Monday, March 30, 2009

Looking Back: The World Poker Tour Debuts

The hole card camera on the World Poker TourSix years ago today (March 30, 2003) the debut episode of the World Poker Tour aired on the Travel Channel. We’re you watching then?

Me neither. Took a few months for me to find that show, I have to say, not having been a regular viewer of the Travel Channel. ESPN would air its seven-episode presentation of the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event that summer and early fall, and I think it was probably some time after that when I first saw the WPT.

That first episode featured the final table of the Five Diamond Poker Classic at the Bellagio, originally played on May 31, 2002. The $10,000+$200 tournament attracted 146 entrants, creating a prize pool of over $1.4 million. The final table featured Chris Bigler, Freddy Deeb, Gus Hansen, John Hennigan, John Juanda, and Scotty Nguyen.

I rewatched that debut episode a couple of weeks ago. You can, too, over at the WPT website.

While the WPT would refine the format somewhat, really just about everything was already in place there from the get-go. So that first episode remains fairly entertaining both from a “game show” perspective and in terms of the poker. We meet the hosts, “poker champion” Mike Sexton and “Hollywood home game sensation” Vince Van Patten, who early on give a “quick tutorial” on hold’em, then call the action in pretty much the same style they would continue to employ for the next hundred-plus episodes.

The players are introduced, and early on it is that clear Hansen -- the “Professional Backgammon Player” -- is pegged as an outsider of sorts, as though he’s giving poker a try and it seems to be working out for him. Hansen had a huge chip lead at the start of the final table, and appears to use it well throughout to apply pressure on the others. When play began, Hansen had over a million chips, Juanda and Deeb had a bit more than half a million, Nguyen was just under half a million, and Hennigan and Bigler were sitting on short stacks.

Hansen’s reputation as a wild, aggressive player was established with this show, although it turns out he doesn’t really get out of line much at all with his play (in my opinion). Not everyone felt the same way, though. One of my favorite moments in the episode comes after Deeb -- whom they call “Kassem,” not “Freddy” -- gets eliminated by the Great Dane, then says of Hansen “the guy who won that last hand from me, he play very bad, in my opinion. I would like to play this game with him every day for the rest of my life, if he plays like that. He could not beat me in the long run.”

Not gonna get into the specifics of the episode too deeply, so as not to ruin it for those who might want to give it a look. Like I say, they had the format pretty much down there already. Aside from not using Shana Hiatt enough yet. But they’d fix that.

Chan vs. Seidel, 1988 WSOPMuch is made of the WPT using the hole card cameras, with many citing that innovation as the catalyst that finally made poker on television popular. Of course, poker shows were showing hole cards even before the WPT. The British show Late Night Poker, which debuted in 1999, was showing hole cards by pointing cameras up through glass windows on the table. And even the older WSOP telecasts were giving viewers information about players’ hole cards. (Recall that clip of the last hand of the 1988 WSOP Main Event between Johnny Chan and Erik Seidel shown in Rounders in which the players’ hole cards are identified in circular insets in the bottom corners.)

The hole card cameras helped, for sure. But there were other factors in play, too, with the contemporaneous rise in popularity of online poker probably having more to do with the WPT’s success than anything else.

Hard to believe it’s only been six years, though. Even if the show hasn’t changed all that much over that period, seems like just about everything else has.

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