The Perils of Television Poker

Could poker be any more popular on TV than it is right now? A single search of the upcoming shows revealed more poker than seems believable. There is: Celebrity Poker Showdown, the World Series of Poker, Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament, Poker Royale: The WPPA Championship, Ultimate Poker Challenge, Poker Royale: Battle of the Sexes, Championship Poker at the Plaza, 2004 U.S. Poker Championship, Michael Waltrip Celebrity Poker Tournament, American Poker Championship at Turning Stone Resort, and more. Not to mention more World Poker Tour episodes than a person could watch in a week and still have a day job!

I enjoy watching poker on television. Watching good players play can be very helpful to an experienced player who understands what they are seeing. The same people show up again and again, not because they’re lucky but because they’re damned good and any of us can stand to learn a thing or two from them.

I like television poker for another reason, though… one that is much more beneficial to me than an hour or two of entertainment and an occasional lesson. I’m thankful for all the new players it brings to my tables... really, really bad players! The ones that watch Gus Hansen and Howard Lederer on the WPT and say to themselves: “Hey, I can play like that!” Those players will lose a lot of money before they realize just how wrong they really are.

Television poker creates bad poker players. Hopefully you aren’t one of them, but if you learned poker from a television show then you probably have some major misconceptions. If you like to watch TV poker and analyze the hands with the intent of doing something similar in a home game, casino or online game later on, you’re usually wasting your time. Here are a few reasons why:

Celebrities. First off, any poker show that has the word “celebrity” in the title is going to show you nothing more than a bunch of people who are pretending to be good poker players. Since many of them are actors by trade, they can make it look pretty believable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the fact that they usually don’t know what they’re doing. If you are going to emulate anyone you see on TV, make sure they’re a professional! There are a handful of good celebrity players out there, but they are in the vast minority.

No Limit vs. Limit. On TV, the game is usually a no limit texas holdem game. Often, online and in casinos, the game played is limit poker. It’s not the same game and the same strategies do not necessarily apply. Don’t think that you’re going to intimidate an opponent in limit because it usually won’t work. You’re not going to have that “all-in” option to put your opponent “to the test” like you always see during those dramatic TV moments. Take your lessons from the appropriate game or they won’t have the same value.

Tournament vs. Ring Game. Remember that you are watching a tournament on TV, not a standard table game. The object of a tournament is to eliminate the other players, or more typically to watch other players get eliminated around you. This is a totally different situation from playing at a casino or online table game where you’re simply trying to win the most money. People get desperate in tournaments and they’re going to need to make plays that you would never make in a ring game. Don’t think that “all-in” pre-flop with pocket 5s is a smart play at a Party Poker NL table simply because you saw a pro do it when he was desperate to double up.

Shorthanded Play. Most TV shows start with six people at the table, and it goes down from there. The fewer people at a table, the stranger the play will get. If you’re going to be playing at a nine or ten person table, whether it’s a tournament or a ring game, you can’t expect to play the same as you would at a five person table. In fact, you’ll usually have to play almost twice as many hands at a five person table to stay competitive. That means that the people you see on TV are playing lots of hands that you probably shouldn’t play at a full table. Don’t think for a minute that Gus Hansen plays those crazy hands from early position when he’s at a full table!

Edited for Television. What you see on television is just the highlights of the event. It’s what you don’t see that contains the true poker lessons. Folding. Lots and lots of folding. They don’t show you the dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of hands where something very instructive happened: nothing. The most important lessons for beginning poker players usually revolve around finding reasons to fold. You’re just not going to see those hands where everyone mucks to the first bet because it’s not entertaining enough. Don’t be misled into thinking that poker is a fast action game with excitement at every bet, it’s just not the way real poker usually works.

Knowing Your Opponent. Remember when you watch these guys (and girls) on TV that they’ve already been playing with these same people for many hours in this tournament. They may also have played each other yesterday, and the day before. They may even be best friends. These players know things about each other that a viewer can’t possibly know, and the decisions that they make are based on more than just the current hand and how their opponent happens to be playing with their chips. There is a lot of history to that TV moment that you are not aware of, and it sometimes drastically affects the way a hand plays out. Don’t assume that Phil’s big bet simply scared Howard into folding with the best hand. It may have been the last fifty hands between the two of them that set it up to happen.