Between 2003 and 2006, you couldn’t turn your television on without running into an endless lineup of poker programs. The World Series of Poker (WSOP) dominated ESPN for days on end during the summer, while Travel Channel viewers had weekly installments of the World Poker Tour (WPT) to follow. The Game Show Network created High Stakes Poker to bring the secretive world of top-dollar cash games to the masses. Even the paparazzi-themed Bravo network had Celebrity Poker Showdown running around the clock.
The National Heads Up Poker Championship on NBC, the Poker Dome Challenge on Fox Sports Net, Poker Night in America on CBS… the list goes on and on. It all started in 2002 when the WPT put the first poker tournaments on TVs from coast to coast. One year later, Chris Moneymaker made a miraculous run to win the 2003 WSOP Main Event with ESPN cameras on hand to beam every bluff to worldwide audiences.
Things have changed in the decade since the poker boom came to a close, and while the landscape of televised poker shows is decidedly smaller today, poker fans still have plenty of programs to choose from. Along with staples like the WSOP and WPT which never went away, online TV networks like Poker Central provide a steady stream of original content featuring both tournament and cash game play.
When you subscribe to Poker Central, you’ll have the following lineup of broadcasts to choose from on demand:
- Live at the Bike – Live streamed cash game from the Bicycle Hotel & Casino in Los Angeles (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST)
- Global Poker League matches (Tuesday through Sunday at 2 p.m. EST)
- High Stakes Poker reruns from the original Game Show Network series
- Poker After Dark reruns from the original NBC series
And that’s just the content from Poker Central…
Between online platforms like PokerStars, TV and Twitch putting out new stuff, and syndicated reruns from the glory days, televised poker is still quite prevalent. Suffice to say, if you’re looking to catch a few flops and folds on TV, you won’t have to look far. But that fact begs one important question – should you be watching these shows in the first place?
Below you’ll find five reasons why televised poker is bad for your game, running the gamut from its effect on strategic thinking to making myths and misconceptions go mainstream.
1 – They Only Show Action-Packed Hands
One of the dirty little secrets of a show like WSOP or WPT is that tournament poker really isn’t as exciting as it looks. Sure, when you experience that “all-in moment” – as the branding experts over at ESPN like to call it – moving your chips into the middle can be the ultimate thrill. But those moments are few in far between, or at least they should be if you’re playing correctly.
You wouldn’t know that from watching televised poker tournaments though, thanks to a little something folks in the biz call entertainment value. Simply put, a broadcast which showed every hand play out in succession would be nothing short of a snoozer. Seven or eight out of every 10 hands won’t even make it to the flop, as a basic preflop raise of three-bet is usually enough to take the pot down right then and there.
To get around this unfortunate fact, TV poker producers essentially create a highlight montage. By cutting out all of the inconsequential hands, and cobbling together a series of action-packed all-in moments, the producers give people at home what they want to see.
This is all well and good from a fan’s perspective, and indeed, a well-produced tournament poker show can create thrilling narratives when the cards cooperate. Villains and heroes emerge, underdogs take Goliath’s down, and like clockwork the flop seems to create fireworks. But what about the perspective of a player looking to improve their own tournament skills? If that’s you, then accepting TV poker as reality is a huge mistake.
A player who mimics what they see on a TV poker tournament will immediately stick out like a sore thumb. They’ll be putting chips into play whenever possible, shoving all-in with reckless abandon, and more often than not, going broke in a hurry.
2 – Made for TV Poker is Manufactured
Along with the documentary-style shows like WSOP or WPT, which simply cover a tournament as it plays out naturally, televised poker comes in a more manufactured “made for TV” format. These are programs like the Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament and Celebrity Poker Showdown, shows that create a poker game out of whole cloth. If it wasn’t for the network paying players to be there, there would be no game to speak of, making the entire affair akin to “reality” TV.
Here’s how “Kid Poker” himself, Daniel Negreanu, described the enigma of made for TV poker programming in an interview with the PokerStars Blog:
When pure entertainment is the production staff’s focus, they’ll do everything in their power to spice the game up. Of course, they can’t rig the deck to ensure crazy collisions, but these producers can handpick players to fill particular roles.
In a legitimate cash game or tournament, Negreanu and Hellmuth would likely choose to respect one another, targeting the amateurs at the table for an easier path to building chips. But put the same pair of players in a game like High Stakes Poker, and both know full well what their role is within the production.
Hellmuth fall naturally into his “Poker Brat” character, whining over bad beats and complaining about his lousy luck. To serve as his foil, Negreanu will try his hardest to deliver one of those bad beats, playing garbage hands he wouldn’t ordinarily touch just for a chance to take Hellmuth down.
