The WSOP’s History With Game Shows, Spectator Sports & Reality TV

The WSOP's History With Game Shows, Spectator Sports & Reality TV

The 2022 World Series of Poker Main Event is in full swing in Las Vegas. This year the $10,000 no-limit hold’em tournament drew a whopping 8,663 players.

That’s the second-largest field ever and has created an $80 million-plus prize pool. Many will be watching closely later this week to see which player claims the bracelet and $10 million first prize.

The WSOP Main Event is often described as poker’s Super Bowl for at least a couple of reasons. One is the fact that the tournament represents the game’s world championship.

Also, just as the NFL’s Super Bowl attracts interest from casual football fans (and even non-football fans), the WSOP Main Event represents the one poker tournament each year that successfully earns the attention of those outside the poker world. This includes many other kinds of US online casino players.

For many, watching televised coverage of the WSOP Main Event has served as the first introduction to poker. That was particularly the case during the “poker boom” years of the mid-2000s. In fact, chances are a large percentage of those playing the Main Event this year were first inspired to play poker after having watched the WSOP on TV.

When poker took off in 2003 and in years after, those memorable WSOP shows seemed to have come out of nowhere. In truth, the emergence of poker as a “spectator sport” was a long time coming.

Here’s a look back at how televised poker has drawn from numerous sources, including game shows, sports programming, and reality TV, in order to make the idea of watching people play a card game a lot more entertaining than it has the right to be.

Poker on TV before the World Series of Poker

Before the WSOP debuted at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas in 1970, there was plenty of poker on television. Of course, essentially all of it was fictional poker, invented scenes inserted into TV westerns, comedies, and dramas in order to push along their made-up plots.

During television’s earliest era, the most popular shows by far were westerns. Many times during those first years of Nielsen TV ratings, more than half of the shows in the top 20 were westerns.

Unsurprisingly, hit shows like Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Bonanza, The Rifleman, and Have Gun, Will Travel routinely featured poker scenes. In such shows, disputes over poker games often would lead to physical confrontations or even fatalities.

There was also Maverick, a somewhat iconoclastic western show that often went against generic expectations. That show featured a title character who didn’t drink or carry a gun but who most certainly played poker whenever the opportunity arose.

The same period saw poker games producing laughs on comedies like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners. In many cases, the games on those shows provided opportunities for “battle of the sexes”-type humor.

Meanwhile, dramas like Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Mission: Impossible, and others sometimes featured poker as well. Typically these dramas and crime show connected the game with criminal behavior and other untoward behavior.

Often poker players were villains or at least served as object lessons showing how the game produced negative effects upon individuals or society as a whole.

Ultimately such fictional representations of poker did little to disassociate the game from its Old West legacy as a gambling game connected with other “vices” like smoking, drinking, and violence. As a result, poker, as portrayed on TV, helped keep the game on the cultural periphery by characterizing it as a more or less “outlaw” activity.

That would remain true going forward, although the later introduction of actual poker on TV — including the WSOP — would help change opinions. After introducing America to the colorful world of poker pros gambling for high stakes in Las Vegas, the broadcasts helped show the game’s skill component, distinguishing it from other casino games.

Those shows also very consciously began to draw upon elements of other popular TV. That also helped to make poker more palatable to a wider audience.

Talk shows and game shows give poker publicity

That first WSOP in 1970 earned relatively little fanfare. There was no TV coverage, of course. Nor was there a series-climaxing tournament, an idea that didn’t come until the WSOP’s second year.

Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston emerged in 1972 as the Main Event champion from a modest field of only eight players. When he did, very few outside of Las Vegas took note. Indeed, most who did hear about the WSOP Main Event having happened at all that year did so thanks to Preston’s own efforts to publicize himself and the world of high-stakes poker on television.

Over the next several months, Preston appeared multiple times on America’s most popular late-night talk show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He also turned up for interviews on Good Morning America, 60 Minutes, and The Mike Douglas Show.

Sometime later, Preston and Benny Binion would appear together on an episode of Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show. Later Preston would describe that program as,

“An hour’s commercial for the Horseshoe.”

