After the flop on Fourth Street, Judge Adam Arseneau decloaked and check-raised with his Kojak, but drew dead and got sent down the river by his opponent's Big Slick.
May all your cards be live, and your pots be monster.
Televised poker is one of the hottest pieces of advertising real estate on cable these days, and people fall into two readily identifiable camps: either the bewildered camp, confused as to why anyone would bother sticking a television camera in front of a bunch of people playing cards, or the enraptured camp, avidly watching every single drop of flop sweat hit the felt in eager anticipation.
Similarly, there are exactly two camps of people regarding World Poker Tour—Season Two on DVD, and they divide along the same battle lines. If you dislike televised poker, than this DVD set will, quite simply, suck. On the other hand, if you're an inveterate poker-watcher, then…well, it gets complicated. Even people who enjoy the televised thrill of professional poker may find this massive eight-DVD box set a little large to swallow all at once.
Facts of the Case
World Poker Tour is a televised poker series that brings us to the final table in poker tournaments all across the country and abroad. Each tournament features hundreds of players vying for the chance to compete in the final table, where the last six combatants duke it out for lion's shares of massive million-dollar prize pools. This final table is televised, complete with microscopic cameras seated in the felt of the table, to allow us to see each player's hand as they bluff, lie, and muscle their way to victory.
And that is basically all there is to it. This is televised poker, not brain surgery. Ante up!
Not much really to say on this one. From start to finish, this DVD set is poker, poker, poker, and you either dig the game, or you dig a hole in your yard and bury this DVD. For fans of the show, this DVD will be a boon (though possibly a radically oversized boon). My major objection to this DVD, from a practical consumer vantage point, is the moxie required to lay down money for an eight-disc DVD box set of televised poker. This is a point that will be made repeatedly throughout this review, because it is an especially rusty and sharp point.
Personally, I enjoy the heck out of televised poker, and if you can suspend the knee-jerk reaction of watching two hours of people playing cards, the spectacle becomes surprisingly compelling and thrilling to watch. Once you have picked up the addictive nuances and understand the impact of the players' actions, watching a 23-year-old college student fake out a 70-year old poker professional boasting three decades of tournament experience with slick combinations of lying, deceiving, skill, and luck for millions of dollars, it makes all other television seem dull in comparison. Well, not really.
The second thing that makes this "sport" incredibly addictive to watch is the incredible accessibility of the game, not only to learn and play, but for the average card shark to participate in the big-leagues. You can watch reality shows like The Amazing Race, The Apprentice, and Survivor and say to yourself, "Hey, I could totally do that," and you might be right. But chances are good that you will never be afforded the opportunity. With sports, you might fancy yourself a good baseball player, for example, but nobody gets the chance to take a swing at Wrigley Field save the pros. But ah! With poker, not only can anyone grab a deck and start up a game with their friends, but almost all the tournaments featured on World Poker Tour are open to the public. If you want to pony up the entrance fee, then you (yes, you!) could find yourself rubbing elbows beside poker greats like T.J. Cloutier, Johnny Chan, and Phil Hellmuth Jr., and experience the thrill of having them take every single dime you own.
To illustrate this point, nothing did more to popularize the allure of high-stakes poker than the triumphant rise of Chris Moneymaker, an everyman competing in his very first real-life poker tournament in 2003, where he pulled a Cinderella and walked away with the World Series of Poker championship title and a cool $2.5 million in prize money, blowing seasoned and veteran poker professionals out of the water and leaving them stunned and humiliated. And if you (yes, you!) have the skill, the determination, and ten grand burning a hole in your pocket, you yourself could be the next contestant on the World Poker Tour. For real! Forget being on an island, climbing trees for coconuts! This is real reality television, because it could actually really happen to you!
Well, maybe. You have to, you know, be sort of good at poker.
Though World Poker Tour takes contestants to exotic casino locations across the world in every episode, you barely notice. The interior of a poker room in a casino is virtually the same the world over, and since the show brings its set with it for each shooting, the table, felt, lighting, and rigging look nearly identical each and every time. While this brings a pleasant sense of familiarity and comfort, it also makes for some serious boringness, especially when you get knee-keep in this massive set, and it feels like the same game is being played over and over again.
Each episode gets a running commentary by poker guys Mike Sexton and Vincent Van Patten, who offer a decent blend of expert poker observations and basic explanations and terminology for the novice-types without sounding either overly simple or too complex. The show's onscreen graphics keep track of the pot size, the cards, and the calls, and also provide more advanced information like odds predictions and percentages as well as pop-up explanations of poker slang to help ease along the viewers. From a presentation perspective, WPT is tops, with expertly placed camera angles, strong lighting, live spectators, informative onscreen information, and decent commentary, which indeed makes for an enjoyable viewing experience. Unfortunately, at times, the slickness of the series at times takes on the sterilized feel of a game show rather than a live and vibrant poker tournament—it's a little too overproduced.
