[10 June 2005]
“This is unbelievable! Folks, I tell you, you gotta have ice water in your veins to bet a High Three on a flop when it comes Ace, Seven, Seven, when you’ve got Jack Eight and your opponent calls you. Now, a King comes off, you still have Jack Eight and now you move all in on him. Unbelievable play!”
That’s Mike Sexton, color-commentating on play at the Borgata Poker Open in Atlantic City, the second game in round two of the Travel Channel’s stupendously successful World Poker Tour. Listening to the host’s voice get louder and livelier as each new card is played (whether you even understand the lingo and play), you’d think poker was the most exciting game ever played. He might be right.
Obviously, TV poker is hot right now. Players like Phil Laak, Daniel Negreanu, and Gus Hansen are international celebrities; documentaries are made about them and blogs written by them. The Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour has helped make poker the hottest obsession around. The show’s ratings are through the roof, and more people than ever are lining up for a chance to hit a “finals table,” one of those big games that end up on WPT.
But poker’s hardly a new game and it’s not as if gambling at cards has ever been particularly unpopular. So what exactly is it about TV poker that has injected the game with this mega-dose of prominence? The media surrounding Ben Affleck’s personal losses have probably helped a little, but so has WPT, arguably the slickest and most professional of the recent poker productions. The new season two WPT DVD is an elegantly packaged, eight-disc set featuring the season’s 14 games, four with player commentaries, as well as a bonus disc featuring player profiles, poker tips and the debut episode of Poker Corner, in which Sexton and three top poker players analyze key moves from the season’s final championship tournament.
This is not a series only for poker lovers and pros. The show introduces the game to newcomers (such as this writer who became addicted after about three hands in game one) as well as to satisfy longtime players. One of the ways it does this is with pre-and post-commercial tidbits about the game, the players, and even the tournament venues. It celebrates poker from its earliest stages up to its current popularity—for example, on this new disc you’ll find a small piece about the history of the WPT‘s preferred game, No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em. There’s also as a short piece on Hollywood’s fascination with the game in which Jon Favreau, Fred Savage, and Mimi Rogers talk about their addiction to the game, and to WPT (Affleck’s send-up of Sexton is the real reason to watch this bit). The set educates about the game, while assuring viewers that if they love the game, they must be cool. Jack Black plays, after all.
The more you watch the DVD, the more you realize the importance of player coolness. The players bring their own personalities and styles of play. Super-cool cowboy Hoyt Corkins gives nothing away, no matter how good or bad things go; relentless Dane Gus Hansen wears his trademark black t-shirt even when he’s playing atop an ice rink; Good Samaritan Barry Greenstein gives his winnings to charity; and crazy Phil Laak bounds around the poker table and ties a hoodie over his face whenever his chips are on the line. Each brings something different to the tournament and seeing their repeat performances allows the viewer to cultivate favorites, and to analyze their gaming choices along with Sexton and co-host Vince Van Patten.
WPT explores the psychology of poker. Sexton and Van Patten, in their commentaries, attempt to illuminate the players’ motives, which are near impossible to pin down. They’re such masters at poker play-by-play that in the time it takes to deal a few hands, they can run down odds, explain hands, and reveal player histories, which may or may not affect games in progress. They also unload a veritable phrasebook of comparisons to explain players’ reactions. “He looks like someone told him he has to take a colonoscopy,” Van Patten notes at one point about “Dot-Com Kid” Paul Phillips. Or again, “This guy keeps coming back like a broke cousin,” he blurts. Another player has “had more comebacks than Cher!”
If there’s a downside to the show, it’s the running time of each episode. At roughly 90 minutes a game, it’s hard to get excited about hands dealt at the 80-minute mark, when you’re well aware of waning time. In a thrilling hand during Binion’s World Poker Open, game eight of the season, Greenstein goes head to head with two players, James Tippin and Chip Reese, in a hand that, should he win, will boot those players from the tourney. The big hand takes place at one hour and seven minutes on the clock. Knowing there’s roughly 20 minutes of play remaining after this hand, there’s little doubt Chip’s attempt to steal away the other players’ chips will backfire and Greenstein will triumph.
Predicting the outcomes of certain hands, though, doesn’t diminish enjoyment of the game. But it can also augment tension, as watching players’ reactions becomes the real thrill. Sexton, who all but invented TV poker, knows what he’s doing by keeping the focus firmly on the players rather than the hands. The odds, at least for now, are in his favor.