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Who likes poker? A show of hands.

An alumnus hits the jackpot with cable television’s latest moneymaker.

Steve Lipscomb, JD’88, has played his cards right. The 43-year-old founder and CEO of the World Poker Tour, a televised, no-limit Texas hold ’em tournament on the Travel Channel, bet big before the flop and helped spur a poker fever that in the past year and a half has made lingo like “flop” familiar in households across the country.

Photo: Detail of Untitled, 2004, by Lindsey Walton

Steve Lipscomb

World Poker Tour, LLC, estimates that some 50 million Americans—and 100 million people worldwide—play the game. Online poker rooms have multiplied, and Internet gambling revenue reached more than $7 billion this year, according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, a market research group. Multiple news reports, meanwhile, tell of casinos scrambling to add more poker tables, once neglected grottos, to their gaming floors. And cable is overrun with poker shows.

While viewers can choose between Fox’s Poker Superstars (a less flashy, retro affair), ESPN’s World Series of Poker (newly revamped for the sports network), and Bravo’s bubbly Celebrity Poker Showdown, Lipscomb’s brainchild, the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour, started the craze.

Three years ago televised poker was virtually nonexistent. ESPN, which had run the World Series of Poker for years, had dropped the contest in favor of other late-night obscurities. Around that time Lipscomb, who played in a regular low-stakes home game himself, was producing Comedy Central’s talk show Turn Ben Stein On. Previously he had practiced law in Los Angeles, but when his mother, attending a Southern seminary, complained of gender discrimination, Lipscomb decided to make Battle for the Minds, a documentary about fundamentalist Southern Baptists repressing women. The film won festival awards and was picked up by PBS’s independent documentary showcase, POV.

After Battle for the Minds’s success, Lipscomb’s junior-high friend called him needing a producer-director for an idea he had already sold to the Discovery Channel. The friend, Lipscomb recalls, said, “Hey, you play poker, right?” The phone call led to On the Inside of the World Series of Poker and later 2001 Tournament of Champions of Poker and Cruisin’ to a Million for the Travel Channel.

Noting the high ratings the shows earned, Lipscomb sensed an untapped audience.“I went and pitched poker to every network you can imagine,” he says. “I went out and said, ‘Poker. We’ll make it into a sport. It’s gonna be great.” When nobody bit, he wrote a business plan, raised the money, and figured if he “built it they would come. Thank God somebody showed up.”

Table talk

In addition to poker tips and chip tricks, World Poker Tour’s Web site offers a vocab lesson for beginning players. Here are a few choice idioms:

Big slick: An ace and king, a strong starting hand.

Dead man’s hand: A pair of aces and a pair of eights. Wild Bill Hickock was shot holding this hand.

Drawing dead: When you cannot win, no matter what cards come up.

Muck: To discard a hand. Also the pile of
discarded hands.

Nuts: A hand that can’t be beaten no matter what comes up. Also used as a superlative (e.g. You’re the nuts!)

Slow Roll: Stalling before showing a winning hand to frustrate your opponent.


Indeed, since its March 2003 debut several million somebodies have shown up and World Poker Tour, aired Wednesday nights, is the the Travel Channel’s highest ratings grabber, essentially, Lipscomb jokes, putting the station “on the map.” He attributes the booming ratings to editing savvy and the “WPT cam.”

Before the World Poker Tour’s innovations, says Lipscomb, “poker had always been filmed with three, maybe four cameras around a table, incomprehensibly watching guys look at cards and throw them in the middle.” These days World Poker Tour uses 16 cameras, “edits every hand like a story,” and, most important, shows what cards the players are holding. The new production style, he says, allows viewers to be “everywhere. You get to see every bead of sweat that is on anyone’s face. … You’re right there on them when they figure out that they have a million-dollar decision, having cards change their entire world in one heartbeat.”

It didn’t take long for other cable networks to notice. ESPN, for one, revamped its coverage of the World Series of Poker, which now has the most name recognition in the increasingly crowded field. The purses have swelled all around, and tournament entries have grown from a first round of 40 or so to hundreds in major events, all plunking down $10,000 to $25,000 or winding their way through cheaper satellite and online tournaments to have a chance at multimillion-dollar pots.

The game of choice is no-limit Texas hold ’em. Each player receives two cards face down, bets, and then bets four more times over five community cards: the “flop” (the first three cards), the “turn” (the fourth), and the “river” (the fifth). The concept is simple, but a World Poker Tour hand, complete with play-by-play commentary, bristles with strategy and counterstrategy. As the announcers sagely muse, the game “takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.”

World Poker Tour’s combination of skill and democracy are part of its appeal, Lipscomb says. boasts, “Unlike professional sports or reality shows, anyone can enter a poker tournament.” Whether buying in or spectating, Americans are hooked and he’s cashing in. WPT Enterprises went public over the summer, and Lipscomb promises, “You’re going to see World Poker Tour all over the place,” as logoed chips, tables, and clothing turn up in stores across the country. Like the NFL and NBA, he says, “We’ve branded poker.”

WPT’s brand of poker, like the other televised tournaments, offers viewers drama, if not a pile of money (which in the final round sits on the gaming table in enticing stacks of cash). Even the set evokes a certain Who Wants to be a Millionaire aesthetic, with rotating spotlights and towers creating a coliseum of the gaming table. The poker phenomenon, says Lipscomb, “has created something of a new American dream. It’s ‘Bye bye, Lotto. Hello, WPT.’”—A.L.M.


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