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Poker on TV is a fascinating phenomenon. Ratings for tournaments have grown exponentially since the introduction of the "hole cam." But what you see on the Travel Channel or ESPN represents a fraction of what actually happens during the final table taping. Showing every hand would take much longer than time allows and probably wouldn't be all that interesting.
So when I walked into the WPT studio in Foxwoods' Grand Pequot Ballroom to watch the final table of the Foxwoods Poker Classic, I was prepared to be bored for hours on end. Really, how interesting can a poker tournament be when you don't know the players' hole cards?
The answer, at least in the case of a WPT final table, is that it can still be captivating, though not necessarily always because of the play at the table. What follows is my running diary of the action at the final table.
SPOILER ALERT: If you plan on watching the tournament tonight and don't want to know who wins, stop reading and return to read this story tomorrow.
3:25: Walking into the ballroom, I immediately recognize the WPT set. Four towers of lights with "WPT" running down the face of each tower flank each corner of the poker table. Lights flash, and a set of bleachers surround three sides of the table.
Ryan (my colleague here at Casino City) and I have been working the poker beat for less than two months, so we are anything but established. As a result, we aren't provided spots on press row and we have to sit in the audience. Meanwhile, PokerWire.com has no less than five seats for their army of young, thin, belly button exposing ladies to blog the action.
Fortunately, there are no bad seats in the WPT stadium, with every one of the 200-plus spectators getting a great view of the table, at least until the cameramen start getting in the way. However, there is no shortage of TV screens to watch the action when your view becomes obstructed, with one large flat screen in front of each section of bleachers and a projection screen behind each section.
3:45: The players arrive and wander around the table. I don't recognize any of them, and therefore have yet to develop a rooting interest. They all look lost and a little overwhelmed by the set. Linda Johnson uses her "First Lady" status to get the players' attention, prepping them for the final table by explaining how to show their cards to the pocket cam.
3:46: Paul "The Truth" Darden and his wife sit in the audience across from me. He's here to watch his friend Victor Ramdin, one of the finalists. Darden is a Connecticut native and Foxwoods is his home turf. Dressed in a long sleeve white T-shirt with "The Truth" airbrushed in black and red on the front, Darden looks like he's ready to defend it.
3:47: Courtney Friel makes her first appearance, donning a pink dress revealing plenty of cleavage. I'm still a Shana guy, but Courtney is truly stunning. Perhaps her most striking feature is how jacked her arms are. I'm certain she could beat me in an arm wrestling contest.
3:52: Mike Sexton arrives to warm applause from the crowd, shakes hands with the players and heads to the booth.
3:54: Players pose for photos.
3:55: Tim Anders, aka "Dr. Hope," is seated in the bleachers adjacent to mine. Anders finished fourth at the WPT event at the Aviation Club in Paris last summer, broadcast by the Travel Channel in late March. Anders is easily recognizable because of his signature long white hair and beard, Panama hat, and white camo Oakleys. While he busted out on Day One of this event, he recouped some of his losses by relieving Ryan of some hard earned cash in a no-limit side game later that night.
4:00: The fog machine is turned on to add to the ambience of the set. The players will walk through this mist to get to the table. I hope that this is only for the introductions, because it's right next to where I'm sitting and it makes a hell of a racquet.
4:02: Vince Van Patten arrives. There is no applause. Meanwhile, the Star Spangled Banner goes off in my head.
4:05: Courtney appears larger than life on the projection screen TVs. She is standing above the set where the losers will have the consolation of talking with Courtney Friel after busting out of the tournament. Accompanying her is an older gentleman for this short screen test. Grinning from ear-to-ear, it seems he is certain that her dress will fall off at any moment.
4:08: The First Lady welcomes the crowd and lays down the law, telling us to turn our cell phones on "pleasure mode." I immediately attempt to purge my short-term memory in an attempt to maintain sanity.
She introduces Sexton and Van Patten, then gives us the obligatory "you can't see the cards and neither can Mike or Vince" statement. She "reveals" that most of their commentary is done post-production.
4:12: The First Lady continues to prep the audience, working with the cameramen to get sample crowd reactions. This kills me. They tape crowd reactions BEFORE the tournament even begins! Later on they will splice these reactions into the tournament coverage. Is this legal? I don't know if I'll ever take these things seriously again. It's like finding out they pay the audience to ask inflammatory questions on Springer.
4:15: The First Lady throws T-shirts into each section of bleachers to the "best actors." One deflects off several hands and falls directly into Darden's lap. A fan in front of him turns around and grabs the shirt away. Darden wears his best poker face, and I can't tell if he thinks its funny or if he's about to punch the guy in the back of the head.
