The World Series of Poker has existed since 1970. Three decades into its existence it became an unlikely hit for ESPN in 2003 with Norman Chad and Lon McEachern calling the action. Eighteen years later, the duo is still working WSOP broadcasts. No one is more surprised than Norman Chad.
“I didn’t expect I’d be talking to you today [and] I didn’t expect we’d be doing it in 2021,” Chad tells The Big Lead. “I just thought it was a one-year thing. Essentially, there was no poker on television at the time. So when I ended up agreeing to do it for the seven episodes, I figured we’d be doing it for one year and then I’d be doing something else.”
The remarkable thing is Chad wasn’t even supposed to be on the broadcast. He compares his involvement to a piano falling out of the sky and landing next to him. He was working with ESPN on a variety of projects and was asked to consult. Producers were under the impression Chad was a more serious poker player than he actually was. He didn’t even play hold’em, which would be the game that facilitated the poker boom.
The consulting obviously went well because after a few months, producers asked if he’d like to do the broadcast. Without much of a television background, Chad had his doubts, but his best friend Vinny made it clear why he should do it, telling him he didn’t really have a career at the time.
Despite the lack of experience, he stuck around.
Chad, like the writer who interviewed him for this piece, started playing poker in college. The only difference is this writer got into poker after watching Norman Chad call that original ESPN broadcast of the 2003 World Series of Poker. He told jokes and seemed like the kind of person with whom you would want to sit around the felt. He was unlike any other sports commentator on television on the time, which was part design and part necessity.
Chad’s home games in the late 70’s and early 80’s consisted of wild cards and split pots. “Nobody played no-limit hold’em in home games,” he recalled. Then he joined the broadcast that would change home games everywhere.
It took awhile for it to land. Back then the World Series was played in the spring, but ESPN wasn’t broadcasting the ‘03 tournament until the end of the summer. Chad liked what he saw in his first glances.
“When we were there it seemed interesting to me. I’d never been to the World Series of Poker, but I was fascinated by it. I didn’t think we had something, at least in terms of quality, until the producers sent us the first one or two programs that we were going to be voicing and they looked really, really good. I couldn’t believe how great they looked and how great they were produced. And I remember telling Lon, who I’d just met, ‘All we can do is screw this up. Let’s not screw it up.’”
They didn’t. Ratings soared. “I usually ignore ratings,” says Chad. “I used to write a sports television column and I got tired of ratings and I didn’t believe them half the time. When the ratings came in for the second or third ones, it kept growing. And they were big numbers for something like this. We just went, really? I mean, are you kidding me? And the numbers kept growing, which is really unusual and a very good sign. So I didn’t realize we had something until the episodes started to air and the ratings started coming in and they were pretty good.”
What exactly made it work?
“I used to say back then that it was the only real reality TV show. The other reality TV shows which were pretty popular are people doing things they normally wouldn’t do. You know, like living in a group house with somebody or eating cockroaches on a desert island. This is watching people doing what they would be doing if the cameras weren’t there. And they’re an unusual cast of people. People like watching the money go back and forth. And they like to see villains and heroes. We have that too.”
A million such shows have come and gone since 2003, which was the year that Newlyweds, Punk’d and Simple Life premiered. American Idol, The Bachelor, Big Brother and Survivor were still in their infancy. Your favorite cooking competition probably didn’t exist. The World Series of Poker keeps running.
Poker has one thing the others don’t: people risking their own money. “Seeing people who could win or lose a lot of money and then watching the money go back and forth and watching them in their element. In their true element," said Chad. "I think that made it more compelling when all it was at that time was just a bunch of guys, older guys, just throwing chips into the middle of the table.”
Perhaps that’s why big hands are so interesting. Maybe that’s why you want to see someone win or lose.
“That’s the kind of stuff that sticks with a fan. There are certain hands that some people will never forget,” Chad explains. “Big moments and big busts out. But there’s always another big hand coming up. It’s the confrontations and the players that people ask me about more over the years. It’s what they say to each other. They remember Sam Grizzle singing at Phil Hellmuth when they’re going back and forth at each other. They tend to remember that type of thing as much as big hands. It’s the characters and confrontations that interest me more than the actual play.”
While the marathon live streams will show you everything, the original and current hour-long broadcasts always feature the best hands. It’s fun to watch and it’s good television — exactly what Chad is rooting for. “Even when we’re watching it live now for hours and hours and hours you do root for that type of thing. That lifts up like a long touchdown pass lifts up a good football game at the end. Or an NBA team coming back from 18 down in the third quarter. You root for that too when you’re watching poker because it makes for a much better broadcast. Even though I’m going to be rooting for or against certain people, I am rooting for the story. I’m rooting for big hands and unusual stuff to happen.”
In this case, Chad joining the broadcast was the first unusual thing to happen to the World Series of Poker broadcast. Since then he’s been able to do in poker what many have failed to do broadcasting other sports. Chad isn’t a former jock or a trained broadcaster. He’s doing what Dennis Miller and Tony Kornheiser were supposed to do for football.
“There’s room for that role on a national primetime game,” he says. “I guess it was kind of invented by Howard Cosell on the original Monday Night Football. Where he’s not a player and he’s not a journalist. He’s something else.” Chad is a big fan of both Miller and Kornheiser, but he was the first one to pull it off.
It’s something he thinks Peyton and Eli have unlocked on the ManningCast. “It makes sense. It’s how people watch football. You don’t actually have to call every play. You just see it and you’re talking about stuff. And what’s important to talk about is what you just saw. I think that approach is actually very smart.
