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In case you’ve been living under a rock lately or haven’t been watching basic cable, poker is the new ratings draw that several channels are using to garner attention. The Travel Channel, Bravo, and ESPN all have their own poker shows that are attempting to cash in on this latest TV trend. The shows themselves are hit and miss, but the idea of poker as a TV event is a new idea that is proving very profitable for the networks showing them, and at the very least interesting for the viewers.

World Poker Tour on Travel Channel airs new episodes every Wednesday night through the summer. The hosts on this show, Vince Van Patten (yes, son of Eight is Enough’s Dick… Van Patten) and Mike Sexton are the best of the bunch. Mike is a former poker champion, and Vince has played recreationally for a number of years and can also lay claim to being a D-list celebrity. The players themselves, being professionals, are often short on personality so it is up to the commentators to bring the game to life. They do a good job. Mike in particular always gets his dander up whenever anyone attempts to bluff their way into a large pot (if these terms are foreign to you, all of these shows have a tutorial of sorts at their beginning).

The tournaments that are shown are usually quite competitive and always entertaining. Unfortunately, they’re mostly short on any sort of showmanship or excitement from the players themselves, since showing excitement is considered a source of vulnerability in professional poker. But if you like serious poker, this is your game. (Rating: 4/5)

Celebrity Poker Showdown is currently in the middle of its second run on Bravo, the NBC-owned cable net. What WPT lacks in personality, CPS has in spades. Most of the names are B-listers, but even so they usually provide humorous enough patter to make up for the fact that you have to go to IMDB afterwards to find out what they’ve been doing. Second season hosts Dave Foley (from Kids in the Hall fame) and Phil Gordon (from hey, who is that guy fame) have decent rapport. Foley is funnier than season one host Kevin Pollak, and Gordon is usually drawing comparisons to a plank of wood. Luckily, the producers usually have good enough sense to have at least one comedian in the tournament to keep things light.

The problem I have with this show is that the worst players seem to get all the luck. For example, in a recent episode, Dule Hill of The West Wing pretty much bet every hand he was dealt, and was lucky enough to win nearly all of them, and won the tournament. Meanwhile, experienced poker player James Woods was left folding nearly every hand and finished third, while second place player Danny Masterson of That 70’s Show openly mocked Hill’s tactics. This show is more entertaining than WPT but also infinitely more frustrating since most of the players are novices. If you’re a poker novice, you’ll probably like this show more. (Rating: 3.5/5)

ESPN has bought the rights to the World Series of Poker, which is the pre-eminent poker tournament in the world. Prior to 2003, the WSOP was limited to a one-hour show, usually sandwiched in between some hot billiards action. Now with poker’s popularity on the rise, ESPN expanded last year’s coverage to five hours, and a series of specials afterwards showcasing highlights of the tournament, for a total of seven hours of programs based on the 2003 WSOP. ESPN has also promised twenty-two hours of coverage of 2004’s WSOP, premiering on July 6th.

Hosts Lon McEachern and Norman Chad are merely followers of the poker world, but Chad is capable of tossing off a few humorous quips here and there. This show heightens the tension among the players, but spends a bit too much time on the personalities involved and not enough time on the action. It’s poker’s version of an NBC Olympics telecast. The best part of the 2003 WSOP was the fact that the winner, Chris Moneymaker, was an entrant who got in based on his victory in an online tournament. It brings home the fact that while there are skills involved in winning at poker, you have to be lucky to be good. (Rating: 3/5)

Of course, Game Show Network has tried a knock-off version, making the World Series of Blackjack a weekly series, but it’s so poorly done that it barely rates a mention here. Better to stick to poker, where I can imagine myself knocking off such poker greats as Phil Hellmuth and Doyle Brunson on my way to winning a $650,000 tournament after gaining my entry with some toothpaste and a clothes hanger. Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

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