When televised poker became especially popular during the early 2000s, there were some who didn’t quite know what to make of it. There were those who found the programming a kind of extreme indicator that with hundreds of cable channels, they were willing to show just about anything to fill out the schedule.
Some comedians, perhaps already finding playing cards a less than compelling activity, found the idea of watching people playing poker even more ridiculous. In 2006, Bill Maher joked how the next step was to watch people by lottery tickets.
“What gets on TV has to be at least as interesting as what’s on the average security monitor at the convenience store,” he cracked.
Of course, there were many who found televised poker utterly compelling to watch, especially during those “poker boom” years. The under-the-table camera showing hole cards on the UK’s Late Night Poker (which debuted in 1999) was a revelation, changing the nature of how poker was presented.
The later lipstick “hole card cam” used in 2003 in early World Poker Tour shows and in World Series of Poker coverage helped transform a game of no-limit hold’em into a suspense-filled drama combining aspects of sporting events and Survivor-type reality TV shows.
Another important aspect of televised poker making it relatable and exciting to poker fans is the commentary.
Early coverage of the World Series of Poker Main Event during the 1970s and early 1980s featured well known sports commentators like Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Brent Musberger, Frank Glieber, and Curt Gowdy. Their contributions were especially significant given how hole cards weren’t being shown, and thus they had to describe the action while also speculating over what cards players held.
Sometimes poker players like WSOP Main Event champions Bobby Baldwin and Jim Albrecht would be brought in as well to provide strategic analysis. Phil Hellmuth has been a frequent contributor to televised poker as well, dating all of the way back into the 1990s.
While refraining from trying to name the best poker commentator of all time, here at least is a rundown of those who arguably deserve places at the World Series of Poker Commentators final table.
Dick Van Patten
Some of us remember Dick Van Patten appearing in numerous feature films, including multiple Mel Brooks comedies, and starring as one of the great TV fathers on Eight Is Enough (1977-1981).
Van Patten was also a poker player, and in the early 1990s contributed to ESPN’s coverage of the WSOP Main Event.
As a familiar face from outside the poker world, Van Patten helped spark interest among viewers who were unfamiliar with poker.
In a similar manner, comedian and star of Welcome Back, Kotter Gabe Kaplan brought his experience as a poker player to the commentary booth, Kaplan started playing in the WSOP in the late 1970s, and soon after was contributing to televised coverage in a significant way.
Later during the “boom” Kaplan proved a perfect color commentator for the much-loved High Stakes Poker series, with A.J. Benza complementing him well as a play-by-play straight man. An all-time favorite Kaplan line was his description of Hellmuth’s poker face: “Phil has a look on his face like a shy ostrich trying to mate.”
Along with Nic Szeremeta, Jesse May provided commentary on those first Late Night Poker, a show that had a huge influence on televised poker content during the 2000s and after. May also appeared on the first season of the show as a player, “Mickey Dane.” That’s also the name of the title character in May’s great poker novel, Shut Up and Deal.
May has commented on numerous poker shows since, earning himself the nickname “The Voice of Poker.” In 2012 he was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the European Poker Awards for his many contributions to the game. May’s enthusiasm when commentating is infectious, adding greatly to the fun of watching players make hard decisions at a final table.
Like May, Ali Nejad has a much more extensive poker commentating résumé than some might realize. He was the voice of the popular show Poker After Dark during its heyday, and has taken over that role again during the show’s recent reprise on PokerCentral.
He’s also been part of WSOP Main Event broadcasts, many WPT poker tournaments and shows, and the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, among several other credits.
With a wry wit and plenty of poker knowledge from which to draw, Nejad helps draw the viewer in with the best of them.
Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten
The first World Poker Tour shows appeared in the spring of 2003, and they were a huge hit from the start. A big part of their success was the entertaining chemistry between co-hosts Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten.
A Poker Hall of Famer, Sexton brought both poker knowledge and a host of memorable expressions such as “bingo-bango-bongo!” and “May all your cards be live and your pots be monsters.” Meanwhile Van Patten, who had already followed his father’s footsteps in way as a prolific actor, did so again in the commentary booth. While elements of the shows were added in post-production, the pair also recorded commentary as the tables were playing out, adding an extra level of excitement to the proceedings.
Lon McEachern and Norman Chad
Starting in the late summer of 2003, ESPN began its weekly showing of its seven-episode WSOP Main Event coverage that culminated in Chris Moneymaker‘s dramatic victory. Lon McEachern had commented on the WSOP for ESPN the year before, but 2003 was the first year for Norman Chad. Regarding Moneymaker’s story, Chad’s line “This is beyond fairy tale, it’s inconceivable!” has a special place in poker lore, the game’s equivalent of “The Giants win the pennant!” or “Down goes Frazier!”
Thus began what has become a longtime partnership between the pair that has lasted nearly two decades. They’ve been joined over the years by a number of others who have also added greatly to the coverage, including Kara Scott, Antonio Esfandiari, Nick Schulman, and Jamie Kerstetter.
James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton
Finally we’ll round out our table of commentators with PokerStars’ own James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton. Both have worked individually as poker commentators in a variety of settings. However they are best known in the poker world for their co-hosting of European Poker Tour events and other PokerStars tournaments, including live poker events and even online poker events such as this month’s Stadium Series.
Like other poker commentator duos, these two also somewhat fit the straight-man-and-jokester mold with “Stapes” consistently bringing the grins and Hartigan keeping the commentary car on the road. But in truth both of them bring humor and insight in almost equal measure. In other words, like XBOX versus PlayStation, one of these two has a slight mathematical advantage.
Other poker commentators have more recently stepped up to assume prominent roles in the poker TV landscape.
Tony Dunst has ably taken over for Sexton in the WPT booth alongside VVP, with Lynn Gilmartin also adding a lot in the anchor role. David Tuchman‘s WSOP commentary has added a lot to the streams as well.
And of course the rise of Twitch streamers has created a brand new category of players commenting on their own play, mixing education and entertainment for thousands of viewers.
In any case, we have much to be thankful for to these voices, all of whom have helped make people watching cards way more interesting than some might think it should be.