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Media Frenzy: Poker’s Three-Ring Circus

by Jennifer Mason |  Published: Oct 01, 2009


Long after the forerunner Late Night Poker brought the game to a large number of people in the UK, new shows in new formats continue to pop up showcasing the talents of the first-generation televised stars of the game and the young players whose ascendancy to the limelight has come via the fertile learning ground of the Internet. The main ring in poker’s media circus is its televising: a huge amount of money and time goes in to putting poker playing — which at its core is a repetitive betting game reliant for success on positional and statistical information — into a format where every last bit of drama can be eked out in front of the cameras. 

It helps when the sums of money on offer to the winners are astronomical by the standards of the recreational player. High Stakes Poker is probably the most watched and commented-on show around, while the tournaments which get the TV treatment invariably have huge, top-heavy prize pools. The daddy of televised poker (and tournaments in general) has to be the World Series of Poker.

The WSOP main event shows most clearly how influential the demands of the media (which arguably made poker the size it is today) really are. The event runs for 12 days, building crowds and tension to a phenomenal level, before suddenly, at the moment the final table is reached, taking a holiday until November.
Controversial in 2008, when it happened for the first time, the ratings gamble paid off, for we’re currently in that gap period now and the final nine players, guaranteed $1 million plus, are waiting for ESPN’s TV coverage to catch up to where they are in real life. 

Even when the game is low-stakes, Sky Poker, for example, has realised that allowing interaction between online players at home and someone in a TV studio live during the game creates interest in what would ordinarily be just another £10 crapshoot. It seems that for poker to work on TV, it needs one of two things: live audience participation, or an aspiration factor created by the personalities involved or the money on offer. 

The most widely recognized players are, with rare exceptions, those who make the biggest fuss. In a game which attracts both the quiet obsessive and the extrovert personality types, it’s the latter who both give the media what they want live on film and have helped raise the profile of the game in the first place. Phil Hellmuth was carried in to the WSOP main event this year following an actual trumpet fanfare, dressed as Caesar surrounded by ladies strewing rose petals before him. Just one video of Tony G telling Ralph Perry to get on his bike has logged over 250,000 viewers to date.
Having worked as a live tournament blogger for many years, I have to admit that it’s the talkers who get the attention, especially when the job is to report every five minutes on a limit tournament where chips shift in tiny increments for around half a day. It’s true that not every high profile player actively draws attention to themselves at the table (Patrik Antonius and Tom “Durrrr” Dwan, for example, prefer to do it laterally by playing nosebleed stakes challenges without needing to say a word). 

Anyone who watched two teams of cameramen circle Phil Ivey all day during this year’s Omaha eight-or-better/seven-card stud stud eight-or-better mixed event must have wondered exactly how much footage of expressionless raising they needed from the man. But more interesting is that when you really get something juicy, you’re often gently swerved from publishing it. I’ve had things pulled about big names acting up (cards and chips fly, dealers weep, and excellent trash is talked without a line ever being officially written about it), and this year a certain video interview was truncated after a day online when the star in question decided he didn’t actually want to “get this on camera,” despite saying so repeatedly, on camera. 
Annette Obrestad
What counts as the best story might not work in the favour of the famous player in question, or, more to the point, the influential companies which back them. The media circus’ second ring, the players’ contributions, are therefore sometimes edited to remove the best bits.
Sponsorship deals nowadays nearly always require the pro to give their thoughts on strategy or just the world of globetrotting poker on the sponsor’s site. Some of the self-analysis put up for anyone to read is both educational and fascinating. I have actually heard Annette Obrestad criticized for being too informative with her blog as she talks through hands she’s played in a clear manner. “Why give up your secrets?” they ask, as if the competition were all taking notes. “Serious” poker blogs, often written by some of the less well-known successful players, are too niche to really count as part of the media circus — they’re more of a sideshow for those in the know, written in the condensed terminology which is often inscrutable to those who’ve never set foot in a poker forum or visited a training site.
Strangely, once a player’s face decorates ten-foot-high posters, their blogs no longer need to be about their insight into the game itself, or even mention poker at all. It’s enough to feature Phil Ivey on golfing with Patrik Antonius and Daniel Negreanu to get more hits than Theo Jorgensen on Gus Hansen during their celebrity boxing match. Which leads neatly on to the outer ring of the media circus: the proposition bets and the apocryphal stories which hold such allure for the forum-browsers who make up the majority of players, both professional and amateur, these days. 

The world of high stakes poker is full of gambling side action. You can’t look around the lobby of a hotel hosting a European Poker Tour event without seeing Roland De Wolfe playing high-stakes Chinese poker with Illari “Ziigmund” Sahamies, for example, or hearing about Mr. Ivey’s champagne-off with some other high rollers in a Vegas nightclub (he won the “baller” argument by continually upping the champagne bottles sent to another table, apparently, until the other party conceded defeat). 

Prop bet and personal challenge stories go all the way back, hand in hand with the poker lifestyle. Remember Amarillo Slim’s bet against the table tennis master which he won by choosing the bats (coke bottles)?  These stories create legends, and many of them are at least mostly true. 

These days the majority of them come from the young online high rollers, who either bet nominal figures to get their friends to do stupid things (for example, 10 shots of tequila in 15 minutes at the table — Durrrr to Matt Marafioti), or put serious money on the line, usually on either winning bracelets or being better at golf. 

The amount of cash won and lost at the golf course in Las Vegas is greater than the yearly salaries of most people who read about Erick Lindgren’s victory in a $340,000 bet that he couldn’t play four full rounds of golf, shooting under 100 in each, during one day in the blazing Vegas sun. This year’s World Series reportedly scored Ivey more in bracelet bets made in the Full Tilt lounge than his actual wins did. 

The list is endless and serves to highlight the seeming double ability of top players to take the game they play seriously, and the money they make doing it lightly (or at least as fuel for side-bets). The peripheral high-stakes antics of the big names will always be an integral part of what makes poker so media-friendly. Just put a video of a crucial pot in a tournament next to one of Ivey playing beer pong for half a million, and see which gets the most attention. Spade Suit

Jen Mason is a part of She is responsible for its live tournament coverage in the UK and abroad.