Watching Michael “the Grinder” Mizrachi play poker on television could give you some of the necessary skills to begin grinding down opponents in your own games. Phil Hellmuth’s “White Magic”, his term for hand reading ability, may just seep through your TV screen and into your mind as well. The great play and elaborate bluffs we see on televised poker keeps us glued to the set. The question is, does watching poker on TV have the potential to make us better players?
Lon McEachern and Norman Chad pepper their World Series of Poker commentary on ESPN broadcasts with insight into how the hands went down and alternative lines of play that could be taken. Poker Hall of Famer Mike Sexton and his World Poker Tour sidekick Vince Van Patten don’t mince words either when it comes to calling out ill-timed moves and berating even elite poker stars when they think they’ve botched a hand. We often find their play-by-play commentary comical, but we’ve also got to ask ourselves if we’re taking mental poker notes simultaneously to prevent these flaws in our poker game.
What Televised Poker’s Critics Say
Critics are not so amused, pointing out that televised poker edits out everything but the most exciting hands, tempts viewers with millions of dollars in prize money, and doesn’t have much to contribute for players looking to improve their game. BestPokerBooks.org warns in an article on its site, that “You watch the pros having fun and winning money with this style on TV, but playing with weak cards and out of position is usually a great way to going broke in your local 1/2 and 2/5 games.” Another argument against televised poker is that fans need to be protected against gaining a false sense of confidence (from learning to imitate what they see on TV) and thus becoming bad players.
There’s Definitely What to Gain from Televised Poker
Personally, I’m in favor of watching televised poker. The invention of the hole cam in 1997 opened up the game to a much wider audience, giving viewers access to more information than the players. Televised poker has been able to teach new players the rules, terminology, and strategy and give viewers a basic explanation of the game. It exposes players at all skill levels to some of the biggest names in poker who motivate us to achieve success and explore new styles of play. Here’s what a writer had to say in an article on the website hspokerfan.com: “If you really want to have a hot hand on the table then the first thing you should do is watch as many poker games as you can. You should watch first how the professionals do it before you engage yourself in a round of poker.”
Players on NBC’s Poker After Dark paid a $20,000 buy-in per episode, but the show’s late night audience could tune in at no cost. On Saturday nights, I’d watch and learn as the players discussed their strategies from the prior week. Poker After Dark also taught me the basics about how to play Pot Limit Omaha, which otherwise might’ve taken me far longer to pick up.
Televised poker tournaments are must-see TV. When a player I admire is dealt a hand that gives me trouble, I have the advantage of seeing how he handles it. When A-Q is dealt, does he 3-bet or call, and what line does he take when he misses the flop? Recording the tournament, allows me to go back over any hands I consider critical to my game, and focus on an individual player’s hand. Keeping track of the blowups and disasters helps me to avoid making the same mistakes in my own game.
The Science of Observational Learning
In the past, I’ve come across some interesting studies done on “observational learning”. One of them put two groups of people in an MRI machine and had them watch a video of building and taking apart an object. Group A knew that they would be asked to repeat what they saw while group B did not. The brain scans of the individuals in group A, who were “actively” viewing, lit up differently from the group B participants. What does this tell me about televised poker? In my opinion this means that watching poker with the intent of bringing what you learn to the felt when you play the game yourself will lead to a better payoff than kicking back with beer and chips, simply allowing the information to wash over and “just” entertain you.
Other studies indicate it’s more important to practice a skill, not just watch and learn. The “golden path”, then, would be to find the right balance between practice and learning. Start by taking note of interesting TV hands to discuss in poker forums, with poker buddies, or even plugging them into poker software for in-depth analysis.
Finally, with all that said, it’s also important, while you work on your game as you watch, to enjoy the show. For me, there’s nothing better on television than a poker tournament or cash game, featuring players I love to watch competing for a prestigious title and loads of cash. The best part is, unlike other sports we watch on TV, poker is a game we can get in on ourselves, so I’ll see you at the final table!