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Original Issue

Live Aid

A move to (almost) real time spices up the World Series of Poker

There's plenty to be said for thrill-a-minute action, but a slow burn can be even more satisfying. Case in point: ESPN's coverage last week of the World Series of Poker finale. In years past, hundreds of hands were edited into a montage of all-ins and bad beats. This year, however, with ratings sagging, ESPN aired the denouement in real time.

It was a gamble; next time you get bounced from your Thursday game, see how long you can watch your buddies play before excusing yourself to see what The Mentalist is up to. But, like the aggressive betting strategy of 2011 champ Pius Heinz (below), this gambit paid off. For once, the event was unpredictable. In years past, viewers knew a champ would be crowned within the hour. But this year's virtually live broadcast (gambling regulators insisted on a 15-minute delay) ran until nearly 3 a.m.—four hours after SportsCenter's planned start.

What's more, hole cards stayed concealed during each hand, altering the role of announcers. (Any stiff could come up with "Go crazy, folks" if he had the play-by-play ahead of time.) Gone were the calculated one-liners, replaced with actual, you know, analysis.

Of course, for long stretches there wasn't much to analyze. But that silence delivered what past broadcasts lacked: that tension—the agony of not knowing what's next—that makes poker so compelling.