4:17: The lights begin to randomly flash around the crowd, and player introductions begin. Here are our players …
Seat One: Bruce Kater, the table's short stack, starts with $564,000 in chips. With his shaved head, tiny wire frame sunglasses and a creepy mustache, Kater bears a striking resemblance to Cypher from The Matrix.
Seat Two: Alex Jacob, a 21-year old Yale student is in fourth with $1,066,000. Jacob has a typical Ivy League support group: young and much more comfortable in an online card room than a physical one. Unlike their state school frat boy brethren, the Ivies are a reserved bunch during the tournament.
Seat Three: John Russell starts the day in fifth with $639,000 in chips. Not much remarkable about Russell, which should give you an indication how long he ends up lasting.
Seat Four: Ed Jordan, our chip leader with $2,875,000. With over a third of the chips in play, Jordan sits in excellent position to take the title.
Seat Five: Victor Ramdin, second in chips with $1,793,000, and the man Darden is here to watch. In the interest of self-preservation, I decide to root for him.
Seat Six: Larry Klur, who starts the day third in chips with $1,687,000. The second bald man at the table, when Klur smiles he looks just like the actor who played Chevy Chase's father, Clark W. Griswold Sr., in Christmas Vacation (played by the late John Randolph). Health and welfare be damned, I'm rooting for this guy.
4:22: Starting blind levels are announced at 15K/30K with a 3K ante. Mike and Vince introduce the event for the cameras, and the First Lady declares "Let's shuffle up and deal!"
4:29: The first four hands go by with no one brave enough to call a preflop raise. Someone's cell phone rings and the First Lady chastises the audience, reminding us once again to use "pleasure mode" on our phones. I don't think the word pleasure will have the same meaning ever again.
4:31: A flop! Cypher's preflop raise was called by Jordan in the big blind. With 2-2-6 on the board and a check by Jordan, the short stack moves all-in and the chip leader folds.
4:42: Courtney is in the loser's interview area, doing intros in preparation for the player feature portions of the broadcast. (Alex Jacob is a student at Yale, but this 21-year old Ivy Leaguer …). Ryan reports that it's taken her at least two dozen takes to finish Ivy Boy's. I'm convinced Shana could have done this in one take.
4:45: Victor dominates Cypher, knocking out the short stack with A-Q vs. A-10 in hand 10. Cypher proceeds immediately to Cedar's Steak House for dinner with Agent Smith.
4:51: Jordan bullies Ivy Boy with his chip lead, reraising him 200K after an 80K raise. Ivy Boy folds and drinks an entire glass of water.
4:52: After just 13 hands, there is a dealer change. Not a bad gig, deal 13 hands, go take a 90 minute break. During the break, glittery cocktail waitresses in skimpy outfits deliver drinks to the players.
5:01: Soft-spoken Mike Ward, Foxwoods' Poker Tournament Director, takes over as our emcee, as the First Lady takes a break. Thanks to the humming fog machine, I haven't been able to hear a thing that the players have said at the table. Thanks to Mike's unassuming voice, I can't hear him either, despite the microphone he's holding.
5:02: Ivy Boy gets smacked around again on hand 16, as Russell, our new short stack check-raises all-in after a flop of 10-6-5. After blinking 400 times, Ivy Boy folds and downs three glasses of water.
5:07: Russell gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar on hand 18, moving all-in with A-J. Ramdin, sitting in the small blind, looks at his cards and breaks into a huge smile. He stands up and declares all-in over the top, gesturing his chips forward with his arms, Humberto Brenes style. He might as well yell out to the rest of the players "I HAVE ACES!" Griswold Sr. folds from the big blind, and Ramdin's aces hold up to eliminate Russell in fifth place.
5:13: Ivy Boy doubles up to about $1.2 million on the next hand when his pocket sixes hold up against Jordan's A-K.
5:22: First break in action, the players got through 23 hands in the first hour. Blinds increase to 25K/50K with a 5K ante. The tournament staff works to color up the $1,000 chips.
5:40: Ivy Boy takes a major hit, finally calling a $700K raise by Jordan on the river after thinking for four minutes and blinking 3,718 times. Jordan shows a suited 6-7, which means he hit running 8-9 to make a 10-high straight. Ivy Boy is down to less than $600,000 in chips, and his glass of water has just been emptied.
6:07: Ivy Boy goes all-in four times in eight hands. The others at the table fold every time as he builds his stack back up to almost $1 million.
6:18: With the board reading A-7-6-A-4 with three spades, Ivy Boy moves all-in against Ramdin, who thinks long and hard about calling the $625K bet. After Ramdin declares that he no longer wants to be in the chair he's sitting in, the First Lady tells him he can't "poll the audience or phone a friend." Ramdin folds, and Ivy Boy is back in the million chip club.
