Without getting into a whole discussion about the World Poker Tour (WPT), its broadcasts, etc., I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that the WPT has brought poker into millions of American homes. In fact, WPT broadcasts can be found on several major networks and often repeat throughout the week.
During each broadcast, viewers are given lessons on poker terminology, strategy, and history from some major names in the poker industry like Mike Sexton, Vince Van Patten, Phil Hellmuth Jr., Daniel Negreanu and others. For some, myself included, it was the entry way into the larger world of poker.
It’s also been on for 16 years and has had ample opportunity to grow and change with the times.
However, my argument is that WPT broadcasts haven’t changed over the years because they needed good TV. They’ve changed because the game of poker itself has changed and the WPT is adapting to reflect that.
Therefore, I will look at how the WPT Television broadcasts have changed and how that reflects on the game we love.
First, let me preface a lot of this with the fact that much of my impression of the WPT comes from recollection of those older broadcasts. While we can talk about the lineup and guests around each show, at least some of this comes down to emotion and that will, naturally vary from person to person.
I can say that I loved the WPT from its original days on Travel Channel (even if I thought that was a weird venue for it). Also, even though I love the current lineup, for me, WPT will always be Vince Van Patten and Mike Sexton filling my head with poker knowledge along with Kimberly Lansing (even though Lynn Gilmartin has been the best host to date in my somewhat controversial opinion).
WPT in the Beginning
I used to argue with people about the watchability of the WPT, as I thought there was some and a lot of people didn’t. Also, to be honest, the early episodes of the show were not as well done as they are now (though this is true of most television programs).
In fact, I remember the early WPT being a little rough in some very serious ways. It also tried to make poker interesting, but managed to only be of interest to those interested in poker. For the rest of the onlookers, the WPT used some flash and (I hate to say it), attractive female hosts to draw in audiences.
The strategy worked, though, and over time, the broadcasts got better.
The hosts were more able to explain in layman’s terms for poker beginners while the attractive female hosts stayed and were supplemented by the Royal Flush Girls to serve as draws for other audiences.
Still, at this point, you have the WPT start to serve as a harbinger of where poker interest is starting to go.
WTP Throughout the Ages
Not only did the production get better, but the product itself got better. Around 2009, when PartyPoker bought the WPT, poker saw a tremendous surge of interest. It was during this time that the really big names start to be the really big names.
You have Chris Moneymaker who has “money” in his name. Chris Ferguson can throw playing cards like Bishop from the X-Men and slice fruit. Phil Ivey dominates tables along with Phil Hellmuth. Daniel Negreanu starts to be the cerebral “know-it-all” that you start to love or hate (but never both).
The good news is that the WPT was right there along the way to bring those people to life and carry them into our living rooms. Even today, if you search for some of the best games, worst beats, etc. in poker, you are going to find WPT broadcasts of games between these players.
Now, the WPT could have been content to just show the hands between these players, but they didn’t stop there.
Instead, they told these players’ stories. They created special events to make them play against each other and Sexton and Van Patten perfected their craft enough to make sure that watchers like me got wrapped in their story lines.
There was also great interest because back then there were more chances for anyone to play real money poker online, which means that any average person could be a poker star from her home computer.
It was a good time to watch poker and the WPT was doing a great job of showing up along with its obvious rival for eyeballs, the World Series of Poker (WSOP).
In some ways (and this feels foolish to say), poker’s golden heyday is behind us. That may sound like a particularly silly thing to type when there are millions of poker players, several very profitable online sites, etc.
A lot of that has gone away, which is to say that there now may only be one or two programs on at one time. It used to be that sports bars would play WPT or WSOP broadcasts and have them showing alongside normal weekday sports fare: NBA games, weekday hockey, etc. A lot of that is gone.
Along with that, the WTP itself has changed. Sexton is gone and has been replaced (ably) by perennially teenaged-looking commentator Tony Dunst. The actual host seat has been filled by several women before Gilmartin took the reigns and is showing no signs of giving up her place.
What this has meant, though, is that Van Patten, Dunst, and Gilmartin are captaining a ship that needs to generate more of its own energy. The WPT needs to build its own excitement for a product that really can’t change (Texas Hold‘em is seven cards dealt out in rounds; anything else and it’s another game).
To make matters more interesting, the WPT has to meet the challenges of a world that doesn’t (rightfully) tolerate things like the objectification of the Royal Flush Girls. In fact, the Royal Flush Girls have been asked not to attend some events because of accusations of sexism and abuse.
Fortunately, the WPT doesn’t need the Royal Flush Girls as much as certain demographics would argue for them. Their (likely) removal from the WPT or at least their changing role is something that the WPT, poker, and the world will need to address.
Fortunately, one area in which the WPT can advance is in their use of technology to improve the broadcasts. This is seen in small things like the Club WPT app where you can play and never lose a dime, according to their ads.
It can also be seen in the acquisition of RealDeck, an online site featuring real dealers. They have also made investments into blockchain, better cameras to see hole cards, and could eventually adopt the WSOP’s RFID technology,(which was incredibly rough in the beginning.
However they choose to do it, technology will need to be a differentiator because the game of poker isn’t changing, but the way we watch it can.
Teaching Poker During the Broadcasts
This is the area in which the WPT has shown the most improvement.
Over the years, the WPT has done a great job realizing that not all their viewers are poker experts. Back in the heyday, the broadcasts were often centered around the players, sometimes to the exclusion of teaching the game, and sometimes even the action.
Nowadays, the WPT does a great job of explaining not only what is happening, but the strategy behind why it is happening.
In the end, poker is a game of the mind and the proper plays, the bluffs, the bets, and the strategies can be subtle. With all apologies to Sexton, Tony Dunst does a great job of walking the audience through what is going on in each players’ mind and the math behind each move.
It’s almost like watching a master class without paying the price for it.
Along the way, shows like the World Poker Tour have given us a look into the exciting world of professional poker and have been largely responsible for the spread of the game’s popularity. However, because the thinking and popularity of poker has changed, how the WPT covers it had to change.
The first shows were very poker heavy. Then, they got very personality-driven. Now, each WPT is a good lesson on what’s happening at the table and how you can make your game better. The future of poker television is never clear as to what form it will take. Rest assured, the WPT will figure out how to make it watchable.