The gregarious Preston stood out on such shows thanks to his colored suits, cowboy boots, and ten-gallon Stetson hat. He also distinguished himself with the endless supply of folksy quips he used to pepper anecdotes about gambling and poker. To some, Preston appeared to have stepped straight out of a 19th-century saloon onto those talk show sets, a kind of living link to poker’s past.

As poker’s first real television celebrity, Preston also took turns on several daytime game shows, such as What’s My Line? and To Tell the Truth.

Probably the most intriguing of those guest spots for someone seeking to establish how popular poker really was in August 1972 was Preston’s appearance on the show I’ve Got a Secret hosted by Steve Allen, a game show featuring a celebrity panel asked questions of a guest in order to discover his or her “secret.”

At the time, Preston was just a few months removed from his WSOP Main Event win. He has also already appeared on The Tonight Show and elsewhere. But none of the panelists — Alan Alda, Betty White, Richard Dawson, and Pat Carroll — had a clue who he was.

They quizzed Preston about his clothes. His look caused them to wonder if he might be a country singer or perhaps worked at a rodeo. But no one was able to guess Preston’s secret, namely, that he had once lost $190,000 in a single night of poker.

“Occasionally the lamb slaughters the butcher,” said Preston by way of explaining his big loss, a line that earned laughter from the panel and audience.

In fact, when Allen noted that Preston was the current WSOP Main Event champion, no one knew that, either.

You could say the World Series of Poker was still largely a secret then, too.

The WSOP on ESPN: Is poker a sport?

We all know how the World Series of Poker eventually found its way onto the sports network ESPN. Was a card game a sport? No matter. In fact, the first time the WSOP Main Event appeared on television back in 1973, it was in the context of sports programming.

Partly due to Preston’s publicity efforts, the following year, sports commentator and Vegas bookmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder helped arrange the production of a documentary chronicling the WSOP Main Event.

The show aired as part of the CBS Sports Spectacular, a weekend sports anthology show that often gave time to off-the-beaten-path sports like bowling, fishing, or gymnastics.

Snyder narrated the program, which in many ways prefigured later televised coverage of tournament poker. The show featured profiles of players, including Preston. Also included were explanations of no-limit Texas hold’em rules and strategy.

Hands were shown with commentary helping clarify what was happening, although without any hole cards revealed until the showdowns. Snyder’s descriptions frequently likened the action to a sporting event, bringing up comparisons with boxing matches and endurance races all of the way up through the climactic hand in which Puggy Pearson topped Johnny Moss to win the title.

Though compelling, the one-hour show did not inspire similar coverage the following year. In fact, it wasn’t until 1978 that CBS again aired an edited program describing the WSOP Main Event final table. Snyder was once more on the call, joining Brent Musburger, with whom he already worked on CBS’s The NFL Today.

There was another such special on CBS in 1979 with Frank Glieber joining Snyder. That year’s show had an opening featuring Kenny Rogers’ poker-themed hit song “The Gambler.”

ESPN launched in September 1979, and during the 1980s and 1990s, the cable network took over WSOP Main Event coverage. One-hour shows covering the tournament aired on an almost yearly basis.

Sports announcers Curt Gowdy, Ted Robinson, and Chris Marlowe were among those calling the action, joined at times by poker pro Bobby Baldwin, card room director Jim Albrecht, actor and poker player Dick Van Patten, and his son Vince Van Patten of later World Poker Tour fame.

Poker and the WSOP had found a niche in the corner of the sports world. But soon, the audience would expand considerably.

Televised poker during the pre-boom years

From 1999-2001, the Discovery Channel produced WSOP Main Event shows. At the time, the cable network was largely devoted to educational programming. Typically, the Discovery Channel aired historical documentaries or shows exploring advances in science and technology. Thus was, a show highlighting high-stakes tournament poker, a bit of an anomaly in the schedule.

ESPN then returned with its own two-hour broadcast of the 2002 WSOP Main Event.

Such shows were appreciated by poker players and increasingly well produced. That said, coverage of the WSOP Main Event still did not create much of a ripple in mainstream popular culture. The shows would, however, influence how poker would subsequently be covered.

Even more influential during these years was a new UK poker show called Late Night Poker that became a genuine sensation during its original 1999-2002 run. With charismatic characters, quick-witted commentary, and careful editing helping emphasize the drama, the show successfully drew huge audiences despite airing after midnight.

