PopMatters Film Feature

Glenn Michael McDonald

Among the strangest spectacles available these days is the televised poker tournament.

Celebrity Poker Showdown (Bravo)

Among the strangest spectacles available these days is the televised poker tournament. How is this possible? Ten strange-looking guys sitting around a table and staring at each other doesn't seem the stuff of compelling television. And yet somehow, it is.

High profile programs are now regularly aired on ESPN (The World Series of Poker), Bravo (Celebrity Poker Showdown), the Travel Channel (The World Poker Tour), and Fox Sports. The major broadcast networks have also started picking up on the trend. For instance, this year NBC produced its own poker event -- the National Heads-Up Poker Championship -- to counterprogram against the Super Bowl pre-game shows on Fox. ESPN even has its own drama, Tilt, fictionalizing the world of high-stakes poker in Vegas. Poker is, suddenly, serious business.

If we want to get all deconstructionist about it, the reasons for this surge in popularity are pretty straightforward. Televised poker effectively combines aspects of three TV staples: the sporting event, the game show, and the "reality" program. You get to watch real people (and sometimes celebrities) play a game in which the winner is richly rewarded with cash and prizes. It helps, too, that poker is actually one of the great games. Scholars rank it right up there with chess and backgammon. It's well-balanced, easy to learn, and rewards strategy, skill, and discipline (see this introduction). The most popular variant of poker (and by far the most televised) is Texas Hold 'Em, which is poker distilled to its basic alchemy of skill and luck, cards and chips.

Like millions of others, I got hooked on the poker shows and their weird hybrid charm. But after a year of steeping myself in all things poker for my book, Deal Me In! Internet Cardrooms, Big-Time Tournaments, and the New Poker -- and playing about 10,000 games and tournaments online and off -- it's clear to me that the TV poker shows are ultimately deceptive. Not in any sinister sense, but in the way they make the game look so easy, so simple. The new players watching these shows are flooding casinos and online cardrooms, and getting chewed up by experienced poker players.

A typical tournament program features six to 10 players squaring off for a million dollar prize. What the TV shows don't show you are the thousand or so players who bust out of a tournament early. Cash prizes are generated by the "buy-in" fee posted by all players in each tournament. For example, the main Hold 'Em tourney at the World Series of Poker requires a buy-in of $10,000. Last year, 2,577 players ponied up. By the end of the tourney, 2,311 players had lost everything. Even ESPN's extended coverage of the 2005 Hold 'Em event showed only a fraction of the tables and games.

This selective editing applies to individual hands as well. When watching a World Poker Tour final table, the impression is that a six- or even 10-person game is resolved within an hour. Not so. For every dramatic hand you see played, 10 other hands have been played in which virtually nothing happens: Someone raises the pot, and everyone folds. Tenacity and discipline are mandatory for winning poker. But they're not that fun to watch.

Most troublesome is the TV game's use of hole-card cameras that allow the viewing audience to see exactly what kind of hand a player has. That is to say, the viewer can see what the players themselves cannot. Because poker players trade heavily in deception and bluffing, this aspect -- specific to TV -- adds a whole new dimension to the experience of watching poker. It's a reliable narrative device. Whenever the viewer knows something that the characters (or in the case, the players) do not, drama and tension are heightened.

It makes for great TV, but as an instructional model for new players, it's crippling. When all the cards are on the table, as it were, poker seems like simplicity itself. Why is that idiot calling $40,000 on a straight when the other guy has a flush? Because he doesn't know about the flush, that's why. New players weaned on the TV poker shows come to the tables with a skewed idea of the game. They're used to having a lot more information than you get when playing.

The poker shows are designed, first and foremost, to be entertaining television. And that they are -- the best programs are produced by professionals who know a good thing when they see it. And that is, the suggestion that people can win obscene amounts of money for sitting around and playing cards. This is the "money-for-nothing" American fever dream that drives lotteries, day trading, and gambling in general.

It's no coincidence that the games on TV have millions of dollars at stake -- nickel-dime neighborhood cash game are unlikely to make primetime rotation. Again, there's a critical distinction here for the player seeking instruction from these shows. No-limit poker played at ultra-high stakes is a fundamentally different game than the poker new players are likely to get involved in -- low-stake games with betting limits. Bluffing and aggressive wagering are premium weapons in the high stakes games, but they are all but useless in small limit games.

Poker, as depicted on various TV shows, sure looks like a lot of fun. But the programs are selectively formatted, heavily edited, and depict the game in a fundamentally artificial fashion. None of which would be a problem if it weren't for the fact that the poker shows are driving new players into the casinos and online cardrooms, high school and college students in particular. It's a familiar pop culture dilemma, part of the discussion about protecting consumers from media influences. The poker trend is cresting right now, and we're likely to be flipping past guys in sunglasses shuffling chips on TV for a good long while. But if the TV poker shows are good television, they're lousy instructional tapes.





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