In theory watching poker on screen doesn’t make for very gripping entertainment, especially if you’re the sort of person who would rather be in the thick of the action yourself. But look a little deeper into the phenomenon of televised poker and you’ll start to see that it has the kind of narrative arc that it shares with Hollywood blockbusters.
For example there are big characters, conflict, ups and downs of fortune and a definite conclusion too with a single winner emerging. And that’s why so many people do tune in to watch poker on TV, whether it’s being played in the studio or is a live feed from a major tournament like last year’s record-breaking World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.
Plus the emergence of online streaming has increased the numbers of people watching even more and created a truly global audience.
It’s all a far cry from the early days of televised poker in the 1970s when CBS first started to put the final stages of the WSOP’s Main Event on terrestrial TV.
In the early years coverage was hampered by the fact that viewers never knew the cards in the players’ hands till they were revealed but the introduction of a device called “hole cam” transformed the televised game as it meant that the hidden cards could be seen. Obviously, by revealing each player’s cards it made the whole experience far more involving than ever before.
Shortly after this in Britain Channel 4 started broadcasting studio-based games as part of its late night schedule often pitting professionals against celebrity players and this proved to be a winning formula often gaining audiences of over 1 million people – an almost unprecedented figure for a late night programme.
Today’s poker audience is similarly impressive but, with so many ways to watch on terrestrial, satellite and online channels, it’s very hard to define the numbers precisely.
What is certain is that the audience can satisfy their appetites for everything from having front-row seats at major tournaments to picking up new skills and strategies from the many magazine-style programes that are broadcast.
The secret behind its popularity as a TV spectator sport must also surely come from the fact that regular players can imagine themselves in the position of the contestants on-screen and are able to imagine how they’d be playing a particular hand. It’s also a very good way to learn techniques and strategies direct from professional players which have a real and practical use when incorporated into the viewer’s own game.
With this real groundswell of interest in poker on screen big money sponsors are also being attracted so over the next few years we can expect this momentum to continue. So don’t be surprised if, before long, poker really does join the mainstream with its own prime time show.