For two hours each week, poker players and fans around the world tune into the World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel.
The WPT turned the poker world upside down when it began, fanning huge interest in the game and making poker on TV a ratings success, thanks in part to the advent of hole cameras and a production that was able to capture the thrill of the game in its most exciting form, no limit Texas Holdem.
Of course, everything looks easier on TV. It takes a lot of work to grind out the highs and lows of a poker tournament and reach the final, televised table. It also takes a lot of effort to put together a program that will keep the publicís interest beyond just a week or two. The WPT, now entering its fifth season, has been able to do just that.
Jan Fisher (aka "the PokerFish") is one of the many people who have helped make the WPT what it is. Fisher, a serious player herself, wears many hats in the poker world. I first started corresponding with the PokerFish about 5 years ago -- when I began to take the game seriously -- for poker advice. Since then sheís become a friend, and recently I had the chance to talk with her about what itís like to work behind the scenes, week in and week out.
From observer to worker. Fisher said she first got involved in the WPT when she happened to be at one of the events. "I was someone there who knew about poker. They asked me to help do the flop cam; and the second time, they asked for help with stats. I devised the system for doing it and I had a knack for it, so I was able to keep accurate records of the table and it worked into a job when they realized how important it was," she said.
It may sound mundane, but the statistician has a lot of work to do. Fisher writes down every action: who raises, who folds, what the exposed cards are; essentially anything that occurs on the green felt needs to be written down, and Fisher does just that at every taping. She also helps play flow smoothly. One might think the final table of a TV event, being filled with seasoned players, would run like clockwork. But Fisher said itís amazing how many times in a session sheíll realize that the dealer button is in the wrong place and she has to stop play to adjust it. Other times, even seasoned players will make an illegal bet. Thus far Fisher said she hasnít been wrong and gets kudos for catching mistakes.
On the set, Fisher works with a number of great people who help put together the WPT each season. Among these is her longtime friend Linda Johnson, who usually works as the live studio announcer. "None are as good as she," said Fisher. "She has a knack for it and she and I are usually on the same wavelength, so I can see and hear what sheís saying. We have a way of communicating making it easy to get information from her." Fisher also said that Johnson has the task of keeping the audience pumped during the production. During breaks, Johnson will tell jokes, do WPT trivia, tell stories. The length of a WPT event (sometimes up to 10 hours) can make this a very grueling job. On average, Fisher said, the final table lasts from 4 Ĺ to 6 hours -- although a couple of years ago, one event lasted 12 hours.
Poker potpourri. Each week, the WPT brings us the final table of a major poker event. Of course, there was a lot of poker that went on before the film started to roll. I asked Fisher what kind of players she sees at the events -- is it a sea of online qualifiers, mostly pros, or a mix?
"Itís a pretty good mix, depending on where the event is," she said. "A typical event has 400 to 800 players." She added that satellites have allowed many amateurs to get into tournaments, and with the huge popularity of the game, many businessmen love to pony up and buy in to the big events to play with the big names of poker, something that simply canít be done in other sports. "If you have the money anyone can play," said Fisher. The quality of play, she said, can vary wildly from "awful to awesome and anything in between." The WPT events have "brought out people who, unless they get hit with the deck, canít win, and they donít care -- they are there for the entertainment."
TV poker has also brought out celebrities, and the WPT has gotten into the mix with "Hollywood Home Game" specials. Actress Jennifer Tilly, Fisher noted, skipped the Oscars to play poker. Fisher runs into many celebrities at events who love to play.
Fisher notices several different categories of players: the traditional brick-and-mortar players, the online players, and folks who just learned the game by watching on TV. People in this last category can have some rather curious methods to their games, she said, such as wearing sunglasses, or wanting to know how much a player has as soon as the game has begun (when it should be obvious how much they have in front of them). Fisher said the kind of players that have come into tournaments from the online world has changed drastically in a few years. Several years ago, most online players were considered unsophisticated; today many are seasoned players. Many are also very young. Fisher stated that in one tournament in the Bahamas, several players were under 21. One, an 18-year old, busted out, won $180,000 and commented that it wasnít that much money, and proceeded to play in a $50/$100 blind no-limit ring game. It might be tempting to dismiss the "kids" as dead money in tournaments, but Fisher warns not to dismiss young players too quickly.
"These kids have seen and played more hands and run more simulations than Doyle Brunson has seen in his life," she asserted. "They can do all kinds of calculations as they have computers, and can play 8 games at a time, 300 to 400 hands per hour. These kids learn quicker, and most are smart and can take advantage of the fact that they have all that information."
Behind the scenes. With events lasting hours, there are a lot of things that don't make it on the air. Fisher has seen quite a bit.
Some of her favorite memories include Phil Hellmuth, known for his bad-beat antics, jumping out of his seat and hitting his head on an overhead camera. Fisher also says the money presentations at each event are fantastic, as each casino tries to outdo the other. At an event in Costa Rica, two oxen brought in the money. The oxen had to wait outside for the action to get heads-up, and there was some concern that they would be agitated, having waited so long, or by the smoke that gets pumped in during the events, but it all went off without a hitch. (Fisher said sharpshooters were in the crowd in case anything went wrong!)
TV poker in the perfect world. Having been involved in poker since the late 70s, would she like to see any changes to how TV poker is run? One thing, she responded, she would love to see is for the "good guys" to get more coverage than they do, as very often itís the "bad boys" that people tune in for. Fisher is a big fan of Barry Greenstein, who is known for his charitable contributions, but she said people like him donít get nearly the kind of coverage that they should. "Itíd be interesting to see people away from the table and the people who arenít the superstars, and who make a living and are interesting and lovely people that weíd never meet because they never won the big one."
Fisher also said that she would like to see bad behavior discouraged; TV can glorify it at times. "Having heroes is okay, but heroes have to send the right message. Poker can be good for TV in a good way with good things to watch, not train wrecks waiting to happen," said Fisher.
Branching out. When sheís not busy on the WPT, Fisher is directing cruises for Card Player Cruises, writing for CardPlayer magazine, helping to direct tournaments, and will soon be a live studio announcer for the professional poker tour. Fisher is enthused about this show, as each tournament will have a few episodes (similar to the World Series of Poker coverage) dedicated to solely that tournament. It will also be an invitational event, where players have to meet certain criteria (such as winning a WSOP event or other tournament or being in the CardPlayer top 10) to get invited. Fisher is also part of a poker discussion group, which meets regularly to help members' poker skills.
Fisher is also part of the poker playerís alliance (http://pokerplayersalliance.org), a group she encourages all poker players to join. This is a lobbying organization that promotes the legalization of poker. Currently, the group is working hard to combat legislation that would make online poker illegal.
With the fifth season about to begin, the WPT has stuck to its original formula, making only minor changes along the way. This next season, according to Fisher, will include a "wonder cam" (the WPTís version of the rabbit cam). It looks like the WPT will be sticking to their current formula as it continues to bring both viewers to the Travel Channel and players to the tables.
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|Paul Kammen is an avid low-stakes poker player from the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He has played regularly at the Canterbury Card Club since it opened in 2000, playing primarily in low stakes Stud and Holdem games. Since then, he has played at various other casinos in Minnesota and Las Vegas, and also plays regularly at the low-stakes tables on PokerStars. He is the author of two books on poker, How To Beat Low-Limit 7-Card Stud Poker (2003, Cardoza Publishing) and How To Beat Seven Card Stud Eight-or-Better (also available at ebookmall.com) and available soon in print.