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    Personality vs. Skill: Is Gavin Smith better for TV than Dan Kelly?

    Posted by Marco Valerio August 28, 2013

    Recently, I got the chance to travel with the crew of Poker Night in America, a brand new television production, and watch them stage their first event at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, New York. A dozen or so well-known and generally colorful poker pros were at the center of the inaugural event, which saw them participate in a local tournament and a high-stakes cash game, both times for the cameras. (Side note: in the next few days, I will be releasing clips of some of the footage I personally shot while I was there.)

    In conjunction with the familiar faces, Poker Night in America sought to involve some lesser known players, to be recruited via a “casting call” that Nolan Dalla, who’s involved in the production, posted on his own web page.

    I thought the casting call was a novel and interesting idea for poker, not to mention a helpful way to get new players out there in the public view. On his blog post, Dalla underscored the kinds of players that the production was looking for. “If you’re interesting, outgoing, and like to have fun, then we’re interested in you. If you wear sunglasses and headphones, and sit in silence, then forget it. We don’t want you on our show. Poker has enough of that dullness already.” (Emphasis mine.)

    Dalla’s bluntness, not uncommon in his writings, initially amused me. But then I took a few more moments to regard the underlying message of what was being stated. On the surface, it suggested that you could be any one of the thousands of uniquely talented young poker pros who do dress and act a particular way and still be left out because, well, because we’re sick of your damned hoodie.

    Has being a character in poker definitively become more important, from a media perspective, than actually being good at poker? Dalla’s words are reflective of a broader disregard – shall I say, contempt – in the poker world nowadays toward a certain kind of withdrawn and uniformly dressed “reg” type based almost exclusively on table appearance. Make no mistake – I would not want “dull” people on my show either if I were Nolan Dalla or Mori Eskandani, and nobody’s denying that animated poker players make for unique entertainment. But at what point would poker talent alone make the industry feel comfortable with putting you on display?

    Come to think of it, do non-buffoonish personalities really kill TV poker to that unforgivable degree? Personally, I don’t really remember being so hostile to the quiet type when I first started watching poker on television. The year was 2009, and I had just been taught how to play Texas Hold’em by a couple of college buddies. And just like anybody who’s ever been hit bad by the poker bug, I suddenly wanted to watch, read, hear and learn everything there was to know about this amazing game – and TV poker was part of that suite.

    But I didn’t start watching Poker After Dark because I was a fan of the people who were on it. In fact, I didn’t even know who they were at first. I started watching poker on television because I wanted to see poker – the game I had just begun to love and the game I desperately wanted to learn more about. Recognizing, and idolizing, the poker people came later, as a result of tuning in to see cards in the first place.

    And you know what? As I came to discern the various poker personalities, I always wanted to be a lot more like the impenetrable Tom Dwan than like the clownish Gavin Smith. (In this, alas, I was not successful.)

    Years ago, players with the track records of Dan Kelly or Doc Sands would have been prime targets for TV poker invitations, but today they are likely to be overlooked due to their perceived lack of showmanship. What happened?

    I feel that this is an important question to keep in mind as the poker industry in America, prodded and revitalized by an iGaming renaissance, takes steps to inevitably “bring back” poker on television. Gone are the days when Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars backed Poker After Dark and The Big Game respectively. While the fate of those programs is unclear, if entirely new operators are now to rule the American online poker environment, expect the ecological cultures of these actors to trickle down to the poker TV shows they’ll endorse (or produce outright).

    And the culture is this: there’s a widespread, near-obsessive desire in iGaming nowadays to appeal to the casual and recreational player, while at the same time either grudgingly tolerating or openly rebuffing the presence of the “reg” or pro or grinder, in other words, the type of player whose brick-and-mortar equivalent is the stereotype of the hoodied and sunglassed monument of aloofness that Dalla was talking about. Wanting to cleanse your online poker room of reg infestation is similar in nature to ensuring that everyone on your poker TV show has a “personality” that the – again – casual TV viewer will find interesting or entertaining.

    The sad implication here is that, as we enter into what is supposed to be a brand new decade of innovation and opportunity for poker, we are forced to lace poker entertainment with “personality” because the game is supposedly no longer interesting enough on its own.

    Is that really the case? Personally, I don’t think so.

    When I tuned into Poker After Dark every week, I did not know nor care (that much, anyway) about who was going to be on. I tuned in primarily to see the bluffs, the laydowns, the check-raises, and yes, even the long-ass periods of tanking. Poker on its own can make for some amazing theater, even – or especially – when no one is saying anything. Charismatic players definitely help us empathize and invest emotion into the outcome of the hands, but at the end of the day, the game of poker remains the star of the show.

    There’s nothing wrong with sacrificing a little poker suspense to make more room for histrionics, and I’m not saying that I am, or ever was, any kind of universal representative of the casual player, but that’s just it – I don’t think one exists. Not all casual players want only to crack a beer and laugh at Gavin Smith’s jokes, when they’re consuming their poker entertainment. Some of them want to learn more about the game. They want to get good, and they want to think that they are getting good. Much of this is experienced by focusing on the cards.

    Dynamic televised poker can play an enormous role in converting new generations of viewers at home into poker fans. This can be best achieved by observing a proper balance between featuring personable players while bringing out the best that the game has to offer. I know for a fact that Nolan Dalla and the entire Poker Night in America crew understand this, and I’m looking very much forward to seeing how they will contribute to a medium that helped bring so many Americans to the game in the first place – myself included.

    QuadJacks – August 28, 2013

    About Marco Valerio

    View all post by Marco Valerio

    There are 3 Comments

    1. StGilmore
      - August 28, 2013
        -   Reply

      I think you did a good job at taking this to extremes, Marco – hope you spur a lot of comments. Of course, Kristy Arnett was also there – neither a buffoon nor a hoodie. This spot at the table is where I think the majority of players take their seats – pros and regs alike. I too am tired of buffoonery as a dominating factor, but players who bring something more than their robotic skill to the game are far more fascinating to watch.

      • StGilmore
        - August 28, 2013
          -   Reply

        Just to add that after watching the #SHRPO livestream through to the end, Hinkle and Bonomo fit the bill perfectly as professional poker players, engaging each other with true sportsmanship right down to the final handshake. A final table I could encourage poker-life doubters to watch!

    2. Jerry Young
      - August 29, 2013
        -   Reply

      When the poker boom happened…people were drawn not only by the chance to win big money against the best in the world like Moneymaker did, but also they were drawn in by the characters. As the game evolved, and really became more of a young man’s game, it really lost that draw. Yes, a poker junkie wants to see the bluffs, great lay downs, etc. However, just an average joe watching wants to see the Doyle Brunsons, Phil Helmuths, Phil Laaks, Mike the Mouth, and all the colorful characters from the old days. (2003 is the old days to these youngsters at least.) I have to admit, I appreciate the skills of the new players and I watch it no matter who is on, but there is just something different about Daniel or Phil or any of them on the show. Besides the banishment of online poker being the main reason why these shows have died down, I do believe a lot of it has to do with the lack of characters. What is best is when you get a player who is a top notch player and a character at the same time. That is a win win. However, like the tanking for decades in the main event last year, it is just not the same. Something is missing. I am a fan of it all, and like I said, I will watch all of it. However, I would rather watch reruns of the 2003 or 2004 WSOP main events then anything in the last five to seven years. I do think it is kind of a shame that Nolan only wants characters though. To many cause a conflict. See Matusow/Sheikhan for reference. He should make it diversified. Some new players. Some old players. Some characters. Some head phone, hoodie, and sunglass wearing computer player. All of them at the same table. Now that would make good TV.

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