Tuesday, May 3, 2016

GPL (not GTO)

I was fortunate enough to share a table for most of day 1 (until he bust) at this year's Irish Open with John Duthie. After a while the table talk turned to the early Poker Million, won by Duthie. For those who don't remember it, the Poker Million was a special TV tournament that greatly helped popularise poker back in the day. The format was very straightforward: fast structured 6 man heats leading to a final with a total prize pool of one million. It almost singlehandedly made stars of several of its participants: Devilfish, Vicky Coren, the Hendon mob and Duthie himself.

People look back to that time with nostalgia saying the stars made the game of poker more interesting than it is now, dominated by interchangeable online beasts in hoodies that seem to be time sharing one personality between the lot of them. I personally question this view. In my experience the online kids are actually more diverse than the old live pros (almost all of whom came from back rooms and bookie shops and shared a very similar live fast gamble hard get rich quick or go bust trying mentality). They are less cartoonish and easily pigeonholed into caricatures and nicknames. But even more then that, I question the view that these stars made shows like the Poker Million rather than the other way around. Most of these players had been around for a decade or more, plying their trade in obscurity, failing to impress anyone but their poker peers with the colour of their characters.

Duthie told us that the maniacal style that propelled him to win the Million was born by accident from a desire to please the cameras. He was a TV producer at the time and as such the only person at the table with any real idea of what makes for good TV. As the least accomplished or at least experienced player at the table, he hung back in the early proceedings and went with the flow. The flow set by the "pros" was a cagey one of a lot of raise and take it preflop, mixed in with some limping or calling to see a flop with a fit or fold strategy. This presumably was considered optimal at the time (and probably was against the very weak recreational opposition the pros made their living playing against), but Duthie quickly realised it made for dull as ditchwater TV. Reasoning that he stood little hope of winning against the pros anyway, he decided he might as well spice things up for the cameras. Some started raising and check raising with garbage. To his considerable surprise, this proved an extremely effective strategy against opponents who folded too much.

I thought about this story when I recently got around to watching the GPL, and found myself considerably underwhelmed by the experience. My initial reaction was along the lines of:
(1) Watching a bunch of elite players play the same GTO strategy is incredibly dull
(2) When someone did diverge, it was usually a live pro making an exploitative play they presumably get away with live but is going to be very sub optimal against the elite players. Some of these deviations (being generous) or mistakes (less charitable) were so glaring they weren't the type you'd even have to run through one of the software tools to check if it was a mistake. They were the types of mistakes that would have me tearing my hair out and fearing my money was being set alight if I saw them in a hand history of someone I stake to play midstakes online
(3) As potentially tilting as it might be to see someone being hyped as a superstar of the felt making these types of mistakes, it's actually infinitely preferable to a table with Timex, Schemion, Busquet, Galfond, Holz and Kenney all playing the exact same perfectly GTO strategy. More entertaining for one thing, and the last thing pros need in this age of training videos is another easy way for recreational players to learn to ape optimal play

My secondary reaction was that I could quickly see why nearly all of my pro friends are watching and talking about it, but almost none of my more casual player friends are, and absolutely none of my non poker friends are. This is worrying from something we are told is supposed to popularise the game with the masses, make stars of the participants and revitalise poker.

So why has something which is a very noble attempt to reach out and make poker a sport that appeals to the masses had almost zero impact on that goal? I'm no expert, and all my comments on this are uninformed by actual industry experience, but for what it's worth here's my few cents.

First, why Twitch? A few poker players (notably Somerville and Staples) have done a brilliant job of building a large base of viewers, but for every one of those there must be a hundred others who have tried and failed to get past a few hundred viewers. In fact, even a few hundred is a lot in Twitch terms: there are some top players who get 20 or 30 viewers when they stream.

The GPL episode I watched reportedly got 6000 viewers. When I expressed surprise and disappointment at this number to a friend in the industry, her response was that's a lot for Twitch. I guess it is, but that then begs the question if something using Twitch as its platform has any hope of reaching out past the niche of a few thousand non elite pros who want to watch elite pros. How is that supposed to grow poker? Several years ago, I appeared on the only ever Irish attempt at a poker show, RTE's Late Night Stars of Poker. It was a similar format to the Poker Million (without the million prize pool) that broadcast in a graveyard time slot on a night when most people went out enjoying themselves rather than staying in watching cheap TV. When it was cancelled I was told this was because the viewership numbers were disastrous, coming in around 12000 on average. Double what GPL appears to be getting (and in theory the GPL has a target audience 2000 times bigger).

I recently listened to an interview with the producer of Poker Night in America. That also goes out on Twitch, but also on terrestrial TV (CBS I believe). He said the two formats have totally different audiences. Twitch reaches the hardcore, while CBS gets to the masses. The viewership figures of the latter (about half a million a week) completely dwarf the former. When we consider this, the easy conclusion is that something like the GPL which is just on Twitch has a great chance attracting a few thousand hardcore who already play the game, but zero chance of reaching a few hundred thousand who don't but might.

