There's Poker on the Television Tonight!
By Keith 'The Camel' Hawkins / April 2005
March was a momentous month for poker in Britain. The world's first dedicated poker channel was launched. Think about that sentence for a minute. How amazing is it that our game has a television channel devoted to it? Now, I'm not going to comment on the out of the Poker Channel because I haven't seen any of it yet! I have crappy old NTL and they have decided not to let its customers watch the channel. Boo Hiss.
If I had told you ten years ago there would one day be a television channel showing just poker you would probably have given me the same look people give Craig Grant when he blithely informs them he once fought Sugar Ray Leonard for the WBC World Middleweight title at Caesar's Palace in Vegas in front of 30,000 screaming fans. You would have patted me on the head, told me to run along and wondered if I had been keeping up to date with my intake of medication.
But, over the years the growth of poker on the box has at first been steady and recently become spectacular.
I think it is possible to recognise three main landmarks which have led to the explosion of televised poker. Firstly, of course, was the atmospheric Late Night Poker. Apart from a few terrible attempts at broadcasting the WSOP, LNP was the first televised poker. It was innovative in that it showed hole cards and brought to prominence the incomparable Jesse May. Then there was the first Poker Million, where John Duthie just amazed and transfixed the nation's poker players with a display of almost perfect poker skills on live TV. Then, finally, Hollywood took over with a series of huge buy in tournaments with millions of dollars in prize money and glitzy and glamorous sets and presenters (and I'm not talking about Mike Sexton here!). With huge audiences and massive popularity the World Poker Tour finally announced that televised poker was mainstream entertainment.
Envious of the success of the WPT several other television companies to set up rival shows to cash in on the perceived poker boom.
So, two questions spring to mind. Firstly, what is the standard of this plethora of poker television programmes? Secondly, is this boom in televised poker good for the game?
To be frank, most of the televised poker is pretty average. There are exceptions, such as the excellent series of EPT events on Eurosport and the Victor Chandler Cup but on the whole the programmes are very poor. The camera work and editing have been very amateurish on shows such the World Poker Championship and the Ultimate Poker Challenge. While the CelebPoker championship was a complete farce in every way. The one table satellite tournaments such as the Poker Million and the European Open are much better spectacles and well produced but in a way they bastardise poker. They are set up to finish very quickly and although they can be exciting for the viewer, there really isn't enough play for the huge buy ins to override the luck factor inherent in tournaments. And then there is the complete nonsense that is "Poker Night" where Jim Britton is paid to commentate for seemingly endless hours on online play money tables. Can anyone spell "filler TV"?
However, the main question which should concern us is whether the surfeit of poker on TV is good or damaging for the game in general and the existing players in particular.
As always, the answer is probably yes and no. Any seasoned player will tell you all the newcomers who have been attracted to the game by poker on TV have livened up the scene no end in the last 3 years. I popped into the Vic the other night and every table was full and I recognised a grand total of 7 people there! Ten years ago I would have known 90% of the players. The TV coverage has also served to legitimise poker as a mainstream pastime, not a game infested with shady angle shooters and charlatans. A few players have also made their fortune due to televised poker. The massive sponsorship deals enjoyed by several players are really only down to the wide audience the online poker sites that pay the loot will receive when "their" player makes the TV stage of a tournament.
But of course there are negatives. Firstly, there is the fact that so many of the televised tournaments give very little back to the players. The Poker Million doesn't allow players to wear advertising logos. Why not? Of the European tournaments only the EPT adds any money; surely the players who are providing the action should be given some of the cake? Then the subject sore to my heart: player's behaviour. New players have seen some of antics of players such as Hellmuth, Korous, Matusow et al and may believe this is the norm and copy it in their local £20 rebuy event.
All in all televised poker may be seen to be at a crossroads today. On the whole television has been positive for the game but we must be careful. The standards of event shown must remain high or people will lose interest. I think too many events on TV showing novice players and not enough of the top players will lead to viewers switching off in their droves. Who would watch a snooker tournament without Ronnie O'Sullevan or Mark Williams? Poker on TV should be an event which has people rushing home to see it. We certainly don't want to get to the point where when someone says "There's poker on TV tonight" he is answered by an apathetic "So what?"
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