In the United States, there are 103 dedicated sports channels, covering everything from Gridiron to English soccer. Flick through the TV stations at any given time and you are almost guaranteed to come across a live sporting event, no matter how low key it may be.
Action, tactics, excitement, and personal narrative are what draw in audiences in their hundreds of thousands to watch live sports. When the commentator describes the personal journey that Bill Brown has been on to get to the world shin-kicking finals, it makes you want to keep watching.
These stories, moments of drama and tales of triumph over adversity aren’t just unique to the sport. They are all, in fact, vital components of poker, a game that is currently experiencing huge growth in viewing figures.
In this article, we take a look at the growth of poker on television and take a look at some of the best moments broadcast on TV to show you why you should be watching it.
A look at how WSOP poker events were covered by CBS in the 1970s
Cards On TV: When Did It Start?
Poker is gambling and gambling is seedy. That was the view of millions of people in the mid-twentieth century. It’s no wonder then that poker wasn’t as popular back in the 1950s and 1960s as it is now.
However, towards the end of the swinging sixties, the game began to grow in popularity with a younger, more diverse crowd of players. That shift prompted TV network CBS to broadcast a one-hour highlight show of the World Series of Poker in the early 1970s.
Whilst the initial shows may have been low on critical analysis and light on the discussion concerning poker strategy, it was wildly entertaining. The show’s producers focused more on the personal stories of the players and how this might impact their psychology around the poker table. There was plenty of discussion surrounding their interactions with one another around the table than the actual card play.
The coverage went down well with a national audience and positive viewing figures persuaded network chiefs to persist with their coverage into the next decade.
British TV show Late Night Poker was the first to pioneer the under-table camera which revolutionised future poker coverage
Cards On TV: The Evolution
Coverage of the World Series of Poker remained largely the same for 20 years after it was first broadcast. That was until a British TV show called Late Night Poker pioneered an under-table camera that allowed viewers to see the cards of every player at the table.
This method of filming was soon used by ESPN, who had bought the rights to WSOP highlights from CBS midway through the 1980s. This small but crucial technical alteration revolutionised the way that poker was covered on TV.
Pundits and commentators began to focus more on the tactical style of players, explaining the permutations of hands to TV viewers. The under-table camera also allowed the personality of individual players to shine through to the audience.
Bluffs and tells were now more obvious to viewers, which allowed players to develop their own brand and alter-egos, similar to how wrestlers do in WWE. Since then, the focus of poker television coverage has been on the personal drama of the players.
Huge personalities have emerged from the world of poker, and now viewers around the world tune in to watch their favourite card shark, knowing their backstory, motivations and playing styles.
This dramatisation has helped to create some incredibly memorable TV moments, just like…
Accountant To Superstar
In 2003 an accountant from Atlanta qualified for the WSOP by winning an online poker tournament and single-handedly boosted the popularity of the game across the globe. Up until playing in the WSOP, Chris Moneymaker had almost exclusively competed online, which, in 2003, was a lot rarer than it is today.
At the time, many professional players and commentators looked down their noses at online poker. It was believed that the virtual model of the game was so different from the real-life alternative, that no-one from the online poker world could succeed in an actual tournament.
Chris Moneymaker didn’t just prove the critics wrong in winning the WSOP, he completely destroyed their argument in the manner of his victory. With all the cards on the table and absolutely nothing to show for it, Moneymaker went all-in against his opponent Sammy Farha.
Despite having a winning pair of nines, Farha buckled under the pressure and folded, allowing Moneymaker to win the WSOP. That final hand victory was one in the eye for critics of online poker, and according to commentator Norman Chadd, ‘the bluff of the century’.
The King Is Dead, Long Live The King!
In 1999 Johnny Chan was looking to make it an unprecedented three WSOP Main Event victories in a row. Back then Chan was one of the biggest names in world poker, with a daredevil playing style that tantalized TV audiences and left commentators reaching for ever-higher octaves of excitement.
Perhaps Chan’s own-hype had got to him in this final hand though, as he went all-in against young challenger Phil Hellmuth, holding just A♠7♠ against Hellmuth’s 9♠9♣. Such was Chan’s aura at that time, that audiences and commentators alike expected the cards to fall in his favour.
The K♣K♦10♥ flop gave Chan some potential outs, but neither the Q♠ turn nor 6♠ river helped rescue the hand for Chan and deliver a third-consecutive win.
It was the start of a wonderful career for Phil Hellmuth, who at the time of writing has combined live tournament winnings of over $22 million. Beating Johnny Chan, however, back in 1999 will remain one of the proudest moments of Hellmuth’s career.
It was all captured live on television too, helping to memorialise it in history as one of the greatest moments in WSOP poker.