2012 - The year I almost threw up, live on camera.
It was Day 13 of a 14-day marathon of TV poker. It had started with 10 long days of filming a regular tournament and was followed by back to back 4am to 4pm shifts in a casino that didn't had a no smoking ban. I was broken.
Back then, I prided myself on being able to do ANYTHING necessary to focus and get the job done. Strange men lunging at me while we filmed pieces on camera about ‘beautiful Vienna’ in a sub-zero park around midnight? No problem. Doing that in a dress while the temperatures dipped even lower and someone had to be there to cover my legs between takes so hypothermia wouldn’t set in? Sure. Swimming through cigarette smoke for 12 hours a day? Piece of cake. No sleep, long hours and living on fries and casino club sandwiches? EASY.
It took me a while (and some fairly intense experiences) to realise that pushing myself to that extent was ridiculous. It’s great to be a team player but as I ran to the restroom to vomit from whatever combination of cigarette smoke, cold and pure exhaustion finally got to me, I vowed to be smarter about my limits. Thank goodness it happened off camera. I really didn’t need to become known as ‘that one who barfed on TV that time’.
Poker and broadcasting have been my life for a very long time and with both of them, I jumped in with two feet, but no formal training. Maybe this is what pushed me to learn whatever I could, as fast as I could while showing no weakness.
Boy, did I learn.
My two earlier articles touched on 6 of the lessons I learned about life and broadcasting through poker, and this final instalment discusses 3 more things that stand out to me as important.
Don’t Let Your Ego Drive
In poker, playing with your ego can be brutal on the bankroll. If you play against someone who you feel a rivalry with, they can use that to take your money. Not a smart plan. In broadcasting, ego just gets in the way and makes the goal cloudy.
I’ve worked with a lot of people in front of the camera, co-hosts and co-anchors and co-commentators alike. It’s always easiest when everyone involved comes to the table looking to collaborate, rather than treating it like a competition. Thankfully, it’s nearly always like this in poker. Perhaps it's the fact that we're a small industry. Before I worked in poker, though, I did quite a few other broadcasting jobs and it wasn’t always this way.
I remember being in a production meeting with a colleague where it felt like all they wanted to do was show the producers how much better they would be at my job. (This was a very long time ago, so don’t be speculating on who it is because that’s lost in the mists of time.) As well as feeling just … ouch - I’d actually thought this person was a friend - it’s also cringingly uncomfortable for everyone else at the meeting and it ends up distracting from the real point, which is to make a great show.
The final goal (whether it’s to make money at poker or to create great TV content) should be the focus, rather than personal competition. It’s a basic fact that unless you’re a magical unicorn, none of us will like 100% of the people we work with or play poker against. When competition at work starts to overshadow the product or outcome you’re trying to create; people stop making good decisions.
I have a fierce, interior competitive streak. Mostly this shows up in pushing myself to do better than the time before. But when I start feeling competitive with others, either in broadcasting or poker, I need to not just keep it in check, but squash it entirely. There are few things more toxic at work than personal competition or dislike when it overtakes the main goal.
In poker, I’ve also seen situations where ego has caused someone an early exit from a tournament. I remember being at an event in Europe a few years back and a player sat down on my left who clearly had a serious dislike on for the player on my right. For the next hour or so, I was caught in this bizarre battle they had going on, until the player on my left finally pushed their luck one too many times and got sent to the rail. Who took their chips? The player on my right. They knew their opponent was being driven by ego and would eventually hand over their stack. They just had to sit back and wait for it.
Don’t let your ego drive. You never end up where you want to go.
Nerves Are Just Excitement in Disguise
So, how do you make sure that you don’t get too ‘in your head’ about something, especially when it’s important to you?
Stage fright isn’t as rare as you’d think in broadcasting. Everybody gets nervous sometimes and when the pressure of performing live in front of ridiculous numbers of people (including all those you respect in your industry) gets to you, even the most well-prepared professional can draw a blank.
Although it’s not as common as it once was, I’ve certainly seen some fantastic poker players buckle under the pressure of playing on a TV table or for huge amounts of money. During the 2014 WSOP Main Event, I was interviewing poker pro Dan Smith during a level break and he said something that really stuck with me. He told me that nobody plays their best the first time they’re playing for ‘life changing’ money. Clearly at that point, this fact was working in his favour as so many of his opponents would be feeling the kind of pressure that he’d already faced and dealt with long ago.
So, take it from me (and Dan); everybody gets nervous at some point and there are very few people who don’t feel the pressure in big situations. Whether it’s fear or excitement, that adrenaline will course and the heart will pump and there will be an actual physical response.
A few years back, I thought I might be developing stage fright. It got to the point where I was worried that it was going to affect my job and THAT worry just created even more anxiety. This can be a career killer for someone like me.
Before going on camera, especially when working live, I’d have a moment of pure panic. My face would go white; I’d feel nauseated and my palms would sweat. What if I forgot the person’s name on camera? What if I forgot the report that I’d just spent the past 30 minutes researching, writing and learning by heart? What if I blanked and said nothing at all? What then?
I didn’t tell the people I worked with or my friends in poker and so they just assumed there was no problem. Sometimes, they’d stand behind the camera and make faces to try to distract me as a joke, because as far as they knew, I had no problem staying focused. They couldn’t know that both the distraction and just the fact that they were watching me, added to my growing nerves.