6:29: Dr. Hope, who had stepped out over an hour ago, returns to the room sans Panama hat. Is there anything funnier than a man with silver hair halfway down his back sporting a bad case of hat head?
6:35: Ivy Boy moves all-in on three of four hands, and again no one calls. He is up to $1.7 million.
6:40: After the blinds increase to $40K/$80K with a $10K ante, Vince Van Patten gets caught munching on snacks during a hand and attempts to swallow quickly as Griswold Sr. moves all-in, but Jordan folds, saving Van Patten from spitting crackers all over the set.
6:52: Ivy Boy is blinking again after Griswold Sr. reraised him all-in on hand 50. Griswold Sr. stares right at Ivy Boy with one hand on his bald dome. When Ivy Boy folds, Griswold Sr. shows him pocket aces, and Ivy Boy rewards himself for his solid lay down by drinking 18 glasses of water.
6:58: During the second break, Darden calls someone on his cell phone to give an update on the action. I consider the sheer terror I would feel if "The Truth" came up on my caller ID.
7:00: The First Lady gets her makeup touched up by the crew while Griswold Sr. gets a powder treatment on his naked noggin. His shiny scalp must be blinding on screen.
Chip counts after the second break
7:08: A member of the set crew puts the fog machine in a box to buffer the sound. Thank God! For the first time, I can actually hear what the players are saying.
7:10: Griswold Sr. spills his drink all over the set. The First Lady calls for a mop-up crew, then asks Griswold Sr. what he's drinking so the sparkly ladies can get him a refill. "Just water," Griswold Sr. replies. Just water? Isn't he supposed to be getting help from Jack Daniels?
7:14: After counting out the chip stacks, the First Lady declares that she just makes up the numbers as she goes along, so you can take all the chip count updates from here on out with a grain of salt.
7:22: Now three hours into the action, some spectators are getting restless. A married couple, regulars in the Foxwoods Poker Room, gets up to leave after hand 60. The First Lady asks where they are going. The husband, dressed in an obnoxious yellow Hawaiian shirt, replies: "We're going to play poker!" I love this game. Can you imagine leaving a Major League Baseball game halfway through to go play in a beer league game?
7:24: Ivy Boy has moved all-in on three of four hands, and has taken the pot down without showing his cards each time.
7:29: Jordan raises and Ivy Boy goes all-in over the top for an extra $1.235 million. Jordan considers, and a member of the set decides that this is a good time to add more water to the fog machine. Sigh. Jordan folds.
7:35: More than three hours into the tournament and with no end in sight, the stream of spectators leaving grows. The WPT doesn't like empty seats in the stands when it airs championships, for good reason. The First Lady admonishes them … "Quitters!"
7:44: Ivy Boy takes the chip lead after, you guessed it, moving all-in over the top of Griswold Sr. Ivy Boy has moved all-in 13 times in the last 44 hands.
7:53: Ivy Boy smooth calls Jordan's big blind, then re-raises all-in to take another $350K off the former chip leader.
7:55: Blinds move up to $60K/$120K with a $15K ante after hand 75.
8:04: The Ivy Camel downs his 19th pint of Poland Springs.
8:35: The crowd grows restless during a 10-minute break as no one has been eliminated for over three hours. The First Lady attempts to keep the masses entertained with jokes: "Two Irishmen walk into a bar … it could happen!"
8:37: Play resumes … chip counts after the break
8:43: Cookie Jar Alert! Griswold Sr. raised to $700K in first position on hand 88, and Ramdin raised all-in with A-J. Given the pot odds, Griswold Sr. calls the extra $415K with 6-8 suited. His hand doesn't improve, and Ramdin and Griswold Sr. swap positions, with our hero taking the place of the short stack. SQUIRRELL!
8:50: Two hands later, the hopes of the Griswold family fall by the wayside. Griswold Sr. was a 9-1 favorite after he paired his ace on the flop, but Jordan hit runner-runner with pocket fours to make a wheel.
Griswold Sr. was clearly a crowd favorite, and he smiles and waves at the crowd as they shower him with a standing ovation. Time for Griswold Sr. to make the switch from water to Jack.
9:02: The Ivy Camel goes all-in on four consecutive hands, including twice from the big blind after Jordan raised to $400K from the button.
9:06: Ramdin calls Jordan's all-in reraise, putting his tournament on the line with A-Q. His hand dominates Jordan's suited Q-6, and Ramdin gives us the first "Come on! One time!" of the final table. Jordan hits a six on the flop, but Ramdin, needing a spade or an ace on the river to survive, catches the ace of diamonds to double up.
With renewed life, Ramdin gets up from the table and gives a double fist pump. Darden congratulates his friend and breaks a smile for the first time in the tournament. Ramdin does a little jig at the table. Meanwhile, Jordan experiences a massive swing in a period of 15 minutes and is now the short stack with just $310K.
