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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


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.