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GSN's Celebrity Poker Tournaments on TV:
"Poker Royale"

By Paul Kammen
June 14, 2005

Not too long ago,  if you were looking for poker on GSN,  about the closest you could come would have been a rerun of the 70s and 80s game shows  Card Sharks  or  Jokers Wild.  That changed last November when GSN decided to launch a new series,  Poker Royale.

GSN is the new name for the  Game Show Network,  which debuted in the late 1990s.  The channel featured reruns of  The Match Game  and older game shows as the backbone of its programming.  Older game shows can still be found on the network,  but last year they decided to make some changes.  The name became simply  "GSN,"  and the older shows were moved to daytime,  with reruns of newer shows like  Who Wants to Be a Millionaire  moved to prime time.

GSN also came up with some new shows of their own in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience.  These included non-traditional games like Extreme Dodgeball and some casino-related shows such as the  World Series of Blackjack  and  Celebrity Blackjack.  With poker ratings booming on other networks,  it was just a matter of time before GSN would take a seat at the table,  and  Poker Royale was launched in December of 2004.

The first installment of the show included six episodes.  It was made up entirely of professional players,  and focused on the World Poker Players Association  (WPPA)  championship.  The program was hosted by  Saturday Night Live  alumnus Kevin Nealon and professional poker player Robert Williamson III.

When I tuned in,  I found much to be the same as other TV poker tournaments,  but some differences as well.  I enjoyed the inclusion of poker tips,  for instance.  These were given during the show on the assumption that many people who watch would be poker players.  While certainly not a course in advanced holdem strategy,  I found the tips to be helpful to anyone new to poker,  because many people confuse what happens on TV tournaments with proper low-stakes poker strategy.  The tips enhanced the commentary given by the hosts.

Another fun twist was the telling of anecdotes throughout the telecast.  Most poker tournaments on TV define lingo used such as  "on the button,"  "tilt,"  etc.  Poker Royale gives viewers tidbits on players and poker facts useful for bar trivia,  such as the King of diamonds representing Caesar Augustus.  Some  "purists"  might find this annoying,  but I found it an enjoyable addition.  But we donít need to be told for the 80th time that  "all-in"  means a player has all of his chips involved in a hand.

A big plus of the show is that the status of the pot is given frequently.  So often when watching a poker show, I find it tough to guess how much is in the pot.  Poker Royale  gives a nearly constant update of how much is at stake in the hand,  so you donít blink and miss how much the hand was worth.

The only drawback of the first installment was the commentary.  Commentators Williamson and Nealon certainly gave some good poker insight,  but there was a lack of chemistry between the two.  Nealon was one of my favorite members of  Saturday Night Live  and is a great standup comedian.  I was expecting him to be quick on jokes,  and take a very informal approach to the game,  like David Foley did on  Celebrity Poker Showdown.  Instead,  he took the same approach as Williamson,  giving hand analysis instead of humor.  While Nealon is a poker player himself and had some insightful comments,  more jokes and one-liners would have made the show more fun.  I kept waiting for Nealon to make  "Subliminal Man"  comments,  but it didnít happen.

In the second installment,  which began in late January,  GSN reshuffled the deck and introduced a battle of the sexes.  This pitted 12 top professional players against one another,  three women and three men playing no-limit holdem.  Kathy Liebert took home the top prize of $130,000.  The show also took a less-serious approach with new commentators.  Replacing Nealon were Kennedy,  previous host of the Game Show Channelís  Friend or Foe?  and Tom Leykis of the  Tom Leykis Show  in Los Angeles who was in the menís corner.  Williamson III did poker commentary.

The most recent installment of the show began in early May.  This time around,  the action pitted celebrities against pros.  The celebrities included Lance Bass  (*NSYNC);  Tracy Bingham  (The Surreal Life);  Morris Chestnut  (The Best Man, Ladder 49);  Mimi Rogers;   Jennifer Tilly;  and Patrick Warburton from  Seinfeld.  Pro players included Scott Fischman,  Kathy Liebert,  Cindy Violette,  Roxci Rhodes, Paul Darden and Kenna James.

Ian Valentine,  GSNís Senior Vice President of Programming,  said in a news release prior to the debut of the show,  "Our goal is to make our  Poker Royale  series better than other poker shows and this new format of the celebrities challenging the pros is totally cool.  Viewers will enjoy the unpredictable action,  great table talk and top-notch poker on both sides."

Valentine obviously was trying to pump up enthusiasm for the program,  but I must admit I was very impressed with the production.  There seemed to be genuine chemistry between the players,  especially Liebert and Chestnut.  And while GSN changed the style of the tournament,  much of what made the program solid to begin with stayed.  These included poker tips,  the updating of the amount of money in the pot,  hole camera action and percentages of who was most likely to win.

The two-hour finale will air on June 17th,  and the winner will take home a $50,000 grand prize.  The players making it to the final table will each receive $10,000 in chips to begin with.

One might think that reruns would be on tap for the summer months.  Fortunately,  this is not the case.  July will bring another installment of the series,  this time pitting comedians against pros.  Comedians will include Paul Rodriguez  (Ali,  Comic Relief VII),  Mark Curry  (Fat Actress,  Hangin' with Mr. Cooper),  Robert Wuhl  (Arli$$),  Carol Leifer  (Curb Your Enthusiasm,  Seinfeld),  Tammy Pescatelli  (Last Comic Standing 3,  Dennis Miller)  and Sue Murphy  (Wanda Does It,  The Jeff Foxworthy Show).  Pros will include Phil  "The Unabomber"  Laak,  Robert Williamson III,  Linda Johnson,  David Williams,  Connie Kim,  and Kathy Kolberg.  John Ahlers returns for commentary joined by Kenna James,  winner of the 2004 Ultimate Poker Challenge.  In the two-hour finale the winner will take home $50,000.

One additional note:  A special  "Young Bloods"  competition aired May 20th,  featuring players on the rise in the poker world under the age of 30.  David Williams,  who got plenty of airtime last year on ESPN during the World Series of Poker,  took home the title in this event.

I must admit it took me a while to get around to watching  Poker Royale.   I thought it would be just a typical poker show.  Additionally,  while I love game shows,  I was skeptical about GSN having their own poker show.  Poker Royale  was a pleasant surprise.  The producers are willing to mix it up,  trying out different formats to see what works. 

Those  Match Game  reruns are still fun to watch on GSN,  and the network could have easily stayed with their old format.  Thankfully, GSN didnít get rid of the classic game shows,  but did take a chance on some clever new shows.  You may not put  "poker"  and  "GSN"  in the same sentence,  and may be tempted to overlook this show.  Donít make that mistake.  Whether youíre a hardcore player or just looking to unwind with an enjoyable poker show,  Poker Royale  has something for you.

Poker Royale airs each Friday at 9 P.M. Eastern,  with the previous weekís episode at midnight.  You can also catch reruns on Saturday nights at midnight,  Eastern time.

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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  and available soon in print.


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