It’s Friday night, after a long day at work, and its time to be entertained with some exciting, dramatic television. The pop corn is popped, the drinks are nearby and the remote is in hand. With anticipation the program is selected-the latest movie on DVD? No, it’s the World Series of Poker’s “No Limit Championship”, where characters, drama and tension abound in the popular spectator sport of No Limit Texas Holdem.
That’s right, spectator sport.
Poker has always enjoyed a certain amount of celebrity. From its popular origins on Louisiana riverboats and frontier town saloons of the old west to Rat Pack frequented gambling casinos in Las Vegas, the ultimate “vying card game” has risen to grab Neilson ratings and celebrity players, such as in Bravo’s show “Celebrity Poker Showdown.”
In the Mel Gibson movie Maverick, an enormous poker competition was held aboard a riverboat, with scores of the genteel folk standing by to watch the games. Pulling for the underdogs, cheering on the winners; the emotion is all the same regardless of the game. Being right there, watching the chutzpah pay itself out on the green felt table and counting the chips along with the players, can be a rush in and of itself. But how could the excitement of watching poker ever translate to the screen?
Two factors made it so. First, the right game had to be the vehicle, and No Limit Holdem had all the right elements. The name says it all, No Limit. In most poker games limits are set on the amount you are allowed to bet at any one time, keeping things friendly. In Texas Holdem anyone, at any time, could shove a mountain of chips into the pot, calling everyone in the had out. How popular is this move amongst viewers? Judging by the number of times audience members shout “All in!” (which is what betting everything is called) during Celebrity Poker Showdown, it’s pretty popular.
The second factor is technology; by adding small lipstick cameras to the playing table, it allows viewers to see what normally only the individual player would see; his two pocket cards.
Holdem is also a community game, and once the rules are understood, fairly easy to follow. Each player is dealt two pocket cards face down; five cards are played in the center of the table, face up, and the goal is to make the best hand of five cards out of the seven available (two pocket and five community cards.)
In tournament play the ante (the amount each player is required to put in the pot before the round begins) and the blinds increase every twenty minutes or so, which means that even the most conservative player will soon find their cache of chips dwindling. The little and big blinds are required bets made by the two players to the left of the dealer, who’s position is marked by a small plastic chip, which makes its way clockwise around the table.
Normally a spectator would have to make do with watching the community cards and the players (which, admittedly, is already very entertaining) but with the lipstick cameras showing the pocket cards, spectating goes to the next level. Playing along is possible as viewers will back-seat play the hands, cheering and jeering the decisions made by the folk at the table.
Other elements come into play with Holdem’s popularity. The lingo makes it fun, with the first three cards in the community pool called the flop, the next card called the turn and the last the river. Rounding out the uniqueness of the sport are the players, who routinely wear sunglasses to hide their tells (subtle mannerisms that pros can read to guess how a person will play), funky hats or shirts to throw off the competition and generally act up.
Could the argument be made that, while watching players risk tons of cash in chip form can be dramatic enough, there is no plot, no story to engage the viewers? Sure, but the 2003 winner of the World Series of Poker No Limit Hold’em Championship would prove the opposite is true. Chris Moneymaker, then 27, made a name by teaching himself, and then excelling in, internet poker. This new comer slapped down his $40 entry fee and then, to the chagrin of the grizzled vets around the tables, walked away with the $2,500,000 dollar prize.