I sat back on Monday night, after all the good college basketball games were over, and prepared for the premiere of the newest poker program on the air: Annie Duke and Phil Hellmuth's Best Damn Poker Show on the Fox Sports Network.
What I found: While the debut episode was fine, we're clearly running out of ideas for poker shows.
If you read my article on the show, then you know the basics. Thirty-six people chosen from around the world battle it out not only for the pot but also for the esteem of both Annie and Phil. This is important because, after a few weeks of competition, they will choose up teams and play down to an eventual champion who will receive a seat at the 2008 World Series of Poker.
From the start, however, more of the focus was on Duke and Hellmuth than on the poker play.
The first 10 minutes delved mostly into the combativeness of the show's hosts (in an obviously heavily edited segment) as they shouted and argued more about the differences in their personalities than about the poker being played.
While this was fun (and who didn't like Annie's portrayal of Phil's psychological meltdown at the 2004 WSOP Tournament of Champions?), it took the focus away from the players. Except for some pseudo-celebrity sprinklings, they were mostly unknowns, but it would have been nice to learn more info on each of them in order to form an opinion. That kind of format could have made the show a bit like a poker Survivor.
After the initial sparring sessions, the 36 players divided up into six tables, but only one table was the focus of professional attention. As they analyzed the play, they would decide who would be ejected from the competition. As those who saw the first hour know, it wasn't always on the merits of the chips on the table.
"I just want you to know," Annie cautioned the players before the first hands were played, "that aggression will be rewarded." After she left, Phil countered, "I just want you to know that, for me, that may not be true."
The first table was pretty bland but some of the comments from Annie and Phil were interesting. As a player made a call with a suited J-10, Annie offered up, "That is the most overrated hand in poker." Phil commented on an older gentleman named Rich who was running away with the early action, "He's played Q-10, suited and unsuited, twice and gotten very lucky."
When Rich once again limped in from the small blind with a suited 5-3 and flopped a straight, he fired out into the pot and his opponents folded. With that move, both Annie and Phil stopped the game and bounced the chip leader at the table despite his large stack.
This was a point where I had some issue with the premise of the program. While Annie and Phil emphasized there was a "right" way to play poker (a claim often made by the twosome during the run of the first program and one with some truth in it, to be honest), many would argue the right way isn't always the profitable way.
Some would say that chip count and post-flop play should definitely be considered. It was plain from the comments of Rich as he walked away from the tables ("I don't like the way they made their decision") that he didn't agree with the pros.
For the second table, the "managers" of Team Hellmuth (Mark "PokerHo" Kroon, a top online player at UltimateBet) and Team Duke (Shawn Rice, a noted live and online player in his own right) both said two different women at the new featured table were passive and should be eliminated.
This didn't exactly put women players in the best light but, after watching the two play, it was obvious the managers' observations were spot-on. And when Sarah (one of the two women) laid down a suited ace twice in the blinds against standard raises, Annie and Phil had their second victim.
Passive play would also lead to the quickest elimination the program will probably see. On the first hand with the third featured table, Tara, after seeing a raise and a re-raise in front of her, laid down a suited A-K on the button. That was enough for Annie and Phil to rocket out of their Coaches Room and bounce her from the competition.
"After a raise and a re-raise, I figured I was beat and let it go," Tara painfully explained to the professionals. "In a normal tournament's early going yes, it is not a bad idea," Phil countered. "But in this type of competition, you take your chances and go for it."
This was unfortunate as, given time, Tara might have proven herself to be a competent player (a point also articulated by Annie and Phil). And I would have liked to see them wait more than one hand to make their decision.
Overall, though, the show is a pleasant enough pursuit that I'll be tuning in each week, but, as stated earlier, Best Damn Poker Show demonstrates that producers are scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to ideas for poker programming.
After running through celebrities, amateur home games and other "made for television" ideas, we're left with a Survivor-like show where people choose who goes - not by what the chips say, but what their opinion of their play is. While some of us might like to be able to do that at the tables sometimes, it isn't the way the game is judged.
Nonetheless, if you're looking for some television poker to pass your time over the next six weeks, Best Damn Poker Show isn't a bad way to go about it.