Keep your eye on the poker prize, not the TV

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You’ve heard it all before.

Steven Lipscomb used Henry Orenstein’s lipstick cameras to turn the World Poker Tour into a television phenomenon, dispatching Dick Van Patten’s wide-eyed effusiveness and Gabe Kaplan’s hole-card guessing to the dustbin of TV’s archives.

The show, and the technology, spurred dozens of poker shows, from ESPN’s slick coverage of the World Series of Poker, to Heartland Poker Tour’s spotlight on poker’s everymen, to NASCAR drivers and hip-hop artists open-raising with jack-trey off.

The South is no stranger to the glare of the bright lights. Harrah’s Tunica and Harrah’s New Orleans are stops on the WSOP’s circuit with ESPN, and the Beau Rivage recently concluded its Southern Poker Championship with a main event taped for broadcast by the WPT.

Most recently, Ante Up teamed with Fallah Productions, producer of the successful Windy City Poker Championship TV show in Chicago, to film the final table of the Chad Brown No-Limit Hold’em Tournament at Orange Park Kennel Club near Jacksonville (see pages 22-23).

“Windy City Poker Championship events that are televised attract fields that are at least 20 percent higher than non-televised events,” said Kirk Fallah, creator of the Windy City Poker Championship.

Orange Park Kennel Club had expected about 150 players for its event. It got 214, an impressive number for an $880 buy-in in North Florida, which doesn’t have the poker population of, say, South Florida or Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. TV can’t account for all of that, of course, but judging by the cell phone calls overheard as you walked through the poker room, players were eager to make the TV cut, and tell their friends and families to look for them.

So just how does a TV camera change the dynamics of a poker tournament?

When my co-publisher, Chris Cosenza, and I arrived in Jacksonville at noon on Day 2 of the tournament, 63 players remained. About six hours later as the dinner break arrived, the tournament was just busting through the money bubble, the notoriously longest part of most tournaments. That’s a kill rate of about six players an hour. Play was scheduled to continue until reaching the TV table of six players that night. It ended at closing time five hours later with more than a dozen still standing.

The tournament picked up at noon the next day, and didn’t reach the TV table until more than five hours later. The kill rate had dropped to one per hour.

In other words, everyone wanted to be a TV star.

Not that we can blame them. For most of these players, this was their first real chance at seeing themselves on the small screen. Not for the $10,000 the World Series of Poker charges, but for a modest $880. And no one wanted to be the one making the call to the wife or the boyfriend or the grandkids to say, “Sorry, I didn’t make it.”

Good poker players tell the rest of us, “Don’t play to cash; play to win.” I suspect good poker players would also tell the rest of us, “Don’t play to make it on TV; play to win.” So I wonder how many of the players in this tournament, or any televised tournament, miss out on important chips because they don’t size up the situation, put their TV ego on the backburner and apply constant pressure to those who nervously fidget, looking at the TV show’s set being built, imagining themselves being fitted for a tiny microphone.

Ante Up is working to bring more TV tournaments to The South, and no doubt many other options are in the works. So when you find yourself in the home stretch of one, you might be best served to keep your eye on your prey at hand, not on the feast for which everyone else is hungry.

— Email Scott Long at scott@anteupmagazine.com