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Monkey dances, sharks and no class - oh my!
I have been reliving the 2007 World Series of Poker Championship Event on ESPN over the past few weeks, and in general, it has been worth the time. The tremendous skill that most of the players show in playing for long hours and many days makes for entertaining viewing.
Other than some changes I would like to see to the broadcasts (that's another article in itself), I noticed something that has been burning me since I've been covering poker tournaments.
It's time all of the major poker organizations and perhaps poker rooms themselves take a look at the infantile, pandering, grandstanding actions of many tournament participants and institute new standards to return the game to a more genteel setting.
For those of you who missed some of the lowlights of the World Series, let me give you a run-down. One of the feature performers was Hevad "RaiNKhaN" Khan, a tremendously talented online player who eventually made it to the final table of the Main Event and finished in sixth place.
When he won several hands leading up to the final table, Hevad, when a camera was around, would break into what some have called his "Monkey Dance" but what basically gave the impression he was having some sort of medical emergency. His continual guttural grunts and attempts to draw the crowd into joining him (met with the sounds of crickets) got old after about the first 10 seconds.
While some have written off Khan's behavior as a natural offshoot of "the exuberance of youth," I beg to differ. On several other occasions during the play of the championship event, he was shown winning hands and, remarkably, he sat still at the table, stacked his chips and moved on to the next hand.
It was only when he knew there was a camera on him that he broke out his ridiculous routine, making a fool of himself and disgracing the proceedings. What was Hevad's reward for these antics (other than his winnings at the final table)? PokerStars brought him on as one of their featured professional players.
Another routine that has become a little tiresome is pro player Humberto Brenes's act. Brenes, who has already demonstrated that he has skill in the game of poker through two World Series bracelets and many other international tournament victories, introduced his "Shark" during the 2006 World Series and brought its brother (with a light to draw more attention) to the felt in 2007.
He uses these props to banter with the crowd and potentially to draw the ire of his fellow tablemates. It also doesn't hurt that anyone with a camera rushes to him when he whips the "Shark" out.
Add in making balloon animals at a WSOP table, wearing clothing that you wouldn't wear in any public setting, screaming, shouting, fist-pumping and high-fiving everyone viewing the action around the table and it is all becoming very tedious. It even bothered me somewhat when noted cash game player Kenny Tran tried to get his neighbor to call him "the greatest player in the world" after making an admittedly shrewd call to win a hand.
These actions are taking the game of poker away from a genteel psychological battle of wits and turning it into something you might see in professional football or pro wrestling. It is also potentially inflammatory. I know the day is coming when someone is going to get belted when they attempt one of these acts.
Why can't we have players who, when they win a hand or knock out an opponent, simply stack up the chips in front of them or graciously shake the hand of their vanquished foe and return to the table? I have seen some instances of this.
During the World Series broadcasts this year, "The Great Dane" Gus Hansen drew out on a hand with his tournament life on the line. When he was clearly dominated, did he shriek, yell or belittle his opponent? No. He simply said, "That was sick," shook his head, picked up his chips and continued with the event.
In another instance, after recently becoming the youngest winner of a WSOP bracelet in London during the World Series of Poker - Europe, Annette Obrestad was encouraged to talk to the audience and crow about herself. In an outstanding display of maturity and poise, she politely declined and said nothing. Is it just a coincidence that Hansen and Obrestad are European players and those who are going for the cameras, so to speak, are Americans for the most part?
The composure and restraint of Hansen and Obrestad are qualities we need more of in the tournament poker world. Organizers and sponsors of these events have the power to do something about it. As far as costumes, balloon animals or other outlandish props go, outlaw them (although we might have to make exceptions for prop bet payoffs!).
Enforce certain rules of table decorum and penalize those who are obviously pandering to television or baiting opponents. It is to be expected that there should be some excitement during the play of an event, but when it starts to become more of a show than the poker is it is not good for the game.
Hopefully we can return to some middle ground where the excitement is still there, a certain level of class is in evidence and outlandish behavior geared toward the cameras isn't the main focus of televised poker tournaments.