In the modern era, it’s pretty hard to imagine not being able to view your favourite poker players and tournaments live on television. From events like the World Series of Poker to the World Poker Tour, the game is literally everywhere. But it hasn’t always been this way; far from it in fact.
There was a time where certain corners of society would almost frown upon the idea of watching live poker on TV, but the introduction of the WSOP in 1970 would act as the catalyst that would change the future of broadcasting poker. It was towards the end of the 70s that the WSOP started to be shown on CBS, and although the coverage wasn’t anywhere near the levels we know it today, it was a pivotal moment nonetheless.
Once the WSOP started to be aired on TV – via a highlights show – poker enthusiasts were introduced to a new form of watching their favourite game. The original broadcasts didn’t produce the best coverage, with viewers unable to see much of the action and most of the show was dominated by the commentators guessing what the players were about to do next.
The 1980s were neither here nor there in terms of providing detailed poker coverage; it was still in an experimental stage and a lack of viewing the important parts of the action remained unpopular with viewers. It was still similar to the coverage witnessed a decade previous but the WSOP did switch from CBS to ESPN.
The 1990s provided us with a whole host of broadcasting changes; the decade was pioneering in terms of altering the way viewers enjoyed particular TV programmes and live poker was no different. The typical, bog-standard coverage viewers grew to know in the 70s and 80s was given a much needed boost, and much of that is down to Henry Orenstein.
The toy-maker turned pro-poker star came up with the revolutionary idea of inventing the hole cam, whereby viewers could witness the players’ faced-down cards. This, in turn, would make the viewing much more exciting and attractive to the audience with no risk whatsoever of disrupting the live game play. The main result of this provided a more detailed analysis and viewers could learn a lot about players’ individual poker tells.
Orenstein’s revolutionary work provided the basis for live poker to continue gaining traction, and his work arguably inspired the creation of the WPT, which was the first ever televised poker tour. Steve Lipscomb, Mike Sexton and Linda Johnson were the trio behind the WPT and hole cams were revitalised to provide even better viewing.
From here, televised poker went from something of a niche topic to a growing mainstream must-see, and it didn’t take too long for the WSOP to start pumping more money into their own production. Their coverage provided more detailed analysis and the idea started to snowball amongst other poker operators, which leads us into the modern era.
The huge success that poker companies were beginning to accumulate via TV broadcasts meant that coverage needed to be enhanced with the audience in mind, and with the rise of online poker, many streaming services were introduced and shows dedicated to providing more in-depth and regular coverage.
Even the prize funds for players were increased to tempt in newer viewers and keep current fans firmly glued to their screens, with new variations of tournaments and a wider variant of poker games all added to keep fans entertained. It’ll be intriguing to see what the long-term future holds for televised poker but for now, it’s fair to assume we’ll be seeing more of it than not over the foreseeable future.
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Garon Cockrell is the Founder and Editor of Pop Culture Beast and host of The Pop Culture Beast Show. He founded the site over seven years ago to have a place on the internet to write about the things he loved. Since then, Garon has become a best-selling author (Demonic and Other Tales), an award winning screenwriter (Best Screenplay 2013 Motor City Nightmares Film Festival), and a cast member on the top rated podcast, Never Not Funny.