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September 23, 2014

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THE INSIDE STRAIGHT:

Though considered the best measure of skill, network and public say nay to HORSE event

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Leila Navidi

David Bach of Athens, Ga., outlasted 94 others players to win the $50,000-entry HORSE poker tournament, which began Friday and concluded Wednesday at the Rio. The final table of the World Series event lasted 20 hours, including seven hours of heads-up play against John Hanson.

WSOP Horse

Chau Giang of Las Vegas stretches during the final table of the World Championship H.O.R.S.E. tournament at the World Series of Poker at the Rio Tuesday, June 30, 2009. Launch slideshow »

It’s possible the $50,000-entry HORSE, or mixed-games, tournament at the World Series of Poker is slipping in popularity.

Either that or, like Spinal Tap, its appeal is becoming more selective.

Only 95 players saw fit to enter the world championship HORSE event, a five-day tournament that began Friday at the Rio — down from 148 starters in each of the past two years.

The hefty buy-in — the largest for a poker tournament in North America — has not changed since the inception of the event in 2006.

The most frequently cited culprit for the downturn in the number of entrants, then, was television. In this case, to be precise, it was a lack of TV coverage.

In determining its broadcast schedule for the 2009 World Series of Poker, ESPN opted to rely on the holy trinity of Texas hold ’em, longtime familiar poker pros and celebrities. Besides the main event, ESPN will televise a $40,000-entry hold ’em tournament, an invitational for previous winners of the main event, and a charity tournament loaded with Hollywood types.

The HORSE tournament did not make the cut, although some poker insiders consider it the game’s toughest test of all-around skill, with its five games played in rotation: hold ’em (the H in HORSE); Omaha high-low (the O); razz (the R); 7-card stud (the S); and 7-card stud eight or better (the E).

The HORSE event’s absence from the TV schedule did not go unnoticed by the high-level professional players the tournament usually attracts. The lure of TV exposure is an important consideration for pros — and perhaps more significantly, for the online poker operations that sponsor them.

For the inaugural HORSE world championship in 2006, as a concession to TV the final table format was changed to no-limit hold ’em — not part of the HORSE rotation.

Since then, even the final table has consisted of regular HORSE games.

This format keeps the HORSE tournament pure and organic, more like an actual poker competition and less like the short attention span theater that televised no-limit hold ’em often becomes.

A typical no-limit hold ’em tournament broadcast relies heavily on “dramatic” draw-outs, all-in moves and outrageous turns of fortune. It makes the episode of “Cheap Seats” that skewered the 1996 U.S. Poker Championship seem not only funny, but accurate: As Ken Flaton is shown celebrating his victory, one of the Sklar brothers intones something like, “I’m the best gambler! I get lucky better than everybody else!”

The HORSE rotation, featuring fixed limits and multiple forms of poker, tends to iron out the fluctuations inherent in no-limit poker and allow skill to predominate.

It does not translate well to TV, though. The projected winning percentages based on the cards remaining in the deck in split-pot poker games, for example, are not easy to digest or especially entertaining for the masses.

And with no outsized personalities competing — think Scotty Nguyen last year — it becomes more of a challenge to engage the general public.

The conclusion of this year’s HORSE event was a case in point. David Bach, a 37-year-old poker pro from Athens, Ga., who frequents the high-stakes cash games and tournaments of Southern California’s Commerce Casino, won the prestigious tournament and its top prize of nearly $1.28 million Wednesday morning.

Bach’s victory came after a final table that lasted 20 hours, including seven hours of heads-up play against runner-up John Hanson ($789,199).

It was the first World Series championship bracelet for Bach, who placed second in an Omaha high-low tournament at the 2007 World Series and finished 11th in last year’s HORSE world championship.

Hanson, a New Yorker who plays high-stakes mixed games at the Bellagio, also has a relatively low public profile despite a third-place finish in the big HORSE tournament in 2007.

The top two, both mixed-games experts, outlasted a pair of Texas hold ’em specialists who finished just behind them. Erik Sagstrom ($522,394), a Swedish pro with a rabid online following, took third place. Russian Vitaly Lunkin (fourth place, $368,813) nearly won his third major tournament in the past couple of months. He was coming off a victory in the $40,000-entry hold ’em tournament at the World Series of Poker and a championship in the Russian Poker Tour in Moscow.

Huck Seed, a sentimental favorite for veterans of the Las Vegas poker scene, placed fifth ($276,610). With Chau Giang, Erik Seidel and Gus Hansen having exited in the seventh, eighth and ninth positions, for most poker enthusiasts Seed was far and away the most recognizable of the final six.

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