My second concern is the format. Watching screen avatars belonging to some of the world's elite players playing each other is not the same as watching them live. It's the TV equivalent of watching the Super Tuesday final table in replay. Lots of us who are really into poker do it, but there's a close to zero chance we could persuade any of our non poker playing friends to do it for more than a few minutes, and even if we somehow did get them to watch, then I doubt it will fuel a strong desire in them to start playing themselves.

Third, there's the commentators. Both Sam and Griffin are good lads, and entertaining commentators, if you're already a big online poker fan. Both are top notch players capable of dissecting the strategy expertly. They bring enthusiasm and some nerdy humour to the table, but they are not the kind of guys who will get the guy who barely knows the hand rankings let alone what GTO is fired up. Comic duos have always known you need a clown and a straight guy. Two clowns don't work, and two straight guys are even worse. In the early days of TV poker, a similar blueprint was found to be most effective when it came to commentary teams: you need the expert to do the strat stuff, and an Everyman to ask the right questions and inject some infectious humour and enthusiasm to get the Everymen at home fired up. I would argue that the archetypal poker Everyman Jesse May played a much bigger role in popularising TV poker than any actual player, or person. Jesse had the unique ability to make the mundane exciting. And let's be honest for a minute: a large part of the problem with poker as a spectacle is not that the players aren't characters, but that the same standard plays just keep coming up. But Jesse had the ability to make characters of the players, and moments of epic drama of the most mundane standard "they both have ten big blinds, and one of them has an ace and a king, and the other a queen with another queen" spots. It baffles me that Jesse doesn't still get every commentary gig going, and why an enterprise like the GPL whose mission statement is to broaden the appeal of poker thinks two smart experts trying to outsmart and out expert each other is the way to go.

Fourth, there's the headsup. Headsup poker baffles and bewilders casual poker players. There is probably no other form of the game where the gulf in skill and expertise between the pros and the fun players is as large. And as for beginners? Try explaining to them that Jack eight offsuit is a good hand headsup and a mandatory defend to a min raise. Obviously the earlier versions of poker TV ended as all tournaments do with a headsup battle but the players never started the battle particularly headsup so it was generally over pretty quick when two discernibly strong hands got it in preflop. But a beginner will watch a hand 100 bigs deep where the big blind calls, and check fold an ace ten four flop and find it neither illuminating nor entertaining. And then when the same player defends the same hand but check raises the king ten six flop they really won't understand what's going on.

Fifth, money. The chance to win big money is what makes poker attractive to most fans. When I talk to casual poker fans, they mainly focus on monetary sums.  The word Million was central to the appeal of the Poker Million. Poker is not alone in this. Footballers garner more respect and attention than ultramarathon runners at least in part because they earn so much more. The fact that the GPL players are basically playing for an hourly wage that is a small fraction of what most top online players make and a minute fraction of what real sportspeople make means it's always going to be tough to sell it as a big deal.

Sixth, even allowing for the fact that it's on Twitch rather than TV, it seems clear to me after discussing it with friends who have some TV experience that there are some basic fundamental  TV concepts that could be applied to make the presentation more attractive to a general audience. There's no shortage of people in the poker industry with TV experience but I wonder if any of them were even consulted. There's also a lot of mixed messages as to how GPL is being sold. On the one hand, there's the whole continuation of the GPI idea to "sportify poker" with this being presented as the absolute best against the best. This is understandable because central to the appeal of all major sporting events is the idea that all of the best performers in the world take part. Golf majors are majors because all the best golfers show up. All the best runners throwers and sprinters show up at the Olympics. Tournament poker already has a close equivalent to this but it isn't the GPL (it's called the World Series of Poker main event). The GPL undermines its own claims in both the players drafted (several of whom aren't even winning players any more as far as I know, let alone elite) and including actors who barely play. I have no problem with the idea that players (and even non players) should be selected on the basis of profile rather than prowess. It's always been the case that it's more appealing for the general public to watch some interesting characters, the best known players, and some celebs who know how to play battle. That's fine: but let's drop the pretence that this is anything other than that. Once people see that this is a nonsense claim, they'll start to doubt other less questionable claims being made for the GPL, and the whole enterprise loses credibility.

Let me wrap up by saying that while I've focussed entirely on what I see as wrong about the GPL, I would love nothing more than for me to be proven completely wrong. Poker needs a lift right now, and if the GPL is even partially responsible for growing its appeal, I'll be the first to applaud that. It's also worth remembering that many of the things which became very successful in spreading the poker word didn't get off to the best of starts. By all accounts the first few WSOPs did little to spread the appeal of poker beyond Texas road gamblers, and I remember after Coventry in season 1 of UKIPT thinking that the tour was dying on its baby feet. So I'm optimistic (or at least hopeful) that this might just be the ugly baby phase of something that can develop into something a lot better.

Related listening:

  • Recent appearance by me on Tournament Poker Edge Midstakes Living podcast where I talked some more about my initial impressions on the GPL, how I transitioned from running to poker, my struggles with life balance, and plans for Vegas this year


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