The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

In Defense of Televised Poker

Written by: Ron Bricker

Image To those who understand, who grasp the subtleties, watching poker on TV is as good, as compelling, as television gets. Unscripted and unpredictable, it’s similar to sports, sure, but also quite different. These aren’t pro athletes. These people are us. Well, OK, me, since I play poker (and maybe you, I guess). And also unlike sports, I can watch the same exact tournaments, the same exact hands, over and over and over, all the while knowing the outcome, and still enjoy it.

(Right, so how is that possible?)

Poker’s been around a long time. Its lineage goes back to Europe in the old days, to New Orleans, to the Wild West, to various back rooms and on to the homes and casinos of today. No longer frowned upon by most, Poker is now legitimate, wholesome and all-American. A big part of its mainstream acceptance, no doubt, was The World Series of Poker, a tournament that began in 1970 and gathered together the best players in the world to crown a champion. Some of these colorful early winners included Amarillo Slim, Johnny Moss, Stu Unger and Doyle Brunson (who’s still around). The game has also been featured on such pop culture gems as The Odd Couple, MASH, and movies like Rounders.

(Right, so Poker is a blast to play, who didn’t know that? But why is it so much fun to watch?)

It actually was on TV as far back as 1979. CBS showed an edited version of the final table of the WSOP for a while. It wasn’t a hit. Part of the problem was that viewers couldn’t see the players’ down cards. Kinda takes the fun out of it, as you never really know what’s going on. Years go by. Technology advances. Someone has the bright idea to use a “hole-cam,” a small camera that allows us to see what a player has down. Suddenly, you know what’s happening, when someone’s bluffing, when they’re not. It’s psychology on exhibit. Dramatic stuff! Ratings go up. Amateur player Chris Moneymaker (perefect name!) wins the Main Event of the WSOP in 2003, and there go the floodgates. Publicity! More coverage! More tournaments! Worldwide exposure! Players become celebrities and celebrities become players!

(OK, so now it’s popular, everyone’s playing, it’s on some cable channel every minute of every day, Texas Hold ‘Em is raging like a wild-fire. I still don’t want to watch it.) 

Pay attention. See, what’s great about it: it’s like a documentary. It’s real. People’s reactions to things are honest. All manner of emotion is apparent: ups, downs, screaming, cheering. You can’t see people’s faces when watching most sports on TV. In poker, they’re right there in front of you. And these aren’t all perfect athletic specimens; no, far from that. These are regular types. Here’s a young guy next to an old guy next to a fat guy next to a thin lady next to a short guy next to a tall guy. Everyone playing is differently, but on equal footing, as much as chip stacks will allow. Yep, a slice of our world, people of all shapes and sexes and colors, but all just people, all just playing a game together.

It’s just so INTERESTING to observe, like sitting at the park people-watching. Now before too long, you start knowing certain players, various pros, and you start rooting for people (I actually like Phil Hellmuth. He played Ultimate frisbee, you know, a huge plus in my world). You start getting more and more into it. You start noticing tendencies and strategies, you laugh at player’s interactions, you learn of humorous, sometimes touching, backstories. By then, you’re hooked, watching repeats, happily.

(Right! I’ll dump my usual TV fare and watch poker. Thanks for the tip!)