What Poker Can Learn From the Olympics

by , Aug 8, 2008 | 8:36 pm

In case your Friday night included something more interesting than watching TV (mine didn’t), I’m here to tell you that the summer Olympics “started” with the Opening Ceremonies tonight. Actually, the ceremonies took place about half a day ago in Beijing, but NBC is presenting them in a “plausibly live” format during prime time. Hmmm … where have I heard that term (“plausibly live”) before? 

For 17 days, the Olympics will dominate NBC’s networks here in the United States, and fill up enough news coverage to finally give Americans a break from the seemingly endless presidential election. (Other countries are fortunate in the fact that they generally get less nationalistic — and often more interesting — coverage than NBC provides here in the U.S.)

During that time, I’ll be writing about some things the poker industry can learn from the Olympics. Not the game itself, or the silly notion that poker should be added to the Olympics. I’m mainly concerned with the media coverage, and what we as poker reporters can learn from it. 

No analogy is perfect, but the World Series of Poker has some interesting similarities to the Olympics. It’s a multi-week festival that comprises a lot of different events featuring thousands of competitors from around the world. And both the WSOP and the Olympics are much, much more than the sum of their parts. 

What do I mean by that? Well, the story of the Superbowl (NFL) or baseball’s World Series is ultimately the final score. The same goes for a major WPT or EPT event — it’s all about the players at the final table, and which one claims the title and the million-dollar prize. Sure there are other stories along the way, but they all feed into the overarching narrative of “Who wins?”

At the WSOP (like the Olympics), there are a lot of stories that aren’t tied to specific events, like multi-bracelet winners, the POY race, and Vinny Vinh. There are also threats of dealer strikes, stories of competing media outlets, and various poker press conferences — movie announcements (ex: “Lucky You”), lawsuits (ex: players vs. the WPT), and industry deals (ex: Full Tilt signing Patrik Antonius). You even have the Gaming Life Expo, with less eye candy than previous years because there are fewer hookers strippers female models in the booths. 

I’m not suggesting that we should change the WSOP to mirror the Olympics. But WSOP coverage has felt lacking in certain areas to me, and those who cover the Olympics face similar problems — multiple events going on simultaneously, unknown winners, and side stories that often have nothing to do with a specific event. 

I’ve competed in been to the Olympics twice, Atlanta in 1996 and Salt Lake City in 2002. Both times, I went all out, attending multiple events every day and spending as much time as possible in the thick of the crowds. Since 2004 I’ve been spending my summers at the WSOP, and I’ve observed some things that I think could be improved. That’s what I’ll be writing about here at Pokerati the next two weeks. Stay tuned. 

I’ll close out this first Olympic-themed entry with a few basic stats:

2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing
Competitors:  10,500
Events:  302
Unique sports:  28
Total prizepool:  $0

2008 World Series of Poker
Competitors:  58,720
Events:  55
Unique games:  16
Total prizepool:  $180,676,248


14 Comments to “What Poker Can Learn From the Olympics”


  1. shronk
    says:

    Here is why it’s awesome knowing BJ:

    Hey BJ, have any Olympians ever played in the WSOP?

    He won’t be able to sleep now ’til he finds out, and I don’t have to do any research. 😉


  2. BJ Nemeth
    says:

    You bastard, Shronk!

    Fortunately, I already know the answer to this, and can get some sleep. The answer is — Yes. I can think of at least one off the top of my head (not just an Olympian; he also won a bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996).


  3. Ed
    says:

    “During that time, I’ll be writing about some things the poker industry can learn from the Olympics.”

    Like what to do with cheaters?


  4. BJ Nemeth
    says:

    *** Like what to do with cheaters? ***

    As a matter of fact, I *was* thinking that this might be a good opportunity to bring back that discussion. 🙂


  5. BJ Nemeth
    says:

    Okay, Shronk, you’ve kept me up for another hour. Satisfied?

    Finding common links between the Olympics and the WSOP is not easy. I now have a list of two Olympians who have played in the WSOP, but there are probably more. Tennis players in particular seem like the most likely to straddle both worlds.

    Antonio Tarver
    Bronze Medal in Boxing, 1996 Olympics (Atlanta)
    WSOP Main Event, 2006 & 2007

    Yevgeny Kafelnikov
    Gold Medal in Tennis, 2000 Olympics (Sydney)
    2005 WSOP: 3 Cashes, including 1 final table bubble

    Boris Becker (maybe)
    Gold Medal in Tennis, 1992 Olympics (Barcelona)
    New Member of Team PokerStars; not sure if he played in a WSOP


  6. BJ Nemeth
    says:

    Jan Sorensen has two WSOP bracelets, and played for Denmark’s national football (soccer) team from 1977-1980. But it looks like Denmark didn’t send a football team to Moscow for the 1980 Olympics, so he doesn’t make the list. Damn … once I thought of him, I figured he was a cinch for playing in both the Olympics and the WSOP.

    Here’s one more verified player to add to the list:

    Lennox Lewis
    Represented Canada in Boxing, 1984 Olympics (Los Angeles)
    WSOP Main Event, 2006 & 2007

    So far, boxers and tennis players seem like good candidates.


  7. DanM
    says:

    ***He won’t be able to sleep now ’til he finds out, and I don’t have to do any research. ***

    Shronk … I like the way you think.


  8. Short-Stacked Shamus
    says:

    Also — as I’m sure BJ plans to discuss — a large number of countries send participants to the WSOP. I believe the figure announced this year was that there were players from 104 different countries total (heading into the ME). I think there were 204 countries represented at the opening ceremonies last night.

    Another thing: last night I took a peek at some of the online streaming of an early women’s b-ball game, and saw that instead of announcers they had a little chat box-like mini-blog going in the corner where reporters were typing commentary. Had a quick flashback there to the live blogging at the WSOP.

    Definitely an interesting analogy to pursue here. Am looking forward to more.


  9. Johnny Hughes
    says:

    The opening ceremonies convinced me that China must totally love Esther Williams movies.


  10. Kevin Mathers
    says:

    How about Charles Barkley.


  11. Kevin Mathers
    says:

    Plausibly live coverage has been a fact of life for the Olympics for decades. For poker, there’s a USA Today article that mentions how ESPN is airing the WSOP ME final table in 2005.


  12. Gabe
    says:

    Well, Dan, you can compare movies based on the Olympics to movies based on poker. Or ask the question, why isn’t there a Special World Series of Poker?


  13. DanM
    says:

    Gabe, this is our new guy, BJ’s post, not mine. Trust me, I can’t do/say anything when it comes to movies.


  14. DanM
    says:

    Speaking of the Olympics, I’m currently watching women’s beach volleyball. (America vs. Japan.) Wow. What an amazing sport. Seriously.

    BTW, does anyone happen to know what channel LV Cox is showing the special NBC Olympic Soccer channel on? I can’t find it.