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Table Talk: Who Are The Best Poker Players, Really?

Good morning, afternoon, and evening, readers. Keep your distance, as my head cold is even worse this week. Clearly, I’m not adding enough hard liquor to my tea intake. Please pardon me as I sneeze my way through this column.

The past week has been full of news, as the Aussie Millions got underway and smaller tournament series take place around the world. Players have no shortage of options when it comes to action.

The GPI European Poker Awards took place in Paris earlier this week. Some players were honored based solely on their tournament performances over the past three years, as calculated by the Global Poker Index. National awards were given per those standings, and countries honored their best in the likes of Bertrand Grospellier, Martin Rettenmaier and Davidi Kitai. Other awards were given based on the votes of an executive panel, such as Lucille Cailly winning Europe’s Leading Lady, Kara Scott winning Poker Personality of the Year, and Gus Hansen winning the Lifetime Achievement Award. A full list can be found here.

Awards are often subjective, as were some of those given at the GPI EPA ceremony. And that brings me to the subject of the NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship being filmed as I write this in Las Vegas. The invitational heads-up tournament consists of 64 players, chosen by a select group of producers and poker executives, and requires a $20,000 buy-in to play, with the exception of one player who wins a seat.

Twitter was all abuzz this week with opinions of who should have been invited, who was snubbed, and who doesn’t deserve to be there. While there is a general list of criteria that the selection panel tries to follow, some of those players may decline invitations, and there are quite a few seats that must be filled with personalities and names that are good for ratings, as a television audience is essential to the longevity of the program and production.

(No better time to insert my disclaimer. I do freelance work for the Global Poker Index and am a supporter of its role in the poker industry.)

The argument has been made that the Global Poker Index is probably the best way to determine the best live tournament players in the world. This combined with POKER PROductions’ own criteria of inviting certain WSOP and WPT winners, could have produced an incredibly talented field of players. Would they all be great for television? Most likely, no.

The key to any television program, even if it is touting the best poker players in the world, is to be able to draw an audience of not only poker fans but all viewers. That means that seats for Jennifer Tilly and Sam Simon were given in the name of celebrity. And poker players like Doyle Brunson, Mike Matusow, Phil Laak, Maria Ho, Andy Bloch, Liv Boeree were chosen specifically to draw the casual poker audience. Is it fair to Mike Watson and Steve O’Dwyer, both in the top 10 of the GPI and ranked among the very best in the world? No.

However, the poker community can’t have it both ways. If they have a television show featuring the best tournament players as ranked by the GPI, there would be only one woman – Vanessa Selbst – in the field, and she declined this year to play in the Aussie Millions. If a show features only players good for TV, the actual poker would likely be reduced to a joke and a sideline to the personalities at the tables. There must be a happy medium. And POKER PROductions tries its best to do that with a mix of the two segments of the options available.

Poker doesn’t get much better airtime than on the mainstream NBC network. Despite the weekend hours, the National Heads-Up Championship is one of the most-watched poker shows on television. The production company knows how to produce a show that people will watch. Ratings are essential, which is the reason the show is airing again this year.

It can be a vicious cycle to keep poker on television. Ask any of the multitude of companies that have tried and failed. The WSOP on ESPN struggles each year to find a balance between poker coverage that will show enough hands and strategy to keep the diehard viewers tuned in but add in the pomp and circumstance that will attract a new audience.

I don’t pretend to know the intricacies of television production or keeping the attention of network executives. But I’ve been around poker long enough to know what makes a successful television show, and NBC Heads-Up is one of the few that has lasted through the tough times of the US poker market. As much as I’d prefer a list of players that is taken straight from the GPI rankings, I’d rather have poker continue to attract new interest and potential players.

Preserving the integrity of poker is important, just as is the continued expansion of the industry.

With that, I’m going to curl up with a box of tissues and yet another cup of tea. If I’m not better next week, my cognac bottle may be calling the doctor for me. It misses me.

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