The transfer may be clean and free from disturbance, but it is also surprisingly lacking in fidelity and has a nasty washed-out and digitized feel. This jaggedness is problematic on occasion, especially during quick movement, and the overall transfer lacks vibrancy and color definition. For anything else, this would be a crummy transfer, but this is televised poker, so really, the issue is moot. Yes, the transfer is on the terrible side, but the nature of the material does not really deserve anything more. Anything comparable to documentary quality would be more than sufficient, so the presentation here is mediocre-to-decent considering the subject matter.
The audio, a simple Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix, expresses every clink of the chips with perfect clarity. The commentators alternate between restrained shouts of delight and hushed whispers, so finding an adequate volume level can be challenging, especially since the crowd is prone to surprising fits of loud applause. The dialogue between players is often muffled and inaudible, or simply muted altogether, which I found problematic, but this is a decision based on production rather than a poor mixing job, with the emphasis on the commentator chatter and not the dialogue between players. Bass response is entirely irrelevant for televised poker, and during the throbbing flashes of MTV-like activity between commercial breaks, the subwoofer barely breaks a sweat.
The eight-disc contains naught but extras, including player profiles, interviews and featurettes. Annie Duke, Phil Hellmuth Jr., and Daniel Negreanu offer up an hour worth of extended analysis in an "Expanded 'Poker Corner' Special" hour-long featurette; in addition, two smaller features entitled "Poker Takes Over Hollywood" and "Poker Corner"—the former dealing with the recent sweep of celebrity faces in high-stakes poker games, and the latter a fluffy piece featuring poker babe Shana Hiatt offering amorphously vague poker tips and strategies. In addition to these featurettes, four episodes contain commentary tracks by select pro players commenting on their own games, a feature which feels at first glance to be entirely superfluous, since the poker game already has a running color commentary track. As it turns out, these tracks are far more entertaining than the standard narration, since the resident poker gurus spend most of their time yelling at themselves not to make bad calls, or discussing the inner workings of their minds during particular tough calls, or spilling secret strategies about one another. There is nothing quite like seeing a bad call made by a poker pro while at the same time listening to a commentary track by the same player, yelling at his alter ego not to make the call. Hilarious.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While World Poker Tour certainly sets the bar in terms of televised poker series, it is not my favorite televised poker coverage. In my eyes, ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker was handled with much more realism and tact, dispensing with the contrived artificiality of the game show set and allowing much more conversation and quipping between the players. In comparison, the WPT series spends almost no time letting the players converse with one another, and gets garish in certain areas like set designs and strobe lights, overly excitable commentators, and so on, adding a dimension of cheese and glitz to a sport that is inherently un-glitzy. Poker means cigar butts smoldering in a dimly lit room and players cracking wise to each other, not the sterile set of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
It is a matter of taste, of course, but I could have done with a toning back on the effects and more of an emphasis on the subtle nuances of the game; the excited clamor of adjacent tables or hearing the players chatters nervously with one another. Poker is intriguing enough as it is, and one does not need to add strobe lights or smoke bombs, or to flash the camera every ten minutes on the really hot ex-Playboy lady cohost who has no function on the show other than to walk around in skimpy cocktail dresses and be really good-looking. Though admittedly, she has this particular function down to a tee. Cough.
In life, it is easy to have too much of a good thing, and conversely, also easy to have diabolically too much of a crappy thing. World Poker Tour—Season Two is hardly the latter, but you'll have to ask yourself whether you have the need to actually go out and purchase eight DVDs crammed to the brim with 22 hours of televised poker. I mean, professional poker players aside, who would actually buy this? Or even rent it? Twenty-two hours of poker? Ye gods.
Plus, these days it is almost impossible to turn on the television and not find a poker game on some obscure cable channel, so having these DVDs at the ready seems like overkill. What makes televised poker one of the most beguiling and pleasing things on television is the ability to sit down at any point in the game, jump right in and enjoy the distraction. It works in syndication very well, offering compelling television with little or no commitment from the viewer. On DVD, this allure is somewhat nullified. Would people really come home from a long day of work, open a beer, flop down on the couch like a dead fish, and put in a DVD of televised poker for three or four hours? How could that possibly be?
But if you can get around that? Then in every other way, World Poker Tour—Season Two is top-notch in presentation and performance. Outside of a slightly lackluster transfer, there is hardly anything negative to say of it, so if the idea of having 22 hours of nonstop recorded poker matches at your beck and call gets your heart racing, you cannot go wrong with this box set.
At the very least, a great rental one evening when Rounders is checked out of the video store.
In theory, not guilty, but in practice, there is some guilt to be dealt out. The court needs to recess and discuss to whom that guilt belongs.
Then again, the court might be bluffing. You just never know.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• Audio Commentary Featuring Poker Professionals Erick Lindgren, Daniel Negreanu, Antonio Esfandiari, and Phil Laak
Review content copyright © 2005 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.