Team Pro Daniel Negreanu on how TV changed poker
PokerStars returned to TV screens last night with the start of its coverage from the PokerStars Championship in Monaco earlier this year (viewers outside the UK and Ireland can watch this on PokerStars.tv).
It's a long-awaited return to the TV screens for PokerStars, with episodes focusing on the action from the Salle des Etoiles in the familiar format, following play down at each stage of the event until finding a winner.
But poker on TV has traditionally come in many formats, with countless shows demonstrating the different aspects of the game over the years, featuring many of the game's best, and often unknown players.
One man who has been part of that experience is Team Pro Daniel Negreanu - hardly surprising then that he is arguably the most recognisable poker player in the world.
We spoke to Negreanu (who also happens to feature in the first episode from Monaco) about his experiences in televised poker over the years, his memories of some of those shows and the role televised poker has in promoting the game.
TV poker generally falls into two strands - filming MTTs that are already taking place, and made-for-poker SNGs/cash games. How important do you think the made for TV shows were in building the popularity of poker?
That was extremely important. When poker first started airing on television there was a core group of professionals playing in relatively small fields so it was easy to focus on and follow the top players. The more popular the game became, the bigger the fields became and final tables no longer had as much of a consistent appeal to them. It was a bit of a crapshoot on the WPT, hoping that you would get 6 interesting names at the TV table.
What the made for TV shows did is it allowed fans of the game to get to know the stars in an intimate and consistent way. On a show like PokerStars Big Game, for example, you had the same 6 players on your television set all week. Lots of drama can be built around that and as a TV producer you can ensure that the product you are airing will have entertaining characters. Poker's popularity is driven by those characters.
Compared to an open event like the PokerStars Championship or PCA, how much respect and credibility do/did made for TV events have?
From the pros perspective, far less. I don't think the same held true for the public, but I think most pros understood that the made for TV events were about entertainment. We didn't want a table full of people wearing sunglasses and hoodies, tanking endlessly, and not engaging in table talk. They were designed to show poker as being the fun game that it can be.
How much skill goes into playing and winning a show such as Shark Cage or Poker After Dark? Do you think they are unfairly criticised as being more luck than skill?
There is certainly more luck involved in a sit n' go style made for TV event by design. Still, the best players are going to consistently do better than the others in the long run. The made for TV events are designed to be fun and entertaining. Who cares if they are less skill based? The goal is to attract new players to the game, and these events accomplish that goal. They complement the competitiveness of the EPT tour and offered something a major competition couldn't.
When you're on these shows do you feel pressure to 'entertain' and be more talkative than you would usually be? Do you think that's a fair expectation of playing in these shows?
I honestly do that no matter what game I'm in! Having said, that, yes, absolutely players who get invited to these made for TV shows should see this as an opportunity and understand that if they want to continue to be invited back, they better be interesting in some way. Jennifer Tilly, for example, has the advantage of being a movie star, but watch her interactions on those made for TV shows. She is a blast to play with, always engaging and making the whole experience more entertaining. If you aren't willing to be entertaining, then you shouldn't expect to be invited to these shows.
Is there still a place in today's TV poker world for made for TV shows? Or has the poker audience matured to an extent that they only want to watch production of major tournaments?
Frankly, I think the made for TV shows are a better marketing tool than the major events. I'm glad they have both, the majors for the diehard poker fans, and the made for TV events for the casual fan who wants to be entertained by table banter rather than a 5-bet all in shove.
Made for TV shows allow producers to pick entertaining and exciting characters to play poker, whereas you cannot manufacture the players in a live tournament. Do you think personality and fun is one of the most important aspects to producing good poker TV? Or is high quality poker enough, even if you don't know the players involved?
High quality poker excites the base. That is what they want and it's important to give them that. If you want to expand the game and get the mainstream interested, it's imperative that the focus is on the characters rather than the highly technical aspects of the game. High level analysis completely alienates the mainstream.
Do you have any particular highlights from playing in TV poker shows that you can share?
On the PokerStars Big Game I talked Jennifer Tilly out of folding a straight! Had I known she was that strong I never would have tried this bluff as I would expect her to call, but ultimately she folded and I was able to steal a big pot!
Do you think the made for TV shows still have a place in today's poker world?
They certainly should if the goal is to bring new players to the game. The model of filming a bunch of players no one in the mainstream has heard of and expecting them to enter the poker arena will not work. Celebrities, sports stars, fun gimmicky type events that have crossover appeal is a recipe that works to bring in new audiences.
Was it a cool moment to play Phil Ivey heads-up in Shark Cage?
If you watched that heads up I think the world got to see a Phil Ivey they rarely ever get a glimpse at. Since we are long-time friends he was very comfortable and hilariously funny. It was epic and I imagine the viewers got a kick out of seeing us play heads up, but more importantly listening to the back and forth banter.
Do you wish it had happened at something like a Championship Main Event or did it not really matter to you?
I don't really care where it happened, I'm just glad they got it all on film! Something we may look back on 20 years from now and remember fondly.