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Top-10 ideas that improved poker on TV

29 Aug 2011

By Aaron Todd
Televised poker has come a long way since Johnny Chan beat Erik Seidel for the WSOP title in 1988. It has improved because producers of televised poker came up with great ideas to make the product better. Some of those ideas are recent, others are more than a decade old, and some (unfortunately) have fallen out of favor.

Here's my list of the top-10 ideas that have improved televised poker.

10. Rabbit cam
While poker purists may object to the idea of a rabbit camera (some insist that making the correct decision is all that matters, not seeing if you would have caught your draw to win the pot), as a televised poker fan and a player in a home game where rabbit hunting often occurs, I loved it. Unfortunately, the purists seem to have won out here. When a hand ended before the river, dealers revealed to the camera what the turn and river cards would have been had play continued without the players being able to learn that information until the broadcast. It was a great idea, but one that seems to have been abandoned in recent years.

9. Cash on the table
Hearing that someone will win $2.5 million will get your attention. Seeing it on the table will make your jaw drop. At least that what it did to me when Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event in 2003. Putting the winner's share of cash on the table has been a tradition at the WSOP for years, and many other poker tournaments have done the same so that viewers can see just what the players are trying to claim. Even cash-game shows, like High Stakes Poker, have added cash on the table. Seeing players throwing in bricks of $50,000 adds a certain element of importance that chips cannot convey. They're betting with real money, with real winners and real losers.

8. Wild card hand
Several televised poker games include a hand where the viewer gets to "play along" and has to guess what one of the players is holding. ESPN's version during the World Series of Poker is the most well done, with Norman Chad putting together his best guess and often erring in his judgment (as is the case below).

7. Sideline reporter
Shana Hiatt was the pioneer of this profession. A fixture on the "sidelines" of the World Poker Tour's first three seasons, Hiatt had the unenviable task of talking to professional poker players after they just busted out of a major tournament. And as it was early in the poker boom, these players were unaccustomed to talking to the media, especially after missing out on a big score.

The job has evolved, and depends greatly on the show. Amanda Leatherman has done yeoman's work as the sideline reporter for The Big Game, while Kara Scott revolutionized the role by acting as a live sideline reporter during this year's live broadcast of WSOP action on ESPN. Scott's performance spoke volumes about how far poker has come, as she was expected to perform just as Pam Oliver would at an NFL game. And based on her performance during a bizarre interview with Huck Seed (bizarre on his part, not on hers), she is unflappable. (Sorry, no YouTube footage of this classic moment appears to be available.)

6. Heart rate monitors on players
The commentators joke about it well, noting that Daniel Negreanu's resting heart rate is that "of an Ironman triathlete" while Mike Matusow's is in the "mild cardio infarction region." It is interesting to see just how much Negreanu's heart rate jumps when he sees that he's flopped top pair. And it makes the reaction of both players (high-fiving each other) make sense when they realize that they're most likely going to chop the pot, because they have been under such stress that they are relieved to see that they're not going to lose what they put in.

5. Odds of winning/outs
This is maybe the most important thing on the screen for my wife. She's not a poker player, but she knows her statistics. When someone flops an open-ended straight flush draw against an underpair, she might look at the hand and say the underpair is the favorite. Except when the odds are posted right next to the hand, she realizes that the player with the draw can catch a ton of cards to move ahead, so she sees just how powerful that draw is. And while I probably know what the outs are, I won't know the exact odds, especially on hands that involve more than two players. Plus, it's great to know that a player who has a 15 percent hand against Phil Hellmuth manages to beat the odds and win three out of four times.

4. Fun features
No one did this better than ESPN, with their feature, "The Nuts." Unfortunately, this two-minute clip per episode appears to be cut from this year's footage to allow for more hands per episode. This is a big mistake, in my opinion, because the moments I remember from ESPN's WSOP coverage in previous years isn't the hand where so-and-so bluffed out the second-nut flush, or when someone else made a hero call; I remember when Billy Gazes got hit in the face with a football thrown by an ESPN intern.

3. Replays with analysis
The World Poker Tour recently added Tony Dunst to its broadcast roster for a segment titled "The Raw Deal." He adds an edge to the broadcast — and often a critical one. Not afraid to pull punches and make players look bad, Dunst's perspective is a refreshing one and adds a layer of analysis to the broadcast that gives the viewer a better understanding of the intricacies of the game. ESPN's broadcasts of WSOP action added similar segments with poker pros like Andy Bloch and former FBI agent and poker tells expert Joe Navarro.

2. Live coverage
A relatively new phenomenon, live event coverage of poker tournaments has become almost a necessity for big poker tournaments. While most events are not available on television (the World Series of Poker's Main Event being the exception), live streams of final tables of World Poker Tour events will begin for the first time this year, and PokerStars has been live streaming events wherever local gaming restrictions allowed in EPT and NAPT events. A live stream isn't the most exciting poker in the world (you see lots of hands that don't reach a flop), but combined with the insight from some of the world's top professional players, it's definitely worth a few minutes of your time.

1. Hole card camera
The idea that revolutionized televised poker, the hole card camera was patented by Henry Orenstein and was first introduced in Europe on Late Night Poker. It came to the U.S. when Steven Lipscomb produced a documentary about poker for the Discovery Channel, and later moved to air poker tournaments with final table hole cards exposed for the World Poker Tour. The phenomenon spread to WSOP broadcasts, and the poker boom was born. With viewers able to see what players had, they were able to put themselves in the shoes of the players in the game, see amazing bluffs and reads from the world's best poker players, and get involved in the action in new and exciting ways.
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