Poker Night in America = Poker’s Next Big Thing

Poker Night in AmericaSometimes, you just know.

Sometimes you just have this gut feeling that you’re on the cusp of seeing something historic unfold. This is one of those times. Poker is about to change for the better, and it’s going to get a hell of a lot more popular – starting this Sunday. A brand new poker show is set to debut that will undoubtedly generate a whole new wave of mainstream excitement for the card game we all know and love.

This Sunday night, and every Sunday night thereafter for a long time to come, it’s going to be Poker Night in America. That’s the name of the poker show set to be broadcast on (no less than!) the CBS Sports Network. Finally a show has come along that has the potential to get the average Joe and Jane excited about poker all over again.

What Happened to Televised Poker?

Back in poker’s boom years, pretty much any time you’d channel surf you’d encounter poker on TV. Whether it was on ESPN, the Travel Channel, GSN, or another network, broadcasts were everywhere. Celebrities were playing; poker was hip and cool.

Then, people stopped watching.

Poker on TVThough there are quite a few reasons why this happened, here’s an oversimplified summary of one of the main ones: the “poker story” that was being shown on TV just got too repetitive. Casual fans simply got tired of seeing the same standard all-in confrontations between a big pair and two overcards in broadcast after broadcast. Most shows evolved to showcase the poker being played in greater depth, both on camera and via the accompanying commentary, to cater to an understandably more knowledgeable fan base. The problem with that was that while hard core viewers might’ve stuck around, the recreational poker player fan base – i.e., the overwhelming majority of mainstream viewers – became alienated.

Post Moneymaker boom, as the years went by, most poker shows stopped dedicating airtime to creating stories around the game’s personalities, instead more often choosing to emphasize the game itself. Much as I hate to admit it, the fact is that watching poker being played just isn’t entertaining to the average viewer. And that’s even after a whole bunch of editing to show only the most interesting hands! When people watch TV, they want to be entertained. If they’re not, they’ll change the channel quicker than you can say “all in”.

While a couple of the better-produced shows, like the WSOP broadcasts, have survived and enjoy the “remainder” of die hard poker fans as their audience, most have gone the way of the dodo.

Indeed, it would seem that it would take a miracle to get a new poker show on TV these days. What it actually took, however, on top of a hell of a lot of persistence and hard work, was a visionary who understood how to get people to start tuning in again.

Introducing Todd Anderson – The Man Who Wants to Make Poker Fun Again

Todd AndersonTwo years ago, Todd Anderson had an epiphany. The original creator of the Heartland Poker Tour realized that viewers weren’t tuning into poker on TV anymore because, at the core, it wasn’t just the poker they had found so interesting, but rather the characters playing the game. Thus was born the idea to create Poker Night in America.

Anderson’s blueprint? Invite some of the best-known, most engaging people playing the game of poker to star on the show and sit them around a table for cash game sessions. Don’t make them play for amounts of money that make them uncomfortable. Have them play at stakes where, while they’re trying to win (it IS money after all), that aspect takes a backseat to them being able to have a good time. The less financial stress on the players, the more they can let loose and have fun.

Then, have those poker players go out and “do stuff”. Film them at a bowling alley. Film them having meals together. Film them at a golf course. Film them anywhere and everywhere away from the poker table. In short, let people see just how interesting and entertaining these poker players can be off the felt. Then, keep on filming these people playing poker against one another.

This type of TV production strategy is designed to create characters out of these poker players. It lets their phenomenally engaging personalities shine through. People can – and DO – get invested in characters. Viewers can’t identify with poker players, but they sure as hell can identify with characters they see on screen.

I got a special sneak preview of the pilot episode. Anderson’s blueprint works. This is must-see TV. It’s no wonder Todd was able to get a reputable network like CBS Sports to agree to broadcast Poker Night in America. They’ve got solid gold on their hands and I’m sure they know it too.

Who Are the Poker Night in America Cast Members?

Nolan DallaAnderson recruited WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla to join the Poker Night in America team as the Creative Director and Head of Player Relations. A beyond-brilliant poker writer and the game’s foremost historian, I’d contend that there’s nobody in the world more in touch with the pulse of poker than Nolan Dalla. There’s also probably nobody in the industry more respected and well regarded by professional poker players. (Side note – PLEASE, somebody get this man into the Poker Hall of Fame already!)

