It wasn’t so much that eventual champion Joe McKeehen displayed the creepy personality and non-existent social skills of someone who had been held captive in a basement for most of his formative years. Or the fact his chip lead was so big the win felt like a foregone conclusion.
Those things certainly didn’t help increase the entertainment factor. But the real reason this final table broadcast was so lame had more to do with fifth-place finisher Zvi Stern than anyone else.
Stern’s tanking put the issue in ESPN spotlight
Stern took an excessive amount of time with each and every decision. He went deep into the tank every time it came to him, emerging only after several minutes for even the most simple of decisions.
The man pondered folding rags preflop like it was life or death.
I fell asleep at one point while he was mulling something over behind his omnipresent sunglasses and hoodie. I woke up 15 minutes later, and it was still on him. He hadn’t moved an inch. If I didn’t know any better, I would have sworn it was the same hand. I went back to sleep with Stern still tanking it out.
Tanking becoming an industry-wide issue
This turned a lot of people off from not just the broadcast, but the game itself. Poker, which once seemed so exciting when amateurs like Chris Moneymaker were taking on seasoned pros and miraculously winning the 2003 WSOP Main Event, now seemed boring. The game was beginning to look more like some deeply cerebral pursuit that had no place on a sports network like ESPN.
It wasn’t just Stern either. Excessive tanking suddenly seemed to be everywhere in poker. It was almost as if tanking was a new strategy to help tilt less patient opponents. It was almost certainly a strategy being employed on the bubble of most events, as players tried to squeak out a little ROI.
From a TV viewing perspective, it appeared excessive tanking was ruining the game. But that wasn’t the only problem. The poker economy is dependent upon a steady flow of new money into the game. It was suddenly obvious very few people were going to sign up for a game where most of their time is spent watching opponents stare blankly at each other, almost endlessly.
People crave emotional connection. They want excitement. Poker was suddenly lacking it and that was due in no small part to all the excessive tanking.
Qui Nguyen livens poker back up
Thankfully, the 2016 WSOP Main Event final table TV broadcast brought us Qui Nguyen. He gambled his way to a world title. It was exciting. Plus, the rest of the cast of characters at the final table played with a much faster pace. The broadcast was considerably more entertaining and the excessive tanking just wasn’t there.
However, it did creep into some lead-up TV episodes prior to the final table, mostly as the saga of William Kassouf played out. Kassouf’s 2016 WSOP Main Event story was really more about excessive chatter than tanking. However, as the event wore on, he was certainly guilty of both. Endless debate may never solve the issue of how to shut players like Kassouf up, or if there’s even a need to. One thing was clear though, something still needed to be done about all the tanking.
WSOP changes clock rules
Thankfully, with just weeks until the 2017 WSOP kicks off, Caesars stepped in to do just that.
The WSOP brass stopped short of introducing a shot clock, like the one in online poker and an increasing number of live tournaments. However, they will be allowing participants to call the clock on other players a lot quicker. Plus, they’ve given tournament staff the power to put the clock on any player they feel is tanking excessively. The floor can now act even before players at the table start complaining about it.
In past years, players had to wait two minutes, otherwise defined as a reasonable amount of time, before they could call the clock. The floor would be called over and the dealer asked if the player had a reasonable amount of time. If the answer was yes, the player would get a one-minute clock with a 10-second countdown.
New rules for calling the clock
Now, the clock can be called on a player who is consistently tanking at any time. Plus, the length of that clock will be between 10 and 40 seconds, and up to the floor’s discretion.
It remains to be seen how much of an effect this will have on the amount of people stalling on the bubble of WSOP events to increase their chances of cashing. Or how many of those with infinitely large decision trees decide it’s finally time to do a little trimming. However, it’s almost a guarantee the 2017 WSOP will see a record number of clocks called under these new rules.
In the end, one can only hope the new rules stem the tide of this tanking epidemic. That way, we can applaud the WSOP, not just for trying to end excessive tanking in poker, but for actually doing it.