Small Screen, Big Blinds

Small Screen, Big Blinds

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Jeff Kimber on how to spice up poker on TV.

Poker and television are intrinsically linked for so many of today’s stars of the game.

Like me, their interest in the game was stirred by the early episodes of the original (and for me the best) TV poker show, Late Night Poker.
The childlike enthusiasm of Jesse May in the commentary box, the smoky atmosphere, the nicknames, the splash of chips, the under the table cameras revealing the secrets of the trappers and bluffers, it was all new and exciting.

Nothing like this had ever been shown on TV before, and the innovations of that pioneering show should never be forgotten.

Poker was new to many of us. We didn’t know where we could play it (online barely existed but even live poker was hard to come by) and many didn’t even know how to play. But this new world was exciting and we wanted to be part of it.

I watched every episode of Late Night Poker transfixed. The truth is, despite countless efforts, TV poker has never been as good as it was then.
After Late Night Poker there was Mike Sexton, Vince Van Patten and the World Poker Tour. What they lacked in smoky backroom atmosphere they more than made up for with American razzamatazz, big name star players, and of course millions of dollars, all delivered to the table on silver platters and dumped onto the table in front of the final two players.

TV poker was glitzy, aspirational, and made people want to learn the game and get out there and play. However since those early days it has been a bit hit and miss. The made-for-TV six-handed or eight-handed handed specials were a staple for a while, but really they weren’t very good from any perspective. Players were expected to pony up their own money, before playing a sit n go with a worse structure than your local £10 rebuy, because of the cost of studio time and paying those within it (bar the players of course).

The result was a made-for-TV crapshoot that anyone could win. For some, that was the attraction, for good players it was the opposite, and either way, for the viewing public, it meant watching a series of all in confrontations between rich guys who would never get on TV unless they bought their way in, and online qualifiers who could have a donk about before going back to their German radiator factory.

PokerStars continues to cover the EPT Main Events and high rollers, and does so very well, and I don’t miss an episode, even if I feel like I’ve seen Vanessa Selbst five bet pocket fours, or Philbort win all the monies, many times before.

The standard of poker is high, and there’s no doubt it appeals to poker players, but it’s pretty obvious by the emphasis on the “QualiFire” and spelling out exactly how much players got in via online satellites that Stars, and Channel 4, know they’re not appealing to the mass market.
I’ve watched the EPT coverage many times with girlfriends or family and after five minutes of asking what’s going on, they soon get bored and ask what time it finishes.

PokerStars came up with the Shark Cage, and seem to like it, given a second series is being filmed, to try and appeal to a broader audience.
One online qualifier gets to mix it with a bunch of invited pros and celebs in a six handed SNG, trying to qualify for the winner takes all final.

To try and appeal to non-poker players, as well as inviting such luminaries as Mike Tindall and former Miss Finland Sara Chafak, the shark cage is in play for anyone who gets bluffed, or anyone that gets caught bluffing, while there are three or more players in the game.

It’s quite convoluted, and involved some button pressing or card choosing, which often is forgotten or confused, and in some of the celeb cases, not even clear whether they’re bluffing or not.

The penalty is to stand in a plastic looking cage thing 20 yards away while the others make hilarious comments about stealing their blind. It doesn’t affect the game much, gets confusing, and in some cases barely comes into play, especially given the vast majority of hands never get to a river card with more than one player with chips!

Watching this confused mishmash was pretty painful, and that came to a head when Jason Mercier, one of the greatest tournament players of all time, made his appearance.

Jason has won nearly $14million playing live tournaments, as well as two WSOP bracelets and an EPT. One hand from his 2008 EPT win in San Remo, an amazing hero call with just bottom pair, was voted the “Greatest Ever Poker Hand in the History of PokerStars” in 2013 by the poker media.

What did we see on the Shark Cage on this poker phenom? A bit of chat at the table followed by his exit hand. That’s it, one hand. I was amazed, annoyed, flabbergasted. He is, after all, a Stars pro, yet they’re so keen so show the messing about in the cage, desperate to say to non-poker players, “look guys, poker’s fun, come try it (even though you’ll never play with a cage so this bit’s not that relevant)” that they even treat their own star as an extra in a movie.

Televised poker, like the game itself, has matured. When Late Night Poker was in its pomp, no one knew anything about poker. That programme taught many of us the rules to a game we knew nothing about, never mind how and where to play.

Now nearly everyone knows of its existence. Talk to any cab driver or friend of a friend and half of them play or know someone who plays. What’s not needed is gimmicks or rule changes, crapshoots and series of all in hands. What is needed though, is something that appeals to not just your average poker pro: we need something that the pro would watch, but so would his or her partner, even if they’re not that interested in poker. What’s needed is good TV.

Go to a casino to watch a big tournament being played out from the sidelines, and you’ll be fed up. Half of the players are bored to tears, even with headphones, iPads, films to watch, anything but the poker to focus on! So it’s evident that just televising top players doing their job is not that watchable.

There’s still a place for watching the best do what they do for millions of dollars, of course. But to appeal to the mass market, to make a programme that poker players can watch with those not so clued up on the game in order to bring new people into poker - that is the challenge.
The good news is that I was recently asked to help out with a brand new poker show which will hopefully be coming soon to Channel 4.

The premise is interesting, entertaining people interacting and having fun, while playing a home game at one of their houses.

For TV purposes, getting celebrities to do it was perfect, but not the sort you used to get on those six-handed made-for-TV monstrosities. They didn't want a situation where half of the players needed the rules explained to them, and anyone who didn’t limp into every pot or fold out of turn became an automatic favourite to go through to the next heat of the same old thing.

They want celebs who play home games regularly, who are funny and entertaining and appeal to non-players (hopefully future players) though with former Bluff Europe contributor Shelley Rubenstein as producer, the poker will be prevalent enough not to infuriate those who know the game.
We filmed the pilot a couple of weeks ago with a great selection of comedians and actors, all of whom regularly play with each other in home games. The banter flowed, and there were jokes and yarns a plenty. Also, when one of them busted, instead of a polite handshake and wishing everyone well, there was an explosion of abuse and expletives before heading for the drinks cabinet. 

Poker is supposed to be fun. Watching TV is supposed to be entertaining. Hopefully Channel 4 like the pilot of this new show and Celebrity Poker Home Game will tick all the boxes and appeal to all.

Tags: Jeff Kimber, television, TV poker