The introduction of poker on television came with early broadcasts of the World Series of Poker. Those episodes from Binion’s of early WSOP Main Event final tables started in the 1970s on CBS and then ESPN. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s when Henry Orenstein introduced the hole card cam – or lipstick camera – that poker headed to phenomenon status on TV.
The hole card cam was first used on Late Night Poker in the UK, but the World Poker Tour took it to a new level on the Travel Channel when the first episode aired in 2003. ESPN then took the same method to increase the television audiences for the WSOP on ESPN in 2003, which brought Chris Moneymaker’s Main Event victory into homes everywhere and launched the poker boom.
The Draw of Poker on Television
The audience’s ability to see the hole cards brought new excitement to poker on television, as poker fans could identify with players and the decisions made on various hands. They could make their own judgments, agreeing or disagreeing with the players’ bets, raises, and folds. And through these thought processes, new players were encouraged to develop their own strategies. They were inspired to play like the pros or better than the pros.
The other draw for poker tournaments on television was the development of story lines and characters. Poker enthusiasts could cheer for the man known as “Jesus,” or the “Professor” and his sister, the “Great Dane” and the “Mouth.” Scotty Nguyen was always entertaining, as were players like Phil Hellmuth and Tony G. Fans could cheer for their favorite players, laugh with and at others, or simply root for the underdog.
Shows like Celebrity Poker Showdown took poker to yet another level. The series was on the Bravo channel, and poker pro Phil Gordon and actor Dave Foley teamed up as the hosts to welcome big names like Don Cheadle, Ben Affleck, David Schwimmer, Rosario Dawson, Wanda Sykes, Angie Dickinson, Amy Poehler, and Chevy Chase to the tables. An entirely new audience was drawn to the game to watch celebrities play a game that they may have only played at their grandmother’s kitchen table for pennies.
Celebrities and poker pros then meshed even further on shows like National Heads-Up Poker Championship on NBC. Successful poker pros created another market by playing cash games in front of television cameras for High Stakes Poker on GSN. Those episodes are still replayed online and hands recalled by poker fans around the world.
Since the major poker sites departed the United States market and many other countries segregated their online poker markets, the poker world lost most of its television shows. Without advertising money from companies like PokerStars and Full Tilt, quite a few shows disappeared.
WPT and WSOP continue to air their episodes, and Heartland Poker Tour (HPT) brings its final tables to networks around America. Poker Night in America offers cash games on television. For the most part, those are the only ones that survived in the North American market.
Moreover, many of the poker pros that fans used to look for on the shows are no longer in the poker industry. Members of Team Full Tilt like Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson are no longer welcome at most poker tables, nor is Annie Duke due to her failings with UltimateBet and Epic Poker. Doyle Brunson only really plays in private cash games, and Phil Ivey does the same, with the exception of a few tournaments throughout the year. Of course, players like Daniel Negreanu are still available, but many of the big names of the past decade are not.
Chances of Another Boom
There is always the chance of another poker boom, but with the slow process of legislation in places like Europe and the United States, the legalization of online poker is years away for many regions. And liquidity creates hardships for online poker companies that make prospects of television show advertising and sponsorship a long-term goal, if a goal at all.
Poker on television may have seen its peak in the 2000s. Another rise for poker on television will take creativity, superb marketing, broad advertising, and a committed force behind the scenes. And the poker industry doesn’t seem to have the energy or the money for that task.