As a close observer of the poker scene, I can assure you that Dalla and Anderson picked a fine cast indeed to star on Poker Night in America. The show’s slogan is “bringing the personality back to poker”. I couldn’t think of a description more apropos. Just look at some of the amazing personalities they’ve got in their lineup:

Poker Night in America player list

If you aren’t familiar with some of the people listed, don’t worry. Within a few episodes of the show airing, I believe almost all of them will be on their way towards becoming household names.

What Else Makes Poker Night In America Unique?

Poker Night in America end creditsRight from the get-go, part of Anderson’s vision was that he wanted the show to be aired on national television at the same time every week. That makes perfect sense in terms of attempting to capture the largest possible target audience.

The show’s title is incredibly far-reaching, but it represents something every American can identify with (though I’m sure poker fans all over the world will love the show). Moreover, the set time slot each Sunday night helps anchor the show and lends to it an episodic structure – much like any other TV sitcom, drama, or reality show. All those shows feature characters that fans can get invested in; so does Poker Night in America. Moreover, because of the nature of what’s being broadcast, I’ve got a hunch that each episode will be able to stand on its own, which makes the show an excellent candidate for repeat viewing and attracting new audiences each time any episode airs.

Trust me when I tell you that, very quickly, people across the United States will come to feel that every Sunday night, starting at 10 pm Eastern/7 pm Pacific, is Poker Night in America.

Poker Night in America dealer smiling

Mike Matusow, Matt Glantz, and Gavin Smith – Even the poker dealer can’t help but crack a smile 🙂

On a Personal Note

I follow everything that goes on in the poker world pretty religiously, but even I stopped watching poker on TV quite a while ago. So have all my home game buddies. That’s not to say we don’t love the game of poker anymore – we’re all still very much into it.

We reminisce occasionally about some of the great poker TV we used to see on shows like High Stakes Poker. It used to be the case that each time we’d convene for a weekly home game we’d intersperse the poker discussion with talk about the great episode we had just seen a couple nights prior. We’d reenact the scenes and talk excitedly about what we saw on screen. We just don’t do that anymore.

But I’m pretty positive that this show is something we’re all going to be talking about. And you will too. And so will your poker buddies. Don’t be surprised if seemingly random people start nodding knowingly if you mention the names of one of the Poker Night in America players. They’ll be watching too.

The fun begins this Sunday night, with two half-hour episodes slated to air back-to-back. A total of 26 episodes are scheduled to air, with replays available both on CBS (in a different time slot) as well as online at www.pokernight.com.

Poker is about to become fun all over again.

Sometimes, you just know.

10 Comments

  1. Scotty Rushing
    Scotty Rushing June 26, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Your enthusiasm is admirable, but asserting that this show will be around “for a long time to come” is overly optimistic. While I agree the proposed format sounds good–Esquire landed a hit with Horseplayers using the same concept–the very timeslot of the show shows that CBS Sports has mild expectations. Come fall the show will be up against the most popular show on television, The Walking Dead, and also Sunday Night Football. Of course, it will most likely be in reruns during that time so it could serve as filler for the next two months which are a somewhat dead time on the sports calendar. I’m all for efforts to bring poker into the mainstream, but what you seem to be forgetting is that the death of televised poker can be largely attributed to Black Friday and the death of online poker in the US. All television shows depend on advertising to survive, and most of these poker programs were heavily subsidized by ads for PokerStars and Full Tilt. Those advertisers had a built-in customer base with poker shows, but that base is irrelevant now. Having Nolan Dalla involved is great…for people who already play poker. The public at large doesn’t know who he is, so his name on the marquee doesn’t guarantee a new audience. Random people nodding in recognition of names like Greg Muller or Will Failla? Doubtful. Nevertheless, it’s a noble effort to put poker in the spotlight and I respect that. I’ll most likely DVR the episodes and watch a few myself…at least until Norman Reedus starts splitting zombie heads and Peyton Manning starts throwing touchdowns.

  2. cardplayerlifestyle
    cardplayerlifestyle June 26, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    A great, detailed comment Scotty – thanks for engaging with me. So nice to see that someone paid such close attention to everything I wrote – and it’s that much more of a reminder that I always need to choose every single word carefully 🙂

    Well, for starters, yes, I’m very enthusiastic about this. That’s further bolstered by the fact that I’ve seen the first episode already – I really do think it’s a great starting point for the series.

    Re: “around for a long time”….perhaps that’s optimistic, but that’s just my personal projection. High Stakes Poker “survived” for 7 seasons. If the producers of this show stick to what they’ve done and to the original version, I feel it has a great chance of long term success. It’s all just a matter of not tampering with a winning formula.

