Norm Macdonald was getting scary.
The drone-voiced former “Saturday Night Live” performer had been tossing chips onto the pot while cracking unfunny jokes for nearly an hour, raising up a storm whenever I was holding a marginal hand. I was starting to feel oddly intimidated by him and annoyed at the imposition-it’s only Norm Macdonald, after all, a celebrity I’ve mocked mercilessly while watching the World Poker Tour’s “Hollywood Home Game” special. But Mr. Macdonald, as mild-mannered and unthreatening as a guy can be, was a surprisingly aggressive player of Texas Hold ‘Em.
I was sitting at table 16 at the third annual WPT celebrity invitational Feb. 23 at the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, where 193 professional poker players and 43 celebrities competed for a seat at the televised final table. But at the time, the finals felt as though they were years away as table 16 waited for me to make a decision.
I was holding a pair of jacks. That’s usually a good hand, but when my raise has been called by Mike Sexton, a conservative pro who’s also the commentator for the “World Poker Tour” series on Travel Channel, then significantly reraised by Mr. Macdonald, jacks shrink up.
I glanced across the table. Every expectant face was familiar, a surreal cadre of the seemingly psychic poker pros from past “WPT” episodes. One was former WPT winner Michael Kinney, known for his absolute stone-faced impassivity. Another was former WPT champ Phil Laak, a k a “The Unabomber,” who wears gray hooded sweatshirts and oversize sunglasses.
Behind them was a rope holding back dozens of reporters, an odd mix of paparazzi and gaming press with their cameras flashing, filling my line of sight whenever I looked up from the felt. Everybody stared, everybody waited. Damn Norm Macdonald.
Fold? Raise? Call?
I knew only one thing for sure: This was a helluva lot tougher than it looked on TV.
The third season of “WPT” premiered last week, and the show has shown no sign of losing the audience it has built for the once-anemic Travel Channel (with a 1.04 household rating, about par with “WPT’s” 2004 season average of 1.19). When “WPT” debuted in 2003 the show pioneered the use of hole-card cameras, game-play commentators and innovative on-screen graphics to help viewers follow the sometimes complicated game.
ESPN, Bravo, Fox Sports, Country Music Television and other cable networks have copied the WPT’s obvious innovations. But imitators lack the one not-so-obvious ingredient that makes “WPT” a must-watch: a dedication to storytelling. “WPT” treats each game like high drama, carefully weaving in biographical details about the players and crucial and sometimes humorous commentary and using sharp editing to extract maximum suspense from the most static of scenes-six blank-faced guys sitting around a table.
With season three, “WPT” is promoting a line of products such as poker tables, a video game, a book (written by Mike Sexton, in stores this month), a tutorial DVD and a weekend WPT boot camp in select cities, where fans can receive private tutoring by the pros.
The products add to the WPT’s two main revenue lines-the television show, whose Travel Channel deal is worth a reported $40 million in license fees over six years, and its ongoing tournaments around the world, where any fan can buy in for a shot at competing at the final table.
WPT Enterprises founder and President Steve Lipscomb said the biggest change in the new season is that poker players, many of whom once bristled at the notion of showing their hole cards on TV, have embraced the format.
“They’re learning how to be on television, and they’re enjoying it more,” he said.
Before the tournament the Commerce Casino reception area was crowded as celebrities such as Ben Affleck, James Woods and Ray Romano readied their game faces. But the real attraction for WPT fans was pros like Doyle Brunson, Jennifer Harman, Phil Hellmuth and Gus Hansen.
Thanks to “WPT” and other shows, the pros have gone from unknowns to television stars in a couple of years. Pro Daniel Negreanu was gingerly asked for a photo by a trembling woman, in tears at the prospect of meeting him and nearly unable to speak. Mr. Negreanu gladly posed for the photo and later said, “I thought she was having a heart attack or something.”
Pros said they are stunned at the number of excited producers and merchandisers who approach them.
“You couldn’t believe the opportunities out there now,” marveled poker veteran T.J. Cloutier. “They have bobbleheads of me. It’s unbelievable.”
And the WPT Celebrity Invitational, whose prize purse is $200,000, has become a hot ticket. So when a last-minute seat opened up, I jumped at a chance to play, despite my lack of casino experience. The WPT Celebrity Invitational was my first poker tournament, which is sort of like playing your first basketball game against Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan and-just to freak you out-William Shatner. I knew busting out was inevitable. The goal was to bust with honorable play.
Mr. Lipscomb offered some advice: “This is a game of traps; be the trapper,” he said. “You’re going to be amazed at the how good the hands are.” He grinned and added, “I fully expect you to make the final table, James.”
Let’s keep this short: I didn’t make the final table.
As the announcer called “Shuffle up and deal!” and the press crowded in, I realized my table was short-handed-only five players in the nine seats.
That meant my weekend cramming with a poker book, trying to memorize which hands to play at a full-table tournament, was no longer applicable. Also, fewer players meant more aggressive play as the rotating blinds (forced bets) and antes were coming around faster than usual, gobbling chip stacks.
Soon Mr. Macdonald’s hands were trembling like those of all the other nonpros, and I kicked myself for folding jacks earlier. I grinded it out, but as antes and blinds increased, I needed to make bigger moves if I were to stay in the game.
I was “on the button,” the last and most ideal position to bet, when I looked down at a pair of eights-a good starting hand.
I raised $500. The most aggressive player at the table, a pro to my left, said, “I’ll call that obvious bluff.” But I was confident he was the one with nothing.
The flop came four-five-seven-all diamonds. One of my eights was a diamond. I raised again-$500. The pro said, “I’ll put you all in.”
I had a decision to make. Poker, as Mr. Sexton likes to say, is all about making correct decisions. I looked down at Mr. Sexton and could practically hear his drawling commentary to “WPT” co-host Vince Van Patten echoing in my head: “Well Vince, I think James has to make a stand here. He’s got a flush draw, a straight draw and an over-pair. You don’t want to get short-stacked to the point where doubling up won’t help you.”
I called. The dealer shouted “All in!” and the roving cameras swooped to our table.
I figured the only way I was in trouble was if the pro had two diamonds, which would give him a flush. But I didn’t think he had it. We turned our cards and I realized I was partly right: Before the flop, he called with nothing. But I was wrong about the diamonds. He made a flush with a mere six and four.
“You got a lot of outs, man, a lot of outs,” the Unabomber reassured me. I suddenly liked the Unabomber. And he was right. Any diamond would give me the higher flush.
The next two cards were turned-no diamonds. I was busted. I outlasted pros such as Mr. Negreanu and celebrities such as James Woods, but damn it, “Fear Factor” host Joe Rogan was still playing.
That night I watched “World Poker Tour.” The episode featured a hand where “Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro held a pair of jacks and faced a significant reraise by Mr. Cloutier-the exact same situation I was in earlier when I folded.
Mr. Caro also spent about two minutes wrestling with his decision, which was reassuring. But then he decided to go all in-and he won the pot.