“The blueprint they have with the play-by-play guy and the analyst is not necessarily the way to go. There’s a more casual way to do it. Especially when you have an analyst, you don’t want every play broken down with a replay. It just wears on you as a viewer. There’s a more casual way to do it.”
It’s something Chad has been pushing for years. “When I was writing the Couch Slouch column I tried to get them to do a little couch slouch thing in a studio. They go to the fan sitting at home three or four times during the game and he’s ranting about something that just happened. I got none of my calls returned. Networks are not interested in whatever I’m doing.”
So now ESPN has the Mannings and CBS Sports Network has Chad. The approaches may not appear the same, but they have a lot in common.
“That’s how I try to do poker. I don’t think people want to be overwhelmed with statistical debris and a million things breaking down every pitch and pitch sequence. I always say if someone is talking that much next to me at a bar about everything that is happening in a game I’m moving down two or three seats. And then if I can still hear them, I’m leaving the bar. I think we want a little less and more casual banter.”
Between the banter and the reality show aspect, viewers end up with a pretty raw look at the sport. “People get to watch NFL Films eventually and it’s great because you get to see the coaches yelling on the sideline and what’s going on during the game. Well, we were essentially NFL Films Live. So you’re watching them play in their element and you’re watching them talk to each other, which I think is fascinating for people and there are a lot of different characters.”
How does one keep track of all the different characters? How does Chad seem to have an anecdote about every person that appears on screen? Good, old-fashioned mingling. Chad says he shows up around 1 p.m. to wander the floor and pick up nuggets. There is never a shortage of people looking to talk.
“People love giving me jokes that I’m never going to use, trying to be funny. So they give me like watercooler jokes that are inappropriate and they can’t believe I’m not going to use it. But you get information like it in any sport if you’re a beat writer. You’re going to find out some stuff that you cannot use that is not appropriate. I always feel bad that I can’t use it because it’s always better than the stuff that you can use.”
Still, it’s better to have too much. When PokerGo is streaming an entire day’s action, it’s an eight-hour broadcast. “You can use everything you put into your notebook,” Chad reveals. “Those live streams, the last couple of hours is like trying to finish a marathon. And then you do it again the next day.”
Chad suggests this is why the diet of most poker players has changed since the early days of the broadcast. “There’s physical conditioning involved. The better shape you’re in, the better decisions you’re going to make. Poker players have come to realize that in the last 20 years. They used to go out on dinner break and eat a 20 oz. sirloin and now all these younger guys are doing kale shakes and energy bars.”
The healthy eating habits haven’t quite spilled over into the broadcast booth yet. Chad says there are plenty of chips and candy consumed during a long broadcast. While players are eating better alcohol and marijuana have become more popular during tournaments. Players return from break and their entire game changes if they’ve smoked. “One of the new things on live streams is they’ll drink wine, they’ll drink beer. I will not for a couple of reasons. I think you’ve got to do your best work.”
So that’s what Chad does. His best work for 18 years and counting. Will he still be doing it in another five or ten years? He’d probably tell you no, but he never imagined he’d still be doing it today.
“I used to just bounce around. I always thought that creatively you don't want to do something for more than five years because you’ll sort of get stale. There’s a diminishing return on what you’re doing. A sitcom might be good for five, six, seven years but then you might start to run out of stories. You start to say the same thing again.”
Chad marvels at guys like Dick Vitale, John Madden and other broadcasters who have done it for “twenty or thirty years,” as if he isn’t dangerously close to that himself. Chad still enjoys it, but has been ready to lose the job since he first took it.
“I try not to worry about what I can’t control,” says Chad. “ I’m pretty much year to year to begin with so I assumed we’d be coming over [to CBS], but I didn’t know one way or the other. If I wasn’t coming over, I wasn’t coming over. It wasn’t going to be a life changer even though I’ve done it for the last 18 years.”
Chad looks around the card room and sees people who could take his place, but not really do his job. He points to Nick Schulman, Daniel Negranu, Phil Hellmuth, Jamie Kerstetter and Antonio Esfandiari who are good in the booth, but they aren’t him. “I don’t play that game. I don’t play it well and I don’t care. As soon as the broadcast goes in a different direction, I could have been gone five years ago. If the poker players want that more analytical nerd type of approach and I just had no interest in that. And I do believe the viewers have no interest in that.”
After all these years, people should be listening. If the sport wants to continue to grow, Chad, who just started calling online games this year, thinks online poker has to embrace that. “I’m not smart enough to know exactly where it’s going. I do know the product, they've got to find some way on live streams to make it more compelling or make it shorter or both.”
And that means reading the comments. “I think it’s much more interesting if you can see the other people and talk to the other people rather than just pushing buttons. And if you’re watching online play I think it’s much more interesting if you can see the participants talking to other people. I think down the road we’re going to need that.”
He points to eSports as the blueprint. With some poker players already streaming on Twitch, it’s a natural fit. “They have people filling arenas to watch people play video games for hours on end. They find another way to bring the content into people so they’re engaged that long. I think poker has to find a way to do that if we’re going to engage them for multiple hours.”
In order for poker to keep fans engaged, they need a voice like Norman Chad’s. He’s a fan and a broadcaster and if he sits down next to you at the table, you won’t want to move away. So who knows how much longer he’ll be working the World Series of Poker, but however long it is, no one will be more surprised than Chad.