The moment relished by fans of poker on television was at hand.
Two days earlier, the no-limit, hold-’em tournament at the Sands Hotel and Casino had started with 197 entrants, each of whom paid the $10,000 buy-in, thereby creating a prize pool of $1,970,000.
Among them had been some casual players, one celebrity (Ben Affleck), and many of the pros who have gained a small measure of fame this year with the rise of poker on cable TV.
Now only two remained.
One was Johnny Myung, a 29-year-old accountant from Rockville, Md., a tournament neophyte but a fixture at the big-stakes tables in the Atlantic City casinos.
The other was Brian Haveson, 39, of Newtown, Pa. Last year, he was chief executive officer of Nutri/System Inc. This year, he’s a full-time poker player.
Before their final showdown, though, tournament poker’s signature ritual had to be observed.
Outside the casino, two large men with shaved heads, wearing dark glasses and black suits, emerged from a white stretch limo with a metal footlocker containing a large canvas bag. Inside, uniformed security guards opened the bag and dumped its contents onto the green felt table.
There it was, the first prize, $1 million in $100 bills – 10,000 of them.
The crowd, numbering in the dozens, cheered loudly. Then the players were asked to take a 10-minute break.
Time was needed to stack the cash – and for the cameramen from Fox Sports Net to shoot it from every conceivable angle.
In your channel surfing, you’ve probably come across poker. Maybe you’ve stopped and watched. Or made it a habit. There has been no lack of opportunities.
You’ve got the World Poker Tour every Wednesday night on the Travel Channel; the World Series of Poker, casino en ligne which can pop up at any time on ESPN or ESPN2; and last week’s Showdown at the Sands, which Fox Sports Net made into six hour-long programs virtually overnight.
Tuesday night, there’s the Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo. And on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 1, comes the over-the-air breakthrough: NBC will run a two-hour, champions-only World Poker Tour event against the football pregame shows.
Ask poker veterans and they’ll tell you that the game couldn’t have emerged as a surprise hit on cable television without one technological advance. That would be the lipstick-sized camera; it fits into the edge of the card table and lets viewers at home see all of the players’ face-down cards.
“Before the lipstick camera, watching poker was boring even to me. You couldn’t tell what was happening,” said Lou Krieger, who has written several books about the game. “And I love poker.”
Seeing the cards gives you far more knowledge of the situation than the players have. You almost feel as if you’re cheating. You know who has the strong hand and who doesn’t, who’s bluffing and who isn’t, who has the odds in his favor and whose goose is cooked.
Filmmaker Steve Lipscomb is the individual most responsible for the poker boom. A few years ago, he shot a poker documentary for the Discovery Channel and noticed that the audience grew every time it was shown. So he signed up a bunch of existing events, most of them in California and Nevada, and created the World Poker Tour.
“We set out to transform poker into a mainstream television sports sensation, and we’ve done it,” Lipscomb said. “We’ve created a PGA of poker.
“Eighteen months ago, every network yawned at us when we pitched this. They didn’t get it. They thought we were crazy. Now everyone’s chasing us. The imitators are everywhere.”
Why does it work? For one thing, an estimated 50 million Americans play the game. In addition, the Internet has made information about poker easier to obtain while giving computer users the opportunity to play whenever they like.
The game’s combination of skill and luck gives it a democratic feel. So does the diversity of the players in terms of age, sex, class and ethnicity. Even the big-ticket tournaments are open to all comers, with winners of smaller-ticket satellite tournaments getting free entry.
“It’s not all degenerates like it used to be,” said Barry Shulman, publisher of Card Player magazine. “There’s never been a boom like this.”
On the small screen, poker is being packaged as high-stakes, big-money reality TV, complete with heroes and villains, favorites and underdogs, biographical pieces and exit interviews. Lipscomb calls the final product “nine-tenths presentation.” The commentary, graphics and other features are added after the event is over.
In the eight months since the World Poker Tour premiered on the Travel Channel, the game has developed its own group of celebrities: crusty old-timers such as Doyle Brunson and T.J. Cloutier; the professorial Howard Lederer; the flashy Men “the Master” Nguyen; and the intense, young Phil Ivey, whose resemblance to Tiger Woods is mentioned whenever Ivey’s face appears.
“My hairdresser knows them all,” said Cyndy Violette, a prominent Atlantic City player. “She thinks she’s in love with ‘the Devilfish.’ ”
The Devilfish would be Dave Ulliott, a veteran English player known for his goatee, his shades and his ferocity.
By the standards of cable TV, the growth in popularity has been striking. The World Poker Tour now averages a million viewers, making it the Travel Channel’s most-watched series ever. The numbers have kept growing, even now that the tour’s first season is being shown for the third time.
And there’s the money.
The first time around, the tour had a total prize pool of $10 million. That amount is expected to triple for the second season, which is now being shot; the entry fees are higher, and so is the number of players willing to take their chances.
“In the last few days, I’ve received maybe 100 pitches for poker programs, serious ones,” said George Greenberg, executive vice president of Fox Sports Net, which supervised the Sands telecast. “Poker is on the verge of exploding.”
And the players, some of whom find it hard to fathom what’s happened to their world, are ready to ride the wave.
Back at the final table, after the cameras were done shooting all the cash, the card-playing resumed. The outcome was all but inevitable, as Myung had six times as many chips as his opponent.
Haveson managed to survive for half an hour. But on the 15th deal, he bet everything he had and lost, settling for the second-place prize of $407,000.
Myung, who had never before won more than $27,000 in a tourney, seemed in shock: “I can’t believe all this money is mine.”
Haveson, already a man of means, said he was pleased with his own performance and at having chosen poker as his profession when it was getting hot.
He pointed to his black baseball cap, which bore the logo of an online poker site.
“The money they paid me to wear this hat, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said with a grin. that had been on his face most of the
night. “I’m on a roll. I’m making so much money now playing poker, it’s scary.”