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Blackjack and two critical challenges if it is to replicate poker’s TV success


26 Oct 2017

The Moneymaker Effect.

Chris Moneymaker’s ascent from Tennessee accountant to 2003 World Series of Poker winner, outlasting 838 other players to secure the $2.5 million top prize after gaining entry through victory in a $39 online satellite tournament, made for captivating viewing.

It was the first time that ESPN had broadcast the World Series of Poker event, which had been competed for every year since the early 1970s, with the coverage and Moneymaker’s ‘any man’ story helping to promote poker to a mainstream, rather than a cult, audience.

This rapid poker boom brought with it numerous new TV programmes too. The UK audience was suddenly able to watch shows including Late Night Poker on Channel 4, Poker Million on Sky Sports and Celebrity Poker Club on Challenge.

The latter included such names as sports stars Mike Tindall and Stephen Hendry, comedians John Bishop and Johnny Vegas, TV presenters Alexander Armstrong and Colin Murray and journalist Victoria Coren Mitchell.

An event that isn’t so mainstream, particularly to a UK audience, is the World Series of Blackjack. It is only shown on the US channel GSN.

Blackjack is the most popular casino table game and its rules are far easier to understand than poker. Yet despite a few dabbles into the TV world, shows to date have been short lived.

However, some subtle game adaptions made fairly recently to the World Series of Blackjack have the capacity to make it a greater TV hit.

Below are two of the biggest challenges TV producers need to find a solution to if blackjack is to experience a boom in any way resembling that poker witnessed 14 years ago.

The building up of drama

Moneymaker played for four days just to reach the final table of nine players and then numerous more hours to become the winner. For example, when three players were left it took two hours to eliminate Dan Harrington and then another 28 hands to see off Sam Farha.

The editing of five days of play into a few hours for TV at this time was pretty much a collection of the showdowns of important hands.

This made for riveting viewing in a reality TV sense, as it was pretty much a build up to the heads-up finale, where the drama lay in who would win the huge cash prize.

The drama was also heightened by the use of a ‘hole cam’, which allowed the audience to see the cards of all of the players at the table and therefore understand whether any moves they were making were doomed for failure or not.

This access was also good for suspense, particularly if a player was attempting a bluff and their opponent in the hand was considering folding.

Providing such depth of entertainment is more complex for blackjack, as the premise of every hand is for a player to beat the dealer, not one of their fellow players. The perfect outcome for players is typically that they all win a hand and the dealer loses.

However, the way the World Series works is that the player with the most chips after 25 hands is the winner. It is not last man or woman standing in the same way as poker.

The inclusion of two knockout cards in the dealing shoe can drum up drama, as the player with the lowest chip total when these reach the top of the deck is eliminated, while this special card also increases the minimum table bet.

Furthermore, all players have the ability to use one Power Chip, allowing them to switch one of their cards with the next in the shoe. This is obviously appealing to a player holding an ace as one of their two hole cards and hoping to switch the other for a 10.

The hole cam could be put to good use again by showing the face-down card of the dealer, while technology could be used to highlight the whereabouts of the knockout cards in the deck.

Telling the story better

By 2011, ESPN had changed gameplan and rather than edit days of action into a relatively short programme, it decided to show live hand-by-hand action. This showcased poker in a completely different light.

Viewers got to see how much poker was a game of skill and not solely luck. They saw the hours of hard graft a player dedicated before finding themselves in a big pot and how the majority of hands were incredibly boring, as players regularly secured small profits before a flop had even been dealt.

Meanwhile, extra focus was allocated to the basic information. More time was given to the importance of seat position, to how a player was performing within the tournament as a whole, what the blind levels were and how many chips a player was in possession of at any one time.

Players had personalities too. Previously, the audience saw little of the players beyond a sudden call, raise or fold. Now there was the opportunity to grasp a better understanding of their character.

Reality TV is at its most riveting when a mix of characters are effectively competing with each other, allowing the audience to, affectively, pick sides and debate among themselves.

Despite this change to the broadcast, it was still a tall order to expect even the most hardcore fan to sit through five entire days of coverage.

With each table at the World Series of Blackjack lasting only 25 hands, showing the audience the basic game information, player personalities and much of the skill involved should be much more straightforward within a standard broadcast.

Commentators shouldn’t need to rush to bring colour to a hand in progress, bets won’t need to be missed out and any infographics can focus on things such as chip stack size.

Most of all, more time can be dedicated towards the value of a decision a player is making at important stages of play, which has the potential to be an effective way of building up suspense.