Ignore the critics: Cling on to the November Nine

2013 November 9

We’ve entered a very specific couple of months in the modern poker calendar: the time when we all get together to complain about the November Nine concept at the World Series. It really is the most popular subject among people who enjoy whinging about poker tournaments, but I’ve been of the opinion for several years that the only people who don’t like the November Nine are the people who have never been involved in it. And their opinions are, it follows, somewhat redundant.

If you’ve ever actually been in Vegas when the November Nine is played out, you’ll know it’s the best spectacle the game has ever produced. It is nigh on impossible to make poker genuinely attractive to a live audience, or to transmit in any way the tension felt around a high-stakes final table, but the jamboree at the Rio’s Penn and Teller Theatre is the closest poker gets to providing a major event. The featured players seem to think so, the attending press seems to think so, and the viewing public seems to think so too. So why is it still so unpopular?

When the idea of a three-month delay between the first six days of the World Series Main Event and its final table it was first introduced in 2008, the reasoning from organisers centred on the marketing opportunities available to the fortunate nonet. They could head off to poker agents, online sites and the chat-show circuit and increase their expected earnings by raising their profiles. It would eliminate the curse of the “friends and family” final table, where every player is an anonymous nonentity. The whole event would enjoy a similar publicity boost and all would be happy. At least that was the idea.

The critics, however, said it represented an interference too far from Harrah’s, the relatively new, money-hungry custodians of the WSOP brand. They had not only moved the tournament lock, stock and barrel from Binion’s, but were now fixing something that wasn’t broken. Players’ concentration would be affected during the break, people said, and momentum lost. The best connected players could bone up on their weaker opponents’ games and seek inside information. Meanwhile players eliminated during the bloodbath of the early stages wouldn’t be able to watch the final; they would feel excluded from a tournament that would not play to a “natural” conclusion.

There’s a certain irony, I think, in the fact that none of the supposed benefits have really come to pass, but neither do the criticisms really hold any water. The average poker fan would still struggle to pick Anton Makiievskyi (eighth, 2011) or Steven Begleiter (sixth, 2009) out of a line-up, and I can’t imagine David Letterman’s producers are desperately seeking Sylvain Loosli’s contact details for a slot on The Late Show. The World Series Main Event is still pretty much certain to have a final table of largely unknown players.

But on the other hand, I don’t think any of Dennis Phillips, Darvin Moon, Jonathan Duhamel, Martin Staszko or Jesse Sylvia (the six chip-leaders going into the pre-final table break) will claim the interval affected their chances of winning. They have been through the November Nine experience, and I suspect have nothing but good things to say about it.

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that any of the 45 players involved in the delayed final tables to date have found their long-term fates affected in any way differently than if they had just played it out. The likes of Duhamel, Greg Merson, Ben Lamb, Joseph Cheong and Sam Holden continue their professional playing careers. Meanwhile, Moon and Peter Eastgate, for example, have taken their money and retreated from the spotlight. It’s their call.

As for the fact that eliminated players from the main bulk of the tournament couldn’t get to watch the denouement, that is the most spurious criticism of all. It is a minority indeed of poker players who opt to hang around in the days following their elimination. EPT final tables often take place in front of an audience of about three.

What we have had, though, are those exceptional, once-a-year blowouts at the Penn and Teller Theatre, where for once poker’s often cringeworthy hype seems justified. Many of the claims that the WSOP is the only must-play event of the year are massively overblown (the EPT is a far better run tournament series) but the November Nine final table is in a league of its own for genuine thrills. It must stay.