WSOP 2012

WSOP ‘Final Three’ Broadcast one of the Best Ever

Poker fans who missed the 12-hour, nearly-300-hand wrapup of the 2012 World Series of Poker Main Event on ESPN on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning missed one of the greatest broadcasts of televised poker.  It wasn’t so much about the players themselves, who were okay but unexceptional characters, but in the steadying cycle of the poker battle itself.

Greg Merson finally emerged as champion of the 2012 WSOP ME, but not without extreme difficulties.  Merson topped Jesse Sylvia and Jacob Balsiger for the win after the three battled for what must be a record — some 282 hands of three-hand play, while blinds slowly rose to the point that they had less than 100 big blinds’ worth of chips between the three.

It took the short stack (usually Balsiger, but once Sylvia), surviving several all-ins, with at least four different suckouts needing to transpire for the three-way match to last as long as it did.  All three players held the lead at some point, though Merson led for most of the night and Balsiger jumped to the spot only briefly before his eventual elimination.

What amazed me today, in reading various discussion forums, were comments by viewers that this finale was some sort of boring nitfest.  Are they for real?  Only players who’ve been weaned on the pre-edited, condensed-for-broadcast finales of past WSOP and WPT finales could make such a point.  There’s been much derision by poker veterans in recent years of the way such poker shows have transformed modern tournament poker into an “shove and pray” affair, and yet here was a finale that was built around playing small ball, yet had plenty of the collisions and unlikely results that make for a great edited product later on.

I’ll go so far as to say that if ESPN creates an edited, two-hour version of this year’s finale, it’s going to become a late-night staple and be regarded as one of the best wrapups ever.

If there was anything boring during Tuesday’s finale, it was Jesse Sylvia’s prtracted and artificial tanking, which along with similar antics by Rob Salaburu on Monday night took away a lot of the pace of the table.  Yet as Tuesday’s finale dragged on, the steady adrenaline rush had an effect on Sylvia, and he forgot to tank to the same extent.  Whereas Merson, Sylvia and Balsiger played less than two dozen hands in their first hour, the pace picked up with each passing level.

On to the poker itself.  Merson deserved this win.  He was clearly a notch better than Sylvia, and Sylvia was clearly a notch better in turn than Balsiger, though all three played pretty darn good poker.  Balsiger found himself slowly outmatched and on the ropes for much of the night, and only a couple of unlikely suckouts midway through the proceedings kept him in the running.

I also believe Balsiger had a demeanor tell, where he would give himself away when attempting a naked bluff, and I believe Sylvia (and possibly Merson as well) noticed it.  There were several instances where Sylvia and Balsiger engaged in three-bet and four-bet raising wars before the flop, and Sylvia won virtual every time.

What viewers at the event itself might not have noticed, but what could be seen on TV, was that Balsiger switched from his normal studying of his opponent to an intense glare-down whenever he was on a wild bluff and wanted Sylvia to fold.  As tells go, it’s fairly obvious, and on the hand where Sylvia 4-bet bluffed successfully with 6-4, I believe I saw him nod a little bit to himself as he raked in the pot, a sure sign that his read had been affirmed.

That happened not too long before Hand 300 of the finale, and in case anyone didn’t notice, that was when Balsiger stopped trying to outbluff Sylvia.  Quite some time passed before the hand occurred where Sylvia got in very bad with K-9 against Balsiger’s K-K.

Some might ask, if Sylvia had such a good read, how did that happen?  I think it’s because Sylvia didn’t quite trust his own read of Balsiger when Balsiger had some sort of hand, but had no problem telling when Balsiger had blatant junk.  There were a few hands in the finale where Balsiger acted genuinely enthused about hole cards that turned out to be not very special, and that might have been noticed as well.  All three players suffered from dry cards overall (though Merson had the best of it), and in such circumstances, something decent but unexceptional, like a suited A-7, can look downright tasty.

High pocket pairs virtually never showed up.  A-K appeared a few tines, but except for the hand where Sylvia sucked out himself by rivering Broadway with A-K against Merson’s K-K.  I dozed off for a few minutes not long before Balsiger’s elimination, but at one point A-K was 22-for-22 through the entire final table (with Merson holding it ten times), meaning that the player who held it won the hand.

What wasn’t shared is that in perhaps 16 or 17 of those hands, A-K took down the blinds unopposed.

Low points?  Sure, the finale had its off moments.  The ESPN commentary by Norman Chad, Lon McEachern and Antonio Esfandiari was miles below what viewers have come to expect, which shows what magic can come about when McEachern and the Couch Slouch (Chad) have a few hours of studio time to insert some canned ham.  The fan shots tended to be excessive and overbearing, though then again, you’ve got to fill the air time with something, and there wasn’t much else to show.

I thought this was really, really good poker, and though I missed some sleep, it was well worth the exchange.  If you enjoy the game of poker for the poker itself, then checking in on a rebroadcast of this one is well worth the effort.

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