color man, Norman Chad.
The huge ratings prompted ESPN to once again increase its amount of coverage. They aired 22 hours the following year and that crept up to a total of 26 in 2007, not counting the mass amount of hours the shows are replayed on ESPN at all hours of the day and night. When ESPN begins airing the 2008 WSOP on July 22, it will be the start of a whopping 33 hours of coverage by the time it is all said and done in November. Suffice it to say McEachern has been able to retire his real estate calculator. In 2006, he left the banking business and turned his focus to TV full-time.
"Believe it or not, I really enjoyed the mix between banking and TV," said McEachern, who can also be seen as the lead announcer for the martial arts show "Strikeforce on NBC." He was also the announcer for the U.S. Scrabble Open and played himself in three episodes of the ESPN TV series "Tilt" back in 2005. "But it got to the point where I just couldn't neglect my [mortgage] customers anymore. I had to give it up."
Along the way, the 51-year-old has become a true student of the game. He didn't really play much poker before landing the TV gig, but he's learned so much about the game and talked so much about it during the past five years it's something that he almost had to pick up and start playing. In fact, this year, he entered the $1,000 Seniors No-Limit Hold'em World Championship, where he failed to cash.
McEachern and the rest of the 70 ESPN staff members landed in Las Vegas at the end of May. After filming for the first week, everybody took two weeks off and then returned for the duration of the schedule in late June. Two shows from the first week have already been taped and produced. The rest will be a result of the hours upon hours of filming that is going on right now.
"It just takes so much time and so much work to put it all together," says McEachern, a 1980 UC-Santa Barbara grad who met his wife, Carol, while in college, which is also where he fell in love with the broadcasting field. "We put a [pedometer] on one of our producers the other day and he ended walking 14 miles. It's incredible how much there really is to capture."
But of all the ESPN staffers that have descended upon the Rio, it's McEachern and Chad that draw the most attention from players and fans alike. The two are like rock stars to the poker crowd and McEachern credits the chemistry he and his partner share – both on and off the air – for their popularity.
"I was a big fan of Norman even before I met him," McEachern says of Chad, who has been a popular syndicated sports columnist for the last two decades. "It's really a treat to work with him. Our senses of humor mesh really well. Sometimes in TV that kind of chemistry is hard to attain, but we've pretty much had it right from the very start. It's scary because we're starting to finish each other's sentences, even off the air. I think we're spending too much time together."
"We're only doing that because Lon likes to talk so much," deadpanned the whimsical Chad when asked about how close he and his TV partner have become. "If we're out to eat and I order a Caesar's salad, Lon has to order a Greek salad and then a bunch of other stuff just so he can get more words in with the waiter. It's not enough that he gets to talk more while we on the air. He's got to be able to dominate the conversation off the air as well. He's a sicko like that."
When asked to seriously assess the notoriety the two have managed to earn, Chad admitted that it was McEachern who has received the short end of the stick.
"It's like when you go to college and you just pray that you don't get a bad roommate," he explains. "I got lucky. I got the good roommate. But Lon probably wouldn't say the same. He's got the tougher job because he has to spend so many hours sitting next to me."
When fans do stop McEachern and Chad to talk about the ESPN coverage, they are often disappointed to hear that the shows they watch every summer are not taped live. After the Series, ESPN takes all of the film back to New York and cuts and edits it into one-hour packages. Then McEachern and Chad do all of the voiceover work in the studio.
"I remember when I blew it and accidentally told my daughter that there was no Santa Claus," he says with a laugh. "That's what it feels like when a fan asks me if our coverage is live and I have to say 'No.' I think sometimes it really breaks their heart."
But McEachern doesn't make any excuses for how the coverage is produced. He stresses that it is never intimated or expressed during the coverage that it was taped live. He adds that many of the other poker broadcasts do the same thing with its coverage. He also said that usually after he explains the process to the fans, they understand why it is done in that manner.
"It's just not something that is made for live TV," he says. "A final table could literally last 15 hours. Are we supposed to sit there for that long and call hand after hand? Of course not. Nobody would be able to watch it.
"Our job is to add some excitement to the event and present it in the most entertaining fashion as possible. It's actually very flattering that so many people think it's done live. That means we're doing our job."
McEachern, who is an avid golfer with a handicap of 11, will spend the next week roaming the Rio, taking notes as he walks from table to table looking for storylines and learning about the players. He admitted he has reservations about the new format that will pause this year's final table for 117 days until November. But he's is open to waiting and seeing if it works, before passing final judgement.
"Hey, if it's good for poker, I'm all for it," he says. "And if it's good for poker, it'll be good for everyone involved, including myself. If that's the case, how could I possibly oppose it?"