An additional reason for Late Night Poker’s success was the creative use of an under-the-table camera. The camera revealed players’ hole cards as they rested face down on a glass rectangle. A similar technique was used when the World Poker Tour debuted on the Travel Channel in March 2003. The new “hole card cam” significantly increased viewer engagement while adding an extra layer of intrigue to every hand.

The same technology would elevate the 2003 WSOP Main Event coverage on ESPN that July and August. Other elements were in play as well, however, that together helped spark the poker boom that followed.

Survivor with cards: Poker as reality TV

The quick growth of online poker (which had only debuted in 1998) helped increase viewership for the 2003 WSOP Main Event. So, too, did the aptly-named amateur player Chris Moneymaker’s surprise victory that year to win the $2.5 million prize.

Also worth noting, however, was the coincidence of another trend in popular culture — the rise of so-called “reality” TV.

The highest-rated prime-time television show during the 1999-2000 season was Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? It was the first time ever that a game show attracted the highest average viewership in the US during the evening hours.

The following year another show featuring contestants gunning for a $1 million prize topped the ratings. It was a new “reality competition” show called Survivor. Then in 2002, the competitive singing show American Idol debuted, and starting the next year would dominate the rest of the decade as America’s most-watched prime time show.

Gabe Kaplan and Lon McEachern provided commentary for ESPN’s coverage in 2002. It was Kaplan who, on that show, suggested a parallel between the reality shows then capturing America’s attention and the kind of excitement watching the final table of poker’s most prestigious tournament could provide.

“This is Survivor with cards, Lon,” said Kaplan. “Someone is going to stay on the island, and someone is going to leave very soon.”

Moneymaker won the 2003 Main Event in May. A few weeks later, in June, he appeared on Late Night with David Letterman to discuss his win. However, when ESPN began its weekly showing of seven one-hour episodes on Tuesday nights starting on July 15, few who watched knew which of the 839 players who entered would emerge as champion.

Thus did the shows retain all the elements of Survivor or American Idol, with suspense building as the cast of characters gradually dwindled from week to week.

The audiences during that original run of 2003 WSOP shows never came close to the numbers of the top-rated shows. But nearly a million viewers tuned in each week, and when McEachern’s new partner Norman Chad described Moneymaker’s victory in the late August finale as “beyond fairy tale” and “inconceivable,” an impressive 1.67 million were watching.

WSOP Main Event continues as a highlight of poker and online poker’s boom

Some of us remember how ESPN replayed those shows on what seemed like an endless loop over the subsequent months. That earned the 2003 WSOP Main Event even more viewers. Along with the new WPT shows, TV poker became a sudden phenomenon across numerous networks. By early 2004, even the Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo Network routinely drew over a million viewers per episode.

Over the next few years, dozens more poker shows came and went, most of which are forgotten today. However, others like High Stakes Poker on the Game Show Network and Poker After Dark on NBC rivaled the WSOP and WPT shows in popularity.

Even though viewership declined markedly from those early peaks, the shows kept poker in the cultural spotlight through early 2011. That’s when Black Friday hastily forced the major online poker sites to leave the US. Many of the primary sponsors for poker shows left as well, and their number reduced dramatically.

Meanwhile, coverage of the WSOP Main Event continued onward on ESPN through 2019. The number of hours devoted to presenting the tournament increased considerably along the way. Extensive “almost live” coverage began during the tournament’s early stages. Final tables lasting hundreds of hands were shown in their entirety.

Coupled with live updates online and further coverage and conversation over social media, the tournament became a kind of virtual gathering place for the entire poker community as well as any others curious to follow the action.

Now the online streaming service PokerGO enjoys exclusive rights to televise the event during the two weeks it takes place. The CBS Sports Network will also be airing edited episodes at a later date. These days most are familiar with such an entertainment delivery method.

Many of us are getting increasingly used to subscribing to streams to access our favorite televised entertainment. Of course, the subscription model probably means those who aren’t already poker players or fans will be less likely to come across the WSOP Main Event unless they actively seek it out (and subscribe).

Even so, those who do have access will surely enjoy the familiar sights and sounds of the coverage this week and the winning mix of game shows, sports programs, and reality TV competitions that is the WSOP Main Event.

Author: Tyler Gutierrez