PokerStars is celebrating its 20th Anniversary: 20 years as the best known and most trusted online poker site.
To join the celebrations here at PokerStars Blog, we are looking back year-by-year on those two decades, noting the landmarks and remembering all the remarkable moments, fitting them into the wider landscape of poker’s sensational development.
Today we go back to 2010 to talk about the origin and later growth of televised poker as well as its subsequent move toward online poker programming.
After emerging from the 1972 World Series of Poker as the Main Event champion, “Amarillo” Slim Preston went on a kind of publicity tour that included numerous appearances on television shows.
The gregarious Preston fit well as an engaging and unusual personality on shows like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson where he would appear numerous times. Dressed like an Old West cowboy and consistently firing out a string of homespun witticisms (“You can shear a sheep a hundred times, but you can skin it only once”), Preston became a national celebrity while also introducing mainstream America to the world of high-stakes poker.
In retrospect, one of Preston’s TV appearances seems especially apt in the way it illustrates poker’s modest status at the time. In August 1972, a few months after winning the WSOP Main, Preston was a guest on the game show I’ve Got a Secret.
The show featured celebrities trying to guess the secret of various people by asking them questions. Alan Alda, Betty White, Richard Dawson, and Pat Carroll quizzed Preston about his clothes and hat and wondered if he might be a western singer or work at the rodeo. Finally host Steve Allen told them their guest’s profession which led to Preston revealing his secret — he’d once lost $190,000 in a single night of poker.
Of course, his entire identity was essentially a “secret” to the panel and viewing audience. So was the WSOP and high-stakes poker, generally speaking. The game was still many years away from becoming the televised (and now online streaming) spectacle we know it as today.
The next year CBS made a documentary about the 1973 WSOP Main Event, although it only earned a small audience. There’d be further coverage of the WSOP over the following years through the 1990s, often no more than a single hour of edited hands turning up on ESPN.
From 1999-2001 the format was expanded somewhat with shows on the Discovery Channel, and ESPN brought it back with a two-hour special in 2002. That said, such telecasts only represented a small, relatively trivial bit of cable programming that earned only scant attention from audiences.
Meanwhile in the UK the groundbreaking Late Night Poker show debuted in 1999. Using innovative under-the-table hole card cameras and spotlighting table talk, charismatic characters, and play-by-play commentary, the show demonstrated how watching people play cards could, in fact, be not just interesting, but genuinely exciting.
Despite airing on the generally lesser-watched Channel 4 after midnight, the show became a cultural phenomenon starting from the first season. According to some reports, an incredible 1.7 million viewers tuned in for the finale to see David “Devilfish” Ulliott emerge as the winner.
The formula found its way to the US where a new “lipstick” cam was employed for the World Poker Tour‘s debut in March 2003 and again for ESPN’s expanded coverage of the 2003 WSOP Main Event in July and August.
Those ESPN shows appeared weekly and drew a million viewers each time. The finale in which the amateur Chris Moneymaker improbably took the title had 1.67 million watching, but endless reruns of the episodes over the following months drew many more viewers.
As we’ve already covered in this series, by then online poker had surfaced with PokerStars being among the earliest sites when it launched in 2001.
The connection between the growing online game and newly-popular televised power was meaningful. Some of the new shows had advertising from online poker sites. Players getting “patched” also helped publicize different places where viewers could go sign up and play.
New tours like the aforementioned WPT and PokerStars’ own European Poker Tour helped forge a link between online poker and TV poker, too. From the time it debuted in 2004, the EPT in particular was envisioned from the start as both a live tournament series and a television show that among its functions would help advertise PokerStars to viewers across the continent and beyond.
More examples TV poker emerged over the coming years as well. Some of the best known and most watched included the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, Poker After Dark, High Stakes Poker, PokerStars Big Game and Celebrity Poker Showdown. The latter (on the Bravo Network) featured non-professional celebrity players and was especially popular, even drawing more viewers for its first-season finale in January 2004 than did the original airing of the last episode of the 2003 WSOP Main Event.
Made-for-TV poker proved a successful mix of “reality TV” and sports programming, drawing not just poker players but fans of shows like Survivor and American Idol as well as sports fans.
By 2010, practically every major poker tournament series or event had some televised component attached.
A couple of years before (in 2008), the WSOP had introduced its “November Nine” delayed-final table format for the Main Event. ESPN would show live coverage of various events including the Main Event during the summer, followed by edited episodes from the Main for many weeks leading up to a live final table event in November. (Or rather, not quite live but delayed so as to be able to show hole cards.)
Sometimes those summer shows were online-only, available only on ESPN3 and not directly to your TV. In January 2011, PokerStars did something similar when showing the final table of that year’s PokerStars Caribbean Adventure Main Event. The first few hours were online at ESPN3 in the US and on PokerStars.TV elsewhere, then coverage moved over to the TV network ESPN2 for the remainder.
It was the biggest PCA Main Event ever in terms of the prize pool ($15.1 million), highlighted by a remarkable fold by winner Galen Hall versus runner-up Chris Oliver during heads-up play. A great watch, for those who remember it, and influential upon subsequent poker TV.
Over the years since, the divide between watching TV and watching shows and movies on our computers and other devices has more or less disappeared completely. It’s not unlike the blurring of lines between live and online poker, once considered entirely distinct but today overlapping more and more.
Online “streaming” of poker tournaments — both live and online ones — has now become the norm, as has the rise of Twitch poker and other forms of poker-centric programming. Indeed, as the Big 20 Rewind series continues, you can follow the coverage of several events right here on your computer on PokerStars’ Twitch and YouTube channels!
Now we can watch it all. We can see everything, too, including those hole cards. In other words, the days are long past when poker (and poker players) could reasonably declare “I’ve got a secret!”
MORE IN THIS SERIES:
2009 – The live poker boom hits its highest point
2008 – Where future superstars cut their teeth
2007 – The changing face of the sponsored pro
2006 – How poker prize pools ballooned
2005 – Reporting on poker will never catch on…
2004 – The Year of the EPT
2003 – Chris Moneymaker wins WSOP, sparks ‘poker boom’
2002 – The year of WCOOP
2001 – Electronic poker before PokerStars