Sunday, April 2, 2006

Don't believe what you see on television

While watching televised poker is an excellent way to learn how to play the game, you really need to be careful about how you interpret what you're seeing.

The key point to remember is that you're watching an edited-down poker show. You're not seeing all the hands played, and that can give you a skewed version of what is really happening.

For example, you might have seen me make a bluff in a certain situation that looked foolish because my opponent called. What you might not have seen, however, is how that silly bluff paid off later in the game.

There is always more to the story than what you see on television.

ESPN's coverage is fantastic, but the product is basically a highlight reel of an all-day final table. It would be impossible to tell the whole story in the amount of airtime that they have, so you're left seeing crowd-pleasing confrontations like A-K against a pair of jacks.

You might be wondering how these players get so many great hands. Well, they don't. You're seeing the most exciting hands from a nine-hour final.

The Travel Channel's poker show, World Poker Tour, is a little closer to reality. Two hours are dedicated to each WPT broadcast, and the final table generally lasts between four to five hours. However, there are also inherent problems with learning from this show.

Although you're seeing a much higher percentage of hands, play is distorted by the fact that the blinds escalate so quickly that the element of skill is reduced. As a result, you'll see players going all-in with K-5 and other players calling with hands like K-10.

That's not real poker, and if you operate this way in a normal tournament setting, you're playing far too recklessly and aggressively.

Check out GSN
Television's best teaching tool is undoubtedly GSN's High Stakes Poker. This program brings together professionals and amateurs, including the likes of Jerry Buss and Bob Stupak, in an actual cash game setting. The blinds don't escalate and the goal isn't necessarily to get all the money.

Players compete for cash that they put up themselves. I actually plopped down a million bucks to play in this game. Sure, I was paid $1,250 per hour to be on the show, but if the cards didn't go my way, I could have lost my entire investment.

High Stakes Poker takes 24 hours of footage and breaks it down into a 13-week series. The play is very sophisticated and as close to watching high stakes live poker as you're going to get. Even with this show, I'd add the following caution at the bottom of the screen: Viewer discretion is advised. Do not try these plays at home!

Why? Again, the play is very advanced. Copying these moves and trying them on your buddies at your home game might not work so well.

Learn what you can
Having said all that, watching poker on television is still the best way to learn how to play No Limit Hold'em — short of actually sitting down at a real table. The key is to understand what you're watching and take everything with a grain of salt.

It's important to understand that players on ESPN don't get better cards than those on The Travel Channel. On top of that, television likes to show the craziest hands. Going all-in with J-6 isn't such a great idea, even if you've seen Gus Hansen try it on the World Poker Tour.

By all means, learn what you can from the professionals on television, but understand you're seeing only the tip of the proverbial poker iceberg.