The World Poker Tour has turned away some players willing to pay the $25,000 entry fee.
Americans are going wild for poker, specifically, the high-stakes form of poker known as no-limit Texas hold ’em.

It’s the deceptively simple game you can see being played on no fewer than five TV channels in dozens of online poker salons and at a growing number of big-money tournaments across the country.

The Internet can claim part of the credit for raising poker’s profile. But when it comes to creating national crazes, nothing matches the power of television. The World Poker Tour – a traveling circuit of tournament play created specifically for cable TV – has supercharged professional poker. Some Tour events are turning away players who are quite willing to pay the $25,000 entry fee.

The weekly Tour telecasts both demystify the game and make it seem like the ultimate adrenaline rush. Producers use a bevy of cameras, including miniature “lipstick cams” that reveal the cards players are holding; a multitude of on-screen graphics that provide up-to-the-deal statistics on who has the best chance to win this hand; and an announcing team that raises the play-by-play to almost comic levels of tension.

The frenzy is no surprise to Steven Lipscomb, who created the World Poker Tour two years ago and maintains that 50 million to 80 million people are playing the game regularly.

“It’s not like we’re creating a fad out of ether,” Lipscomb said. “It’s the great American card game.”

The fever has spread to events not on the Tour. Next month’s finals of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, where anyone with $10,000 can belly up to a green-felt table and play alongside the best in the game, are expected to grow from last year’s record 839 participants to well over 1,000 and perhaps as high as 1,500 players. It’s the granddaddy of no-limit tournaments.

ESPN, which carried seven hours of bells-and-whistles coverage from the 2003 World Series, is tripling its coverage to 22 hours this year.

“People can’t get enough of it,” said ESPN senior coordinating producer Mike Antinoro. “They tell me they’ve watched an episode 10 times. I would understand if it were “The Godfather.”‘

Fueling the interest of many recreational players is the idea that even an amateur can win a big-money poker tournament with just one good streak of luck. That point was proven at last year’s World Series of Poker, when an unknown accountant from Tennessee named – you’ve got to love this – Chris Moneymaker bluffed and played his way to the $2.5 million first prize.

His winning run was documented by ESPN crews covering the series and was turned into a seven-hour miniseries that has rerun continuously for the last year.

The explosion of interest in tournament poker has been a mixed blessing to full-time poker players who, until about a year ago, played their games in almost complete anonymity.

Vince Burgio, a 17-year veteran of the poker circuit, made it to the final table of the Lucky Chances tournament in the first season of the World Poker Tour.

A member of the Senior Poker Hall of Fame, Burgio said he’s glad for the bigger purses and corporate sponsorship deals that TV has brought. But he said the constant presence of television cameras has created a climate where showmanship and playing to the camera are sometimes valued more than good poker skills.

“When you get to the final table, they (the TV producers) tell you, “Show your emotions,”‘ said Burgio. “Some of us old-timers say, “Isn’t that kind of rude, to jump up and down when you’ve beaten somebody?”‘

The telecasts of the World Poker Tour make it the highest rated series in the channel’s history. An average of 1.5 million viewers tune in for the Wednesday telecast, and Travel Channel claims a total audience of 5 million per week, counting all multiple airings, which brings poker into roughly the same stratosphere as professional wrestling.

Much of the credit goes to Lipscomb, whose rapid ascension from low-paid TV producer to high-stakes gaming impresario was as improbable as the rise of poker itself. Indeed, it’s possible that the World Poker Tour wouldn’t exist today if Lipscomb’s mom hadn’t decided to become a minister.

Lipscomb was practicing law 10 years ago when he heard from his mother that fundamentalists were seizing control of the Baptist seminary she was attending in Louisville, Ky. After hearing that women were being removed from positions of authority at the Louisville seminary, he decided to make a documentary about it. “Battle for the Minds” was well-received at film festivals and aired on PBS in 1997.


(The central figure in the film, Lipscomb’s mother, Molly T. Marshall, now teaches at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan. “I may be the reason he’s in the film business,” Marshall said last week. “I’m not the reason he’s in the poker business.” With a laugh she added, “I abhor gambling, but I wish him well.”)


“Battle for the Minds” caught the eye of Norman Lear, who created “All in the Family” and a slew of other successful sitcoms in the 1970s. Next thing Lipscomb knew, he was a television producer, collaborating with Lear and his partner on a reality show. The show never made it to air, but Lipscomb was launched and began producing other programs that did air on cable.

That was how he was in the right place at the right time, when a friend in the TV business needed someone to fly to Las Vegas to film the World Series of Poker for the Discovery Channel. As he watched the best poker players in the world coldly bluff each other with staggering sums of money at stake, Lipscomb had a brainstorm: Why not create the PGA of poker?

Lipscomb took his idea to numerous cable channels but had no luck until he called on an unlikely client. In the post-9/11 climate, the Travel Channel had begun to shift its programming away from exotic locales and toward more domestic sites. According to the Travel Channel’s Russell, none was more popular than Vegas.

The channel added more production values to the telecast – as many as 17 cameras to capture the action – and the World Poker Tour was on its way to becoming appointment viewing. Then the Travel Channel made its own roll of the dice, committing sight unseen to televising 13 weeks of the tour.


It’s clear that newcomers like Bratten are feeling emboldened by television to make the jump up to big-money tournament play.

“I watched the World Series of Poker three times,” Bratten said. “I said to one of the pros, “I have one advantage over you. I know how you play. You don’t know how I play.”‘


How far can this go?

At Fox, which invented the glowing puck for its hockey coverage, executives have already experimented with putting heart monitors on players. “When they were bluffing, nine of out 10 times their heart monitor was exploding, but it never showed,” said Fox executive vice president George Greenberg.

Meanwhile, ESPN has set up a test kitchen of sorts in preparation for its epic coverage of this year’s World Series of Poker. Not only will the network be taping the finals, held in May, and produce nine hours of edited coverage, but it also will air 13 hours more culled from the preliminary games played during the four-week run-up to the big event that begins April 21.

Many of these matches feature poker games besides Texas hold “em, such as seven-card stud, that more closely resemble the complicated games Truman favored.

“In seven-card stud there can be 49 cards in play,” said ESPN’s Antinoro.

The inventor of the World Poker Tour says let “em try.

“It’s mighty tough to beat the top fuel drag racing of poker – and that’s no-limit hold “em,” Lipscomb said.


“The World Series of Poker” airs regularly in repeats, including 7:30 p.m. EDT Wednesdays on ESPN2, and a “Best of the World Series” airs at 10 p.m. Sundays on ESPN2.

“Late Night Poker” airs at 10:30 weeknights on Fox Sports Net, which also frequently repeats last year’s “Showdown at the Sands.”

“World Poker Tour” airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on the Travel Channel.

“Celebrity Poker Showdown” will return to Bravo May 17.

The game:

In Texas hold “em, players are dealt two cards apiece. The winner is the player who either forms the best hand based on those and the five “community” cards dealt face up in the middle of the card table, or the one who bluffs everyone else into folding their hands.

(c) 2004, The Kansas City Star.

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