"There are few things that are so unpardonably neglected
in our country as poker... I have known clergymen,
good men, kindhearted, liberal, sincere, and all that,
who did not know the meaning of a flush. It is enough
to make one ashamed of one's species." -- Mark Twain
At the time of this writing, poker's popularity continues to grow. Along with that popularity is a parallel growth in mainstream broadcast
media coverage of poker events. Just a few years ago there were many discussions on rec.gambling.poker where the short-sighted naysayers
said poker could never be popular on television. They even said this AFTER Late Night Poker in the UK had proven this notion to be false.
Poker is a challenging game, and people like to watch challenging games on television, especially if those games involve real people
playing for real money. Survivor, the Amazing Race, Jeopardy... all these are mental games with some luck element included along with
the application of different skills. Poker fits in very nicely in this group.
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There is an element of our society though that somehow manages to see the playing of a poker hand for money to be different than
playing Jeopardy or Survivor for money. In the other two games, people typically don't risk their own money to play, but they do risk
their time as well as engage in a battle where more (or less) money is at stake, and where their own skill (and luck) interacts with
others to determine the eventual financial outcome.
I believe that a sort of critical mass is emerging among the North American population (at least) where the
head, heart and groin competition that is poker is
coming to be viewed in the same way as, well... as a game show -- a game show with a more compelling "play at home" version than
any other game show.
The next step in this critical mass evolution may take place in May when the NBC television network broadcasts the National Heads-Up
Poker Championship. Structured like the perennially popular NCAA basketball tournament, sixty-four invited players will play a series
of heads-up matches, until down to a sweet sixteen, elite eight, final four and championship match.
NBC has experimented with
poker on television before, but this marks the first series of programs on a major US broadcast network. To put this in perspective,
the least watched NBC primetime program of a week will have a much larger audience than any primetime poker telecast on ESPN or the
Travel Channel. The National Heads-Up Poker Championship will be televised on Sunday afternoons, so perhaps poker isn't ready for
prime time just yet, but this is no doubt an audition.
The other interesting aspect of NBC's show is the heads-up nature of it. Normally poker tournament play is primarily full table
action, with some shifting gears in the later stages when
shorthanded play begins, and then finally the
final four, three and two players face off. Overall, many more skills are involved in regular tournaments. Head-up play merely
requires heads-up skills... one on one, persono-o-persono. Naturally this will favor players who excel against a single opponent but
totally suck at getting through a full tournament field to get to that one-on-one play. On the flip side, a whole niche of players who
only win by amassing massive quantities of chips against full fields will be relatively helpless in a structure like this. (As always,
the best players will be those who play correctly regardless of the structure.)
Televising heads-up play should be terrific for the rest of us when it comes to generating even more novice players. Imagine your key
introduction to poker being a head-up tournament structure, and then having to sit down in a full table game (whether a regular
ring game or a tournament). You would be toast.
Head-up poker is greatly different than full table poker, and the key skills involved almost don't even exist in full games. While
again on the flip side, the skills needed to play full table poker are hardly valued by head-up play.
Heads-up poker is simply easier to play than full table poker. You have fewer variables, fewer situations to master (head-up you
either act first or act last, that's it), and even less opponents to beat! Perhaps we will soon be seeing an influx of overly macho,
overly loose, overly simplistic players joining our ever growing circle of people playing an entertaining, telegenic game for money.
More Poker Television Shows and
Poker After Dark