Who would have thought that watching poker on television would be so much fun? I might be somewhat behind the times in my awareness of the current popularity of poker, but in all honesty I expected the DVD of the 2003 World Series of Poker to be mildly interesting at best. Imagine my delighted surprise, then, when it turned out to be a complete blast.
The World Series of Poker is the most important event on a poker player's calendar. For an entry fee of $10,000, anyone can play, novice "dead money" or professional player alike, and the eventual winner not only earns the coveted title of Poker World Champion, but also walks away with a staggeringly huge cash prize: in 2003, $2.3 million dollars, the largest single prize in any competitive event. ESPN's coverage of the 2003 World Series follows the action over the course of the week-long tournament in seven forty-five-minute episodes, blending coverage of the poker action with interviews and background information on the various players.
In the next paragraph of the review, I'm going to mention spoilers about the eventual winner of the tournament. If you don't know who wins and don't want to find out before you watch the DVD, you can skip to the following paragraph, as there are no more spoilers in the rest of the review.
[Spoilers begin] A huge part of the fascination of the World Series of Poker is that, according to its own tagline, "Anyone Can Win." It's true: while the event attracts the stars of the professional poker world, it also draws in large numbers of amateur players all hoping for a chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Johnny Chan and maybe even earn a spot at the final table. Over 800 participants crowded the rooms of Binion's Horseshoe Casino during the 2003 World Series, among them previous champions like "bad boy" Phil Hellmouth, veterans Dan Harrington, Amarillo Slim, and Doyle Brunson, flamboyant Scotty Nguyen, and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. There were also hundreds of entrants in the "dead money" category... among them, an accountant named Chris Moneymaker (yes, that's his real name) who turned out to be the people's champion. In a true rags-to-riches story, Moneymaker earned his spot at the World Series by winning a qualifying tournament in an online poker forum, thus parlaying his $40 online entry fee into a $10,000 bankroll and the right to face off with the best poker players in the world. We get to see him struggling in the early days of the tournament, nervous about being at the same tables as the elite of the poker world, and we witness his growing confidence and cool as the tournament proceeds. It's exactly the dream that Matt Damon's character has in the film Rounders: for an unknown player to build up enough of a stake to make it to the World Series, and win, and the fact that Moneymaker made this fantasy into reality makes the 2003 World Series all the more amazing to watch (and goes a long way toward explaining the record numbers of entrants at the 2004 event). If this were a movie, people would probably dismiss the victory of the affable Everyman as too far-fetched, but the 2003 World Series of Poker proves that truth really can be stranger (and more fun!) than fiction. [Spoilers end]
The DVD program is taken straight from ESPN's coverage of the event, with the result that the "feel" of the program is that you're watching it live. The commentators don't know who eventually wins (or at least, if they do, they do a superb job of not letting on), so there's a lot of suspense in the air. Even knowing who takes the title doesn't spoil the effect, since it's also very exciting to see how far each of the other featured players makes it. And the World Series program does a fantastic job of introducing the players. Each episode focuses on a "featured table" with several "big names" playing there, but periodically we also get shown glimpses of how things are going at the other tables. Each episode also has several interspersed segments that introduce us to some of the more interesting or famous players. The players get a chance to talk about themselves a bit, discussing their careers as poker players, their aspirations, their playing style, and so on; we also learn some background information that puts a character behind the face of people like Johnny Chan. Poker certainly attracts some interesting characters, and it's really fascinating to see the variety of people and playing styles: some flashy and trash-talking, others cool and reserved. By the time the final table assembles in Episode 6, we really have a sense of who these people are, and who we're rooting for. The program also does a great job of focusing on the most interesting and important hands, so we get a clear sense of how things are going overall for the players without sitting through lots of routine hands.
So it's clear that we get a great view of the World Series "experience": how about the coverage of the actual poker playing? It's also handled very well. The camera gives us an excellent view of the overall table, with close-ups and different angles as needed to let us see the key players as they're contemplating their moves. What's really cool is that there are tiny cameras built into the edge of the table, so when the players check out their hole cards, we get to see them as well. Whenever a player decides to stay in the hand, a graphic representation of their hand appears on-screen, labeled with his name, so when several players square off, we can compare their hands. The community cards are also presented in an on-screen graphic, as well as appearing in the camera footage; this is extremely helpful since it means we can always keep an eye on the current state of the cards even when the camera moves away from the cards on the table.
What's especially helpful to viewers is that a percentage appears next to the hole cards of the player who's most likely to win the hand, so as the successive cards in the flop appear, we can see how the odds change based on what turns up. Whenever a player gets a winning hand, a check-mark appears next to his cards. Combined with the commentators' running analysis of what's going on, it makes the card action accessible and interesting to all viewers, including ones (like me) who know the rules and have played a few times but don't know the game well.
The coverage isn't entirely perfect. For instance, it would have been nice to get to also see the hands that get folded, and experienced poker players will wish for more consistent information on the size of the blinds and the placement of the dealer button. The footage could also have been edited a bit more tightly for the DVD program. For instance, it's great that we get a segment on the rules of Texas Hold'em in the first episode, but for home viewing it's really unnecessary to repeat that segment in every single episode. (And it's not even a separate chapter, so you have to fast-forward through it rather than skipping it.) It's also a bit silly to have the occasional swear word beeped out as it was on the broadcast footage.
But those are just minor quibbles: the 2003 World Series of Poker is an amazingly fun and entertaining program, one that's positively addictive to watch and one that will be of great interest to both devoted poker players and mildly interested viewers.
The 2003 World Series of Poker is a two-DVD set, packaged nicely in a slim plastic keepcase. Disc 1 contains the first four episodes, and Disc 2 contains the final three episodes plus the special features.
The image quality is the weak spot in this DVD presentation. The World Series of Poker appears in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as it was broadcast on television. While colors and contrast look reasonable, the image is extremely pixellated, with the result that it's often chunky-looking and blurry. It's a very good thing that we do get on-screen graphics showing the cards, since it's actually hard to tell what some of the cards are when we see them on the table in the live footage. I've charitably given the program only one notch down from an "average" mark, because the source material probably wasn't that great (though I really hope they do better in the future!) and because the program is still completely watchable even with the lackluster transfer.
The 2.0 soundtrack for the 2003 World Series of Poker does a reasonable job under the circumstances. The commentators' voices are always clear and easy to understand, and the interview segments with the various poker players also sound fine. In the casino during the actual tournament play, the participants' voices are more muffled-sounding and a bit flat, but overall the soundtrack is fine.
Disc 2 has the special features (such as they are). We get a 30-second clip from ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, which is nothing more than a brief and rather pointless announcement of the tournament winner. "Kenny Mayne's Poker" is a three-minute humorous segment following a journalist in his attempt to play at the World Series of Poker. Lastly, we get a 6-minute segment of Cold Pizza featuring an interview with the winner; it's really only of minor interest, considering how short it is.
Don't be surprised if watching the 2003 World Series of Poker makes you want to go out and start playing! This program does an outstanding job of making the event both accessible and truly fascinating, mixing solid coverage of the poker playing with interesting interviews with the various players. Anybody who's even a little bit interested in poker will find this to be extremely interesting, especially considering the eventual winner, and viewers who are avid poker players already will find it even more enthralling. I never expected to be hooked into watching over five hours of coverage of the 2003 World Series of Poker, but the time just flew by... and I'll be eagerly looking forward to seeing 2004 on DVD as well. While the image quality is most charitably described as lackluster, the transfer is watchable, and the content is amazing enough to easily earn a "highly recommended."