The gameplay isn’t set up or staged exactly, just massaged in a certain direction based whatever dramatic themes the producer is looking to capture.
Negreanu isn’t shy about admitting his complicity in this production either, as he told the PokerStars Blog:
Wanting to watch entertaining characters play your favorite game is only natural, but in real life, poker isn’t a drama. When you grind the $2/$5 game at your local card room, there won’t be heroes and villains duking it out, just pros and recs trying to beat the rake. By turning made for TV poker into a reality show, producers might be able to generate a hit, but they’re not doing players who want to improve any favors along the way.
3 – Watching the Same Group of Pros Limits Your Perspective
Hellmuth and Negreanu. Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey. Annie Duke and Howard Lederer. Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak. These poker pairs became household names during the boom days, catapulting into stardom thanks to their repeat appearances in the most popular poker games on TV. And while each one of them brings a unique blend of personality and skill to the arena, they aren’t exactly your average player trying to grind out a profit.
The only problem is, you and I aren’t elite players. The average poker fan watching at home will never be able to come close to the strategic thinking employed by somebody like Brunson, who only has 60 years of experience under his belt. Individuals like Negreanu and Ivey are operating on a different playing field from the rest of us, which is why they’re hand-picked by producers to serve as the lead in a TV poker drama.
Negreanu realized early on in his career how this emphasis on poker characters played out behind the scenes:
And while he’s certainly correct that poker’s popularity is enhanced by having stars onscreen, you have to realize that the game they play is on another plane. Think about it like this… when you catch LeBron James going shot for shot with Steph Curry in a thrilling NBA finals game, the experience can be exhilarating to say the least. These are the two best basketball players on the planet displaying every ounce of raw talent and hardcourt heroics they have to offer.
But if you’re feeling inspired to hit the gym and hoist up a few three-pointers for yourself, you’ll soon be disappointed. While players like Curry make it all look so easy, we’re only mere mortals who will struggle mightily trying to emulate their abilities.
The same holds true for televised poker, so when you see players like Negreanu making insane laydowns and reading opponents like a book, just remember how rare skills like his really are. If you head to the poker room and try to pull off the same plays, you’ll invariably go down in flames trying to fly too close to the sun.
4 – The Money Isn’t Always Real
One of the classic hooks from High Stakes Poker cash games was the big bricks of $10,000 stacked up like castles beside a player’s chips. The producers wanted to emphasize that these massive pots were real, and there’s nothing more real than a wad of dough changing hands on the turn of a card. But as you can see in this memorable clip from the show – which shows Cirque du Soleil founder and billionaire Guy Laliberté calling down a $600,000 all-in bluff – even bricks of cash can be turned into props for the sake of quality programming.
When you put a chip into the pot, or 600,000 of them for that matter, the bet is a legally binding wager. No dealer in the world working a legitimate poker game would allow players to take their bets back simply out of camaraderie.
Hands like this can give players a distorted perception of how poker cash games really operate, which isn’t exactly helpful if you’re looking to move up in stakes. And while Laliberté is surely an outlier thanks to his billionaire status, TV poker games largely suffer from a similar dilemma – the money players put it risk isn’t always there’s in the first place.
When a player knows he or she is betting money that they’ll be paid back in the end, they’ll be far more willing to go for the gusto – which is exactly what poker producers are looking for.
5 – Characters Create Imitators Who Can’t Seem to Quit
On a final note, next time you play a live poker game, keep an eye out for the folks who seem to be playing a part of their own. You might see somebody staring daggers at you through their sunglasses, trying to get a “soul read” to help deduce your holding. They’re simply following the lead they see on TV of course, mimicking the antics of poker characters who made moves like this famous.
Thus, when watching the live stream broadcast of a major tournament, it’s all too common to see protracted tanking displays that can take up to 10 minutes or more. The only problem is, a real game is no place for extended staring contests that can stretch over several minutes. The pots you and I are playing for are total a few hundred bucks, and the tournament prize pools seldom top $10,000, so there’s simply no need to take things as seriously as Negreanu might while attempting to make the Main Event final table.
For every speech a TV fan turned table-talker gives in Level 3 of your local nightly tournament, you and the rest of the table is losing out on precious hands per hour. To avoid becoming “that guy” who everybody else at the table cringes at, leave the poker characters where they belong – on your favorite TV poker programs.
The poker industry owes an immense debt of gratitude to TV programming, and it’s definitely true that the boom era would’ve never happened without ESPN and its ilk. With that said, it’s crucial to recognize the artificial nature of a televised tournament or cash game. Between deceptive editing that condenses a three-day tournament into two-hour clips, and producers prioritizing personality over proficiency, what you see on the screen seldom resembles a real-life poker game.