The more my heart pounded when that little red camera light came on, the more convinced I became that I was going to make a big mistake. It got so bad that I sought out help from a few different friends who work in life coaching, psychology and broadcasting. I’m a big believer in finding professional help when you need it. Why suffer with something when simply reaching out to experts can have so much positive impact?
I remember one piece of advice being key for me. I read an article somewhere that said fear and excitement feel incredibly similar. They create the same physical response in the body and then it’s our minds that ‘read’ it as either fear or excitement, based on our experiences and habits. Maybe this was pure, pop-psychology bull (and I have no great love for pseudo-scientific ‘knowledge’) but this bit of information seemed like a good way for me to hack my anxiety response.
Before going on camera, I focused on how excited I was that I GOT to do this awesome job, rather than the fact that I was scared I was going to screw it up. I did this over and over again until I finally believed it.
I still get nervous sometimes, although it’s rare now and tends to be the usual kind of nerves that isn’t a big deal. It’s no longer potentially debilitating and I’m not worried that it’s going to impact my work anymore. Having worked through that actually makes me feel much stronger about my work than the opposite. The truth is that now, I actually get far more nervous at the poker table than I do in front of a camera.
Things Are Not Always the Way They Look on TV
Poker is not all glamour and winners’ photos and jumping up on tables to celebrate. Much of it is just pure hard work. Poker television shows, especially towards the beginning, tended to show only the most interesting hands that occurred, rather than seeing every hand like you do for the WSOP Main Event final table, or so many live streamed events.
The editors and producers only had a certain amount of time to fill on a channel, so they’d have to cut hours and hours of poker play down to just the most spectacular spots. Huge bluffs, massive coolers and wild suck-outs. Because of this, I think some people at home got the idea that poker entailed far more big bluffs and quad over quad situations than it does in reality.
The most entertaining hands to watch for a mainstream TV audience might not be the most accurate representation of the bulk of the hours we spend at the poker table. There is a lot more folding involved than poker TV in the early 2000’s would have you believe. There were certainly a few spots where some pros used their play on TV as advertising as well. You might see someone out there shoving a whole stack in on a 4-high bluff for the cameras, but you wouldn’t be guaranteed they’d do that in their regular tough home game.
Both poker and broadcasting fall into the category of ‘things that look easier and more glamorous than they are in reality’. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people dismiss the hard work that goes into one or the other, with an “I could easily do that.” Sure, maybe you could, but not without a lot of work. Plus, if you saw how much work went into it, you might just change your mind altogether.
What we see on TV is the result of years of hard work coming together in one moment. When we watch the best players in the world sitting behind a chip stack, it’s not about them winging it. They’ve put countless hours into playing, reviewing hands, talking to other experts and all kinds of other things. It’s a process that continues throughout a career and it’s what makes those exciting bluffs and hero calls possible. And then all of THAT is distilled down into their portion of 60 minutes on television. Oof, talk about pressure.
As my story at the start of this article might show, poker TV shows can sometimes be more intense to film than you might think as well. When I worked in Europe, smaller budgets meant fitting in as much camera time as possible and 16 hour filming days, while not an everyday occurrence, were also not entirely uncommon. I remember another long stretch of filming where we needed to record two different poker shows back to back. As you all know, a tournament doesn’t finish until a winner is crowned and so the crew stays there doing their jobs until that happens.
We’d just done four 12+ hour days in a row and were all praying for a quick final table so we could get a bit of sleep before starting the next show in the morning.
Eh, not so much.
The final table finished late and by the time I legged it back to the hotel, scrubbed off the make-up and threw myself into bed it was after 5am. I was due back on set at 9am for another 12 hour day, where I needed to look rested and alert for the cameras. Intense.
The Professionals Get It Done
Thankfully, things are more regulated at the WSOP so it’s less about just getting through it and all about making the best show possible. My normal work day for the summer portion of the Main Event starts around 9.30am (although the new tournament start times might make that 8.30am this year.) I usually go into hair and make-up first, taking my notes with me so I can look over them and plan the day. This is one of my favourite parts of the day because I’m a planner and I can make lists, glorious lists of the things I’d like to do and particular interviews I’d like to get, to my heart’s content.
Once play starts, most of those well-laid plans get thrown up in the air, but I like to start the day with them anyhow. I prefer to be ready-to-go super early, just in case we need to interview a player before the day starts or something else happens at the last minute. Then, it’s time for production meetings to discuss how the day will run before I toddle over to the sound department to get fitted with my microphone and IFB (earpiece). Maybe we film a few bits before play starts or I’ll chat to the players as they come in and find their chip stacks. Then, it’s chips in the air and we carry on filming and getting as much great footage as we can until play stops at the end of the day.
I love my job. I genuinely love my job. Not every second of the day of course, but expecting that in any profession would be silly. I can’t imagine anything else I’d enjoy this much, while also feeling so challenged. It’s poker and television together. What could be more exciting? Even just typing the above paragraph on my normal WSOP schedule gave me a real sense of being happily where I want to be.
The camera and sound departments, the lighting, the production crew, the mixers and live directors, the support crews, everyone … it’s all one huge bustle of activity where everybody is trying to make sure they take care of their corner of the WSOP TV universe as best as possible, so that the whole thing runs smoothly. And, after working together for so many years, I think we do that pretty well.
The thing is, we all care a lot about creating a great final product. It’s not just a ‘clock in, clock out’ situation for anyone there. It’s an intense and sometimes tiring but often exhilarating undertaking, and we all really care about the outcome.
And we really, really, really hope you all like it. Poker and TV. What could be better?