Never work. Poker on television? As much as he loves the game, even La Center casino owner George Teeny couldn’t imagine it when one of the world’s top players, Mike Sexton, suggested the idea of broadcasting tournaments. Poker on television?
The two were sharing drinks after playing cards together four years ago at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, when the conversation turned to Sexton’s dream of high-stakes games on cable, making celebrities out of the players and causing corporate money to flow their way. Such a move would also connect the popular pastime to the previously unreachable masses and then to the gaming industry pots.
Teeny’s response: “Poker’s boring (to watch), buddy.”
Trying to be as polite as he could, Teeny recalls dismissing the idea as the obsession of an enthusiast who thinks everyone must share his fanaticism.
In hindsight, Teeny says now, “I should have turned my back, bent over and said ‘Kick me.’ … Mike was one of the visionaries.”
Poker did more than just make it onto television. Since the World Poker Tour began airing its tournaments in March with Sexton as commentator and founder Steve Lipscomb providing overall guidance the show has become one of the most popular strains of the reality programming spawn.
The “World Poker Tour” reported having 3 million to 5 million viewers per episode during its first season on the Travel Channel, plus roughly a third more watching it during reruns, making it the network’s highest-rated program for the year.
Fox Sports Net, ESPN and Bravo (with celebrity participants), all have hurriedly put together similar productions. On Sunday afternoon, NBC will even try to tap into the anticipation for the Super Bowl (3:25 p.m. on CBS, channel 6) with a pregame “World Poker Tour’s Battle of Champions.”
Meanwhile, the Travel Channel has tightened its grasp on the brand, buying the rights for six more years at a cost of $40 million. The second season of the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel will begin in March.
With more than 50 million players in America, the Travel Channel states, poker has become more popular than golf, tennis or billiards.
In La Center, though, it’s not like it is on television. There are no crowds of spectators (except those waiting to get a table). There are no announcers providing play-by-play, debating every bet, analyzing every twitch. Mixed drinks are not free.
Yet at the seven tables in the New Phoenix, Teeny said poker playing has risen at least 30 percent since the World Poker Tour began airing its season. In response, Teeny ran a poker tournament at the establishment every Saturday morning in January and plans to have other tournaments and promotions for the rest of the year.
“It’s immeasurably harder to get on a table,” he said, acknowledging that the wait can be two to three hours long on a weekend night.
Meanwhile, across the street, a competing casino called Chips will add its first three poker tables in February. At worst, general manager Ben Morris acknowledges, Chips will be able to clean up the overflow from the New Phoenix.
Managers of the Chips casino debated for months whether to get involved with this sudden craze, remembering how hot and cold poker games can be. “Let It Ride” and “Caribbean Stud” both had sudden bursts of popularity with gamers, then rapid fades, Morris said.
“It’s just in such demand right now, it was time to add what people are looking for,” he said. “There are a lot more players than places to play. We’re taking a look at what is hot right now, and that’s what we’re taking advantage of. … Poker players bring a lot of business in for all of the games.”
Teeny said he welcomes the additional tables to La Center, since he’s out of room right now for any more at his place.
“Poker players are patient, but if they have to wait two to three hours to play every Saturday night, then they might find other things to do with their time,” Teeny said. “If players don’t have to wait as long, then that’s good for all of us.”
All of the tables in La Center will be playing the same type of poker game as they do on television: Texas Hold-’em. That involves seven cards, two to each player and five communal cards from which three can be picked to make a five-card hand. It’s an easy game to learn but still has enough strategy involved to make it interesting for players.
A big difference from the television version, though, is that bets are capped in La Center, most often at $3/$6 or $4/$8 a round. In the new virtual world of poker, there are no limits, and jackpots are in the millions.
Class on dealing poker
At the Vancouver Casino Dealer School, the only professional training of this type in the metropolitan area, co-owner Gerald Crawford said he will be adding a class on poker in February to keep up with the demand for dealers created by the expansion and churn at the La Center casinos.
Crawford, who also serves as a graveyard shift manager at the New Phoenix, said televised poker has created a boom that is being felt industrywide, ranging from jobs at casinos to training for those positions to facility expansion to Internet poker, which has given such gambling access to anyone, anywhere, with a computer. Many of the smaller online poker tournaments offer as a prize a seat in one of the major competitions.
The story of the 2003 World Series of Poker winner only has fueled this enthusiasm. Chris Moneymaker (yes, that’s his real name) gained entry into the tournament by winning an online version that cost him $40 to enter. His take from the World Series of Poker: $2.5 million.
“That’s got everybody chasing rainbows,” Crawford said. “It’s phenomenal what that’s done to business.”
The closest tribal gambling hall, Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde, Ore., is about 70 miles south on the way to the Oregon Coast. Siobhan Loughran, spokeswoman for Spirit Mountain, said the 15 poker tables there are packed because of the television shows. Even with that many spots available, she said, sometimes players on the weekend will have to wait an hour or so to get in a game.
“We have a big and very busy poker room,” she said, adding that seven-card stud is available along with Texas Hold-‘Em. “We get a diverse crowd, with a lot of retired people, but we’ve also been getting a lot of young, hip, urban professionals who come here now for purely recreational poker. Everybody seems to want to learn (how to play).” So Spirit Mountain has started offering free classes at 7 p.m. on Fridays and 3 p.m. on Saturdays.
The Hawk’s Prairie Casino in Lacey, about 110 miles north of Vancouver, has three Texas Hold-‘Em tables, which poker room manager Gary Sweet says are stuffed consistently.
New players all the time
“Since the television (programs) started, I see five or six new faces a day in here asking me how to play,” Sweet said. “Before, I would have been lucky to get one a week. Tournament attendance is through the roof, too. I used to get 16 or 17 a day. Now, I’m selling out with 30 players, and I could seat more, if I had more tables.”
Chinook Winds Casino, at the north end of Lincoln City, Ore., about 90 miles southwest of Vancouver, has three poker tables that play either Texas Hold-‘Em or variations called Seven-Card Stud and Hi-Lo Split. Spokeswoman Chris Dunn said there has been enough new business generated by the television shows that the casino could double the size of its room and still not accommodate all of the interested players.
Teeny said, “There isn’t a card room in the country that hasn’t had some kind of increase in their play (because of televised poker). It’s been a huge, huge boost all of the way around. … Right now, though, you have Fox and ESPN and the Travel Channel. Too much of a good thing makes it not so good after a while.”
Teeny added, “There’s a point that this will be oversaturated. Poker won’t have the huge increases it’s had for years to come. I think poker will run its course. I think the newness of it will wear off. … But I definitely have been wrong before.”