Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Shuffle Up And Deal

As people on The A.V. Club staff know—and as my review for Stacked With Daniel Negreanu may have indicated—I’m something of a poker obsessive. Here in dog days of summer, with little but the World Cup and a handful of other shows to follow, I’ve been filling up the TiVo with poker shows of all stripes, from the high drama and staggering prize pools of World Poker Tour and World Series Of Poker events to the home-game listlessness of C-list celebrities doing battle over a charity money, and everything in between. In fact, there’s such a wide range of poker on TV that I’m left to wonder whether or not producers have really figured out what people want. Do they want to see obscene piles of cash staked on the turn of a card? Do they like profiles of all the colorful characters within the poker world? Do they want to see an ample sampling of hands or just the biggest pots and bustouts? Does high-level gamesmanship and strategy matter or is it more important that the participants are having a fun time with it?

I have my own thoughts on what I look for in a poker show, but I’d be interested to hear what the rest of you think. Here’s a rundown of what’s on:

World Poker Tour (Travel): The old gray lady of the bunch, World Poker Tour features the biggest prize pools outside of the WSOP Main Event and is undoubtedly the most dramatic show, with its WWE lighting scheme and a cheerful carnival barker in host Mike Sexton. Poker professionals have complained that final tables at WPT events have outrageous blind structures, which leads to a lot of all-in moves rather than the subtler play required in tournaments with slow blind structures. And yet, it does make for good television, because players have to stay aggressive and make bold moves in order to win; and since it’s only six-handed (most final tables are nine or ten-handed), the blinds come around fast, which again promotes fast play. The only real problem with the show is color man Vince Van Patten, who falls back on nicknames and catchphrases in lieu of passable poker analysis. But even he’s kind of a guilty pleasure for me.

World Series Of Poker (ESPN): Were it not following the biggest event in poker, the World Series Of Poker telecast would be all but useless; there are far fewer hands shown than in any other poker show and all of them are either monster pots (usually overcards versus pocket pair coinflips) or bustouts, with the occasional stone-cold bluff thrown in for good measure. The vast space between the hands is taken up by personality-driven material, profiles and interviews with the professionals and lucky amateurs at the final table, and goofy footage of dudes like Chris “Jesus” Ferguson slicing bananas with thrown playing cards. Announcer Lon McEachern really just does the play-by-play, setting the scene for partner Norman Chad to make some comical references to his divorce. In all fairness, I’ve actually warmed a bit to Chad lately, because he likes to take the really obnoxious players down a peg and sometimes those divorces jokes are kinda funny.

Celebrity Poker Showdown (Bravo): As the poker boom has faded, so have the ratings for Celebrity Poker Showdown, which was probably every bit as influential as WPT and WSOP in driving new players to the game. This year, the show has moved from the ultra-hip environs of the Palms in Las Vegas to more modest digs in New Orleans, and genial poker professional Phil Gordon has been replaced by “poker brat” Phil Hellmuth. Losing Gordon was a big setback, I think, because he’s a polished, good-humored, and insightful guy who can talk through the hands and joke around with host Dave Foley with equal aplomb. Hellmuth would seem like a solid replacement, but Foley has been far too deferential to his co-host; he has yet to learn that making fun of Phil Hellmuth is a favored pastime of poker players worldwide. Instead, we get Hellmuth’s straight analysis of confounding plays made by celebrities of ever-diminishing stature. I’d be surprising if the show lasted another season.

Poker Superstars Invitational, et al. (Fox Sports Net): Poker Superstars offers the tantalizing prospect of the game’s best competing in a series of single-table showdowns. It’s mostly as good as it sounds, with two caveats: The first is that the points system and prize distribution remain completely baffling no matter how often they’re explained; the second is that the announcers (poker pro Mark Gregorich, writer Michael Konik, and generic sports-guy announcer Chris Rose) are a little on the dryyyyy side. Still, the network itself produces by far the most rigorous poker coverage and some of the events—such as the recent four-hour live FullTiltPoker.net at Red Rock tournament—achieve my ideal of a C-SPAN poker network that shows every hand, even the little pots that set up the big ones down the road.

Mansionpoker.net Poker Dome Challenge (Fox Sports Net): In live games, decisions are made deliberately: Chips have to be counted and moved, opponents stared down, etc. Online, decisions are made within a few seconds, since there’s no one to stare down and the computer does everything for you. Sponsored by a fairly obscure Internet gambling site, the Poker Dome Challenge attempts to bring the two worlds together in a series of single-table “speed poker” tournaments. Players gather around a high-tech set-up that looks stolen from the set of Fox’s Unan1mous, and have only 15 seconds to act on their hand before it’s declared dead. And since the players are all amateurs, the show basically amounts to a bunch of random people quietly playing badly. After doing a number on baseball, leave it to Fox to suck the humanity out of America’s other favorite pastime.

Heartland Poker Tour (Comcast Sports Net): The Midwest’s answer to the WPT, Heartland Poker Tour stages events at reservation casinos in the most obscure reaches of Wisconsin, South Dakota, and other flyover destinations. The attitudes are in inverse proportion to the low stakes. A recent episode featured a young gun who goes by the name “Citrus” Chris. You know how Johnny Chan always sits with a lucky orange in front of him? “Citrus” Chris has a lemon. He’s also decked out in other TV poker gear, including a pair of sunglasses, a hat, and those ubiquitous iPod earbuds, which may stave off boredom throughout the course of a tournament, but are not terribly useful at a short-handed final table. But hey, the kid ends up winning, so what do I know?

High Stakes Poker (Game Show Network): Now we’re talking. Every other poker show deals with no-limit tournaments, but High Stakes Poker deals in cash games, which is a whole different story. The stacks are infinitely deep: If a player bust out, they can buy back in again. The pots can reach upwards of $150,000 and the players are all top professionals like Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, Jennifer Harmon, Antonio Esfandiari, and many others. What’s more, they’re all familiar with each other and joke around mercilessly between hands, so the show has the home-game feeling of Celebrity Poker Showdown, except of course the quality of play is consistently astonishing. It’s bar none the best poker show to date, even with A.J. Benza's involvement.