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Steve Wilkos On Lifelong Passion For Cards: 'Poker Is The Best Because You Are Using A Skill'

TV Personality Learned Cards From Family In Chicago

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Steve Wilkos is known as Jerry Springer’s bodyguard and, of course, as the host of “The Steve Wilkos Show,” but he’s also an experienced poker player with a lifelong passion for the game.

Wilkos’ show is now on its 10th season, a feat that has come through a lot of hard work in the world of television, but he has always found the time to play in his weekly card game in Connecticut. The 52-year-old first found poker growing up in Chicago, a pastime that has stayed with him throughout his busy career.

“Poker is the best [casino game] because you are using a skill,” Wilkos said. “You can change the odds in your favor.”

Card Player had the chance to speak to Wilkos last week about his passion for card games and the 10-year anniversary for his show, which has been renewed through 2018. The latest season begins Monday, Sept. 19, 2016

Brian Pempus: Can you talk about reaching the 10-year anniversary of your show and what that has been like for you?

Steve Wilkos: I like to tell the story that when I did get a show, obviously I was on a very popular show in the “Jerry Springer Show,” and when I got mine, some people were like, “I never watch that, that’s trash.” That was a very successful show, a very watched show. When I got mine, people were like, “Jerry Springer’s bodyguard, what a joke, it’s never going to last.” When I first got my show, critics were laughing at me, saying I wasn’t going to last 13 weeks. So, to be here 10 years later, it is a great feeling for me that we accomplished it.

BP: Yeah, does the 10-year mark especially give you that validation?

SW: Let’s put it this way: That’s when shows lag. When you look over the last 10 years, much bigger name celebrities than myself didn’t make it out of season 1 or season 2.

BP: Can you talk about any poker that you’ve watched on TV and what you think about poker as a TV experience and its appeal? What can poker do to have a better TV presence?

SW: Well, I do watch the World Series of Poker [on ESPN]. I love watching it, and do quite a bit. I don’t know what they can do to make it better. I think they do a good job with it. I think they talk about the player and give you a little insight, and they move it along quickly so there isn’t a lot of lag time where you’re waiting for the next thing to happen. So, I personally think they do a really nice job with it.

BP: Do you think the broadcasts show a good mix of the celebrity players and the poker pros? Do you think those interactions are displayed pretty well on TV?

SW: I think so. Truthfully though, but this is just my own opinion: I don’t really care about watching the celebrity poker players. I want to see the best poker players. So, the big celebrities, yeah it might be interesting, but for me I like watching different strategies. I watch it for myself hoping to learn something. I think if you are going to get into poker, watching the World Series will definitely help you.

BP: Yeah, a lot of people have said that watching poker on TV got them into the game. Do you think poker on TV does a good job explaining the basics of the game to someone tuning in who might not know all the rules yet?

SW: I don’t think they do that. Maybe that would be a thing that they could improve upon, where they could show you the rules and things like that. I do think if you watch the players closely you can get a sense of the game and how you should bet, strategies, continuation bets and things of that nature. The [broadcasts] are very good on that.

BP: Can you talk about your experience playing in celebrity poker tournaments? How do you feel like you compare to some of your poker-playing colleagues?

SW: The celebrity tournaments are fun, and you get to meet some interesting people, but I really like to play in my hometown in Connecticut, at the club I belong to. We play poker once a week on Thursday nights. We have a good group of guys. I love it man. For me, Thursday is the biggest night of the week and I look forward to it so much. I think I am a pretty good player, because I play pretty unpredictable. Some guys only bet on good hands. I can bet 7-2. People are like, “What’s he got?” and I’m like, “I got nothing” (laughs).

BP: How long has that Thursday game been running for?

SW: It has been going on for quite a few years, but then there wasn’t anymore cigar smoking in the clubhouse. When that happened, the game cratered. No one wanted to play. So they brought smoking back about a year ago and the game has been strong. It’s so funny how smoking cigars and card playing, especially here, are interwoven. We get a lot of participation. There’s a lot of camaraderie.

BP: Do you think poker and cigars go hand-in-hand?

SW: Yeah, playing cards is a very social experience, whether you are playing bridge, poker, anything like that. It’s a great social gathering. I think it’s a great experience. Having a drink, having a cigar, adds to the whole experience.

BP: When did you first start playing poker?

SW: My grandparents were big-time card players, just basic poker not Texas hold’em. My grandmother had 13 siblings, so I had a lot of family around. They used to play cards all the time, and I’d go watch. I eventually started playing with my friends. When I got into the Marine Corps I started playing Texas hold’em. I got really into poker because I wanted to make some money. A lot of times when you are on a ship, you start playing cards. I made a little bit of money along the way.

BP: At this point in your life, poker is more about the competition and the social experience than trying to win money?

SW: Yeah, we used to play tournaments but eventually switched to a cash game so people didn’t have to wait around. No one goes down a lot of money. It’s not about the money, I like playing. I finish taping on Wednesday’s, so Thursday is like my big Friday night. It’s great.

BP: Have you ever played at the WSOP? If you haven’t, do you plan on playing in the future when you have more time?

SW: No, I haven’t. I wish I did. I would love to in the future when my taping schedule isn’t so crazy. I’m also raising kids right now. I would like to try my game there.