The Watcher - Gotta know Texas Hold'em

Betting on gamblers pays off

Las Vegas may experience a spike in tourism if the television poker craze continues. It seems unlikely that a game where people sit around a table for hours — or maybe days — would translate into compelling television, but three networks are raking in the ratings with the concept.

Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown" is the most amateur of the shows, but it still managed ratings success despite low-level celebrities and crappy card skills. Last week's finale pulled in 1.7 million viewers, even though Bravo took liberties with the terms "celebrity" and "showdown." With the exception of Ben Affleck and maybe the cast of "West Wing," most viewers probably wouldn't recognize the players without catching the introductions. Willie Garson, Ron Livingston, Emily Proctor ... sure, they're more famous than you or me, but a more a appropriate name for the show would have been "Supporting Cast or Special Guest Star Poker Showdown." But let's be honest, we'd watch Z-list celebrities poo if they put it on a show.

The upside of Bravo's formula is the poker-to-English explanations of No-limit Texas Hold'em, which is a fast-paced, high-stakes version of the game. Thanks to the cleverly positioned cameras, viewers see each player's cards. The celebrities demonstrated more luck than skill, sometimes winning with just a high card. Plus, all their winnings go to charities, which is good for the charities but somehow makes the gambling less of a gamble.

Poker isn't supposed to be a nice, polite game that aids humanity. The hustlers, sharks and other undesirables give the game spice and make it dangerous and exciting, which is why you should watch The Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour." The Travel Channel hosts open tournaments in exotic locales and luxury casinos (it is the Travel Channel, after all), but seasoned professional poker players usually circle the table. The game is still Texas Hold'em, but these players demonstrate skill. Their brows bead with sweat and they get pissed when they lose a pot because they're really playing for the money. And it's serious money, usually upwards of a cool million and sometimes more.

The inherent drama of gambling is similar to that of sports: There's struggle, strategy, heroes and losers. Maybe that's why ESPN's "World Series of Poker" is by far the most riveting poker tournament to watch. Micro-documentaries introduce key players, their superstitions and lucky charms. Plus, they look more like stereotypical poker players, with the occasional 10-gallon hat, Soprano-like tracksuit, some bling-bling, and a plethora of hats and sunglasses to hide the players' tells.

But why the craze? ESPN has aired other tournaments in the past, so why are other networks picking up on it now? Thank Chris Moneymaker, the Cinderella story of last May's "World Series of Poker." First of all, the guy's last name is Moneymaker, so he already makes a fairy-tale hero. He was an accountant who decided to learn how to play poker after watching Rounders. He paid $40 to enter an online poker tournament and won entry into the World Series. Having never entered a live poker tournament in his life, he won table after table during the five-day tournament, knocking out some of the pros who had appeared in Rounders. The announcers called him "dead money," which is what professionals call amateur players when they make it to the final table. Against all odds, which is how all great sports stories end, Moneymaker won $2.5 million.

Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown" and The Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour" are already filming their second seasons. ESPN's "World Series of Poker" will return next May. All three shows will repeat ubiquitously through the spring.