    You do make good points about competition for the time slot and advertising. I definitely didn’t address those points and they’re worthwhile to be making. I’m no expert in those fields though but I do know that the wheels won’t turn if they aren’t greased. Nonetheless, if enough people like the show and it gets solid ratings, then hopefully that’ll speed up that positive cycle of luring in advertisers, who don’t all have to be poker operators by the way…

    Re: Nolan, Greg, and Will… obviously mainstream non-poker people don’t know who they are right now. It took television to make stars out of Negreanu, Ivey, Brunson and Hellmuth… While I don’t know that these guys will reach THAT level of fame, they’ll certainly become far more well-known if the show takes off, which I think it will.

    In closing, it’s not like the mainstream public is sitting around their living rooms saying “jeez, I wish someone would come up with a poker show to entertain us”. This article is obviously written from the perspective of someone in poker – and hence the excitement. What the industry wants so badly to do is cross over again as much as possible into that mainstream. I’m just happy we’ve finally got a show that’ll allow for that again. The trick is to just figure out ways to get the snowball rolling and get those eyeballs on the screen. The product, in my opinion, will do a good job selling itself.

    As you say – it’s a noble effort, and it’s certainly “good for poker”. I know my predictions are ambitions, and my hopes are high, but I think that in this case, they’re warranted. Let’s all hope I’m right.

  3. Scotty Rushing
    Scotty Rushing June 26, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    That is one of the most intelligent responses I’ve seen to a blog comment, one that is likely to make me a frequent reader. Too many blog authors routinely trash any dissenting opinion. I guess they slept through the section of Blogging 101 that addressed the importance of audience engagement.

    To get back to the discussion, I do think it will take a concept like this to make poker television more entertaining. I mentioned Horseplayers in my original post. If Esquire can take a show about betting horses and make it an unqualified success, CBS and Poker Night in America can do the same. So, I do think the concept is on target. Let’s hope CBS is inspired enough in the beginning to give it a push with some good promo spots. If I were them I would be running ads on every sports telecast to attract the sports betting crowd, and it wouldn’t hurt to have Todd, Nolan, and company on Boomer and Carton for a guest spot. If they did that…guaranteed viewers.

  4. cardplayerlifestyle
    cardplayerlifestyle June 26, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Re: first paragraph – thanks, just trying to be real. No true (poker) writer produces content in a vacuum. I know who I try to write for, so when the audience engages me, I’m happy to do my best to try and engage right back. Thank you!

    Re: 2nd paragraph – yup, the show itself is only as good as good as it can be (it’s great!), but if a tree falls in a forest…

    Hopefully the network execs will truly realize what type of magnet they’ve got in their hands and make wise marketing decisions to do their best to promote it as well.

    When the 2003 WSOP first aired, ESPN execs were shocked at the ratings, so they kept on replaying it over and over – and the ratings stuck. If the network keeps their eye on the ball with this, they can really make the most of the opportunity. And yes, they’ve got to “make” Todd and Nolan more famous through increased exposure. People outside of poker ought to know who they are 🙂

    Enjoy Sunday’s debut!

  5. toms cards
    toms cards June 26, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    i think it is at least worth a couple of weeks trial watching. i still watch some poker on tv, but it is when nothing else is on.
    it is like a forum for the announcers to talk.
    and playing in freerolls with newbies is mainly caused, i believe, because they only see a highly edited playing of the game.
    they see a lot of hands that would normally be folded being played all in. of course, the odds say they will sometimes win — we have all had it go both ways for us on those hands.
    so they have no conception of the real game.

    at least that is my opinion, but then i am an old man that plays online and has fun doing it. i once slow-played 4 aces into a loss when some one at the table walked into a royal. so yes, things happen, but it is one hell of a fun game.

    just maybe some newbies will learn something and make the game more enjoyable for everyone.

  6. cardplayerlifestyle
    cardplayerlifestyle June 26, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    Hey Tom – thanks for the comment. Well, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the show. I do believe that people who watch – both who know and who don’t know how to play poker, will learn from what they see on screen that above all the game is supposed to be fun.

  7. The Bon_Scott
    The Bon_Scott June 29, 2014 at 7:55 pm

    I have my DVR set.

  8. The Bon_Scott
    The Bon_Scott August 22, 2014 at 12:18 pm

    IMO, for Poker Night in America to thrive the show will need some big name TV players every episode. It’s great when Phil Laak, Antonio Esfandiari,
    Michael Matusow and Phil Hellmuth are on, but again, I think there needs to be a handful of these types on every episode AND an appearance by the likes of Negreanu, Ivey and Tom Dwan. And I just don’t see that happening.

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