9:12: On hand 100, Ramdin calls from the button, hoping to eliminate Jordan, who is in the big blind. Ivy Boy doesn't quite get the strategy, raising to $400K, and Jordan calls all-in with $250K. Ramdin shakes his head and throws daggers at Ivy before finally calling the raise.
The flop comes K-5-2 with two hearts, and Ivy Camel bets out for $500K. Ramdin again shakes his head, this time as he folds, and I secretly hope Jordan triples up just so I can watch Ramdin's head explode. Turns out Ivy Boy hit top two pair on the flop. The turn gives Ivy Boy a boat, and the tournament is now heads up.
9:18: After a small celebration by Ramdin and some loafing with his friends by Ivy Boy, the First Lady interviews both before heads up play begins. When asked if this would be his biggest win, Ramdin replies "Yes," before quickly correcting himself. "Wait, no. My biggest win was when I met my wife." Good save, my friend, good save.
9:22: The money presentation begins. Four lovely ladies enter the stage in black dresses and high heels. Each carries a black suitcase filled with cash. They approach the table simultaneously and dump the dough on the felt. Courtney follows behind with the championship trophy.
There is a noticeable lack of security, and with $1.3 million supposedly on the table, it most likely that, unlike the World Series of Poker, the cash on display is fake (repeated attempts to obtain this information from Foxwoods were unanswered).
9:27: The First Lady again tries to keep the crowd involved as we enter the fifth hour of play by giving away WPT T-shirts to people in the crowd who can answer WPT trivia questions correctly. "What's Courtney Friel's favorite pastime?" she asks. After several bonehead guesses ("Playing poker!"), one guy throws out "Long walks on the beach?" Close enough for the First Lady, who reveals that Courtney enjoys power walking in her spare time. Hearing her name mentioned, Courtney wants to find out how Mr. Cheese knows so much about her. One of his buddies is nice enough to throw him under the bus: "He stalks you!" Courtney takes it all in stride, laughing with the crowd.
9:34: Heads up play finally begins. Blinds move to $100K/$200K with a $20K ante.
Chips stacks entering heads up play:
9:42: Ivy Boy goes all-in three of the first four heads up hands, including two hands Ramdin flat called from the small blind. He wins eight of the first 12 hands as Ramdin knows Ivy Boy will go all-in if he makes any bet whatsoever.
9:48: In the 17th heads up hand, Ivy Boy slow plays his A-K of clubs, flat calling from the small blind. Ramdin moves all-in for $2.115 million with pocket nines, and Ivy Boy quickly calls. Ramdin trips up with a nine on the flop and takes the chip lead.
9:50: The players are given a break after 18 heads up hands. Dr. Hope has returned to watch the final two and has changed into a black suit. I could never get sick of seeing that guy around, but I think Ryan is getting a little tired of being reminded of his losses on the no-limit table.
9:58: Play resumes, with Ramdin holding a $1 million chip lead.
9:59: Ivy Boy moves all-in on the first hand after the break, Ramdin calls. Ivy Boy's K-J is dominated by Ramdin's A-J. Neither player shows any emotion as the flop comes Q-7-3. Still no reaction when the turn brings an 8. Finally, when a Jack is revealed on the river to give Ramdin the title, he celebrates by laying belly down on the table. He gets up and shares an awkward man-hug with Ivy Boy, who looks stunned. I'm not sure if it's because he just lost out on over $600K, or if it's because Victor Ramdin just hugged him. Darden comes out of the stands to congratulate Ramdin and looks more pleased than he did when he won his own WPT title in Season One.
10:10: After some celebrating by Ramdin and his fans, Sexton and Van Patten jump into action, getting ready for the closing remarks. Sexton goofs, calling Ivy Boy "Alex Jordan" instead of "Alex Jacob," then blames Ivy Boy for not being right next to him when he started.
10:12: The second take goes well, and Sexton closes the show with his standard line: "Until next time, may all your cards be live and your pots be monsters!"
Conclusions: All in all, watching the final table of a World Poker Tour championship live is worth the experience … once. It is interesting to watch the momentum of the tournament change as time goes on, something that doesn't always translate on TV, as they don't show every hand. That said, I don't know if I could take another Linda Johnson "pleasure mode" line, and frankly, the action gets a little bit boring. You only see about 20 hands an hour and there was a flop on roughly one quarter of the hands.
Truly, the best way to watch the final table is to see the edited version on television, complete with player hole cards, from your living room couch. Unless, of course, you manage to get a seat at the final table yourself.
In his previous life, Aaron Todd was a sports journalist by day and a poker player by night. He can now be found covering the poker beat for Casino City and making horrendously unsuccessful bluffs in his home game. Write to Aaron at firstname.lastname@example.org.