“World Series of Poker”: I’m all in

There are all types of drama to be found this fall on TV.

Dr. House choosing a new team, the Dillon Panthers dealing with a new coach and the Bachelor find a new Mrs., but my favorite white-knuckle ride involves a turn of the cards. Literally.Norman

I’m a poker junkie and ESPN’s Tuesday night “World Series of Poker” coverage of the main event from Las Vegas has kept me riveted for months. I was up at 5:30 this morning watching the two hours I had Tivo’d last night.

The cabler’s poker producer, Jamie Horowitz, says you needn’t be a fan to enjoy, which is true … to a point. It’s tough for someone who doesn’t know the difference between a flush and full house to appreciate the skill of these pros and amateurs, but if they do, and they can understand the ramifications — millions of dollars won or lost with a single card — they’ll quickly realize the tension here is the equivalent of a “Lost” fan (which I am one) wondering who’s going to make it off the island alive.

“Poker lends itself to great television,” Horowitz says. “The key is good storytelling.”

As the field winds down in the main event, ESPN does a nice job of profiling the players who remain: what makes them tick, their life history, how they got here, etc.

Folks such as Phil Hellmuth, Mike Matasow and Daniel Negreanu  — all of whom have been eliminated from winning — are all world-class talkative players who try to get under their opponents skin with constant chatter. It’s often a winning strategy.

“We see this in a lot of sports,” Horowitz says. “There are certain players who believe they can get inside people’s heads.”

And then there are players who are just plain annoying, like Hevad Khan, who does a cringe-inducing dance every time he wins a hand.

Meanwhile, I’m happy just watching players play — their strategy, the bluffs, when they go all in, on what hands do they fold — and absorb and learn for my own home-game purposes.

ESPN, which is contracted with the WSOP until 2010, upped their main event coverage this year to 16 hours. Ratings are down significantly — 19% down in total households from last year — but certainly not because the event is less entertaining than in years past.

Credit should to be paid to the top-notch announcing team of Lon McEachern and Norman Chad (pictured above; McEachern’s on the left). McEachern plays Chad’s straight man and the two are the Al Michaels and John Madden of poker. (Disclaimer: I’m Norman’s cousin by marriage).

Like anything else, there’s an ebb and flow to poker, which saw a huge rise in popularity in 2003 when amateur Chris Moneymaker (how’s that for a great name) won the World Series and a few million bucks that goes along with it.

Granted, poker isn’t for everyone and the ratings downtrend might indicate the phenomenon might be on the wane. For me, though, it’s still pocket aces.

— Stuart Levine