It's aces up for poker on TV screens
As for celebrities? Shows' definition stretched card-thin
By Michael Booth
Denver Post Entertainment Writer
Offering perhaps the most definitive proof yet that Americans would rather watch somebody else do something on TV than do it themselves, televised poker is on a hot streak.
At least four networks have anted up in the latest sports craze that's not really a sport, following in the grand tradition of televised Scrabble, bass fishing and golf.
Bravo has its latest version of "Celebrity Poker Showdown' tonight at 7, NBC plans a high-stakes game on Super Bowl day, the Travel Channel is getting its best ratings from poker, and Fox SportsNet created "Showdown at the Sands.'
Judging from a preview of tonight's "Celebrity Poker' episode, it may just be the dullest thing on television. And that includes a quick glance at fourth-grade painting classes on the education channel.
Fans swear the other tournament shows, those involving "real-life' poker players with some gritty character, are riveting television. The Travel Channel's ratings don't lie, with triple the viewers of a more staid travel offering. Bravo is bragging about 1.6 million viewers for celebrity poker, a far cry from top-rated shows like "Survivor' at 22 million, but much higher than Bravo's usual draw in the same time slot. Poker is obliterating ratings for some "mainstream' sports, such as NHL hockey, which often wallows near 1 million viewers.
But please. Celebrity poker may be as bad as commercial television gets. First, the definition of celebrity hasn't been stretched this severely since the last "Hollywood Squares.' Shannon Elizabeth may be familiar to "American Pie' fans, she who causes straight flushes rather than drawing them. But Coolio? He actually was on "Hollywood Squares' already.
And Paul Rudd, the glorified bit player from "Friends'? It would be much more fun to import the Fab Five from Bravo's other hit, "Queer Eye,' for a high-stakes screaming match.
Another problem with the concept of celebrity poker is that, by definition, poker players aren't supposed to display their celebrity personalities. It's like inviting the stars of the Metropolitan Opera to compete in the "National Mime Showdown.' Someone will watch, but is it good TV?
More snags for "Celebrity Poker' include the host, respected film actor Kevin Pollak, who here looks like he lost a bet, and "color' commentator Phil Gordon, who's as stiff as a bouncer at The Stardust. "Coolio had a 4 percent chance to win there,' Gordon notes; he seems as uncomfortable as a famous baseball player guesting on a sitcom
The one innovation that makes the poker shows remotely sport-like is the so-called "lipstick camera,' a tiny lens mounted at each player's hands that lets you see their hidden cards. For a game like Texas Hold 'Em, this allows graphics comparing the hidden hands to the community cards that make or break each gamble. Gordon, though, needs to find something to say beyond, "I really like that raise.'
Losing celebrities are banished to a nearby "lounge,' allegedly for witty banter with Pollak. Coolio's repartee consists of watching Sarah Silverman's bet and scoffing, "She better have something.'
The proliferating poker shows are either creating new players, or bringing old players up from underground. One casino tournament recently drew 313 entrants, up from fewer than 60 two years ago. The Meetup website for enthusiasts of all kinds to find each other now has 39 poker players from Denver alone, and thousands around the nation.
Jeremiah Weinhold, a Denver emergency-room worker who has been playing poker for four years, appreciates the TV shows for "watching the pros go at it.' He also thinks the publicity has made poker legitimate and taught more people the arcane rules. In his own card games, he likes "the fact that you don't have to get the best cards any given night, and you can still be the big winner if you play smart.'
I'll have to take his word for it. Weinhold's genuine enthusiasm for the game is not translating through my television set. Perhaps we need a "Hardworking E.R. Nobodies Showdown.'
Somebody tell Bravo to hold a time slot.