Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Today's Wall Street Journal article about the World Poker Tour.
Thanks to the Dude for the tip.

How Mr. Lipscomb Turned Weak Hand Into Surprise Hit
He Finds Drama in Poker For the Travel Channel; Cutting to a Worried Mom

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. -- Sports producer Steve Lipscomb rocked back and forth in his chair, shouting orders to five cameramen and feeding lines to his announcers.

"I want to see his face, I want to feel his pain!" Mr. Lipscomb barked after a player made an error.

The sportsmen being followed so frenetically were playing cards. On this day, six men were engaged in 130 hands of Texas Hold 'Em poker at Foxwoods casino here, competing for a prize pool of more than $3 million.

Mr. Lipscomb is the creator of the World Poker Tour on Travel Channel, a cable network best known until recently for its coverage of vacation spots and shopping malls. Since the channel started showing poker a year ago, it has enjoyed the best ratings in its 17-year history. The shows have been imitated by Bravo, Fox Sports and NBC, while ESPN, which previously dabbled in poker, has given its coverage a makeover.

To make drama out of a bunch of guys sitting around a table, Mr. Lipscomb has borrowed in equal parts from the Olympic Games and World Wrestling Entertainment. Smoke machines set a noir mood, while biographical sketches get up close and personal with such stars as Christopher Ackerman, a 23-year-old college student nicknamed "Smack," and cowboy Hoyt Corkins, who keeps 60 head of cattle back home in Alabama. Most important, Mr. Lipscomb has found a way to show the audience the cards.

The 42-year-old Mr. Lipscomb, a stand-up comedian turned lawyer, stumbled into poker in 1999 when he produced a one-time feature on card players for the Discovery Channel. It scored big ratings, and he
decided to make a career out of poker.

He uses five cameramen to film the tournaments, with two overhead cameras built into the set. Soft lights are built into the table, illuminating the players' faces without the glare of the overhead bulbs used in older poker shows.

"If I can put you in a close-up on the guy whose brain is sitting there ticking while his lip begins to quiver and sweat runs down his brow because he is potentially about to lose the million dollar prize,
"That's gripping," Mr. Lipscomb's says. The camera is also apt to flash to a player's sister or mother during pivotal hands.

Mr. Lipscomb's biggest advance is displaying the cards held by each player. Older poker coverage had left people ignorant, so they would watch a player rake in a big jackpot without understanding the tactics behind the victory. "You have to give the person at home the feeling that they're sitting in the seat making million-dollar decisions on every hand," Mr. Lipscomb says.

In Texas Hold 'Em, each player gets two cards face down that aren't seen by other players -- the "hole" cards -- and keeps betting as five "community cards" are dealt face up in the middle of the table. Players who fold and players who bluff their way to victory are under no obligation to show their hole cards.

World Poker Tour isn't the first to show the hole cards. A British program called "Late Night Poker" did so by using a glass table. Players would look at their hole cards, then place them face-down on the table for cameras to record.

Mr. Lipscomb wanted to use the traditional green-felt poker table for his show. And he wanted viewers to see the hole cards at the exact moment the players did so they could experience the same elation or
disappointment. His solution: a lipstick-size camera attached to the table that points in the same direction as the player's line of vision. It captures the cards as soon as they are picked up.

Even though the games are taped for future telecast, showing hole cards went against all the close-to-the-vest instincts of poker players. Mr. Lipscomb assured them that no one present at the tournament, including the announcers, would know what the hole cards were. The feed from the cameras would be sent to a room occupied by a single technician, watched by a guard.

Worries about the integrity of the game quickly faded after the tournaments went off without a hitch and players started to attract fans. Players "were very anxious to have a stamp of legitimacy," says Mr. Lipscomb. "They went from being the black sheep of the family to the hit of the family reunion."

Mr. Corkins, the Alabama cowboy, played poker professionally from 1989 to 1992, then took an 11-year hiatus. This time, his cowboy hat, mirror shades and Southern drawl have made him a star. "It's become a whole lot more fun," says Mr. Corkins. But he hastens to add: "The money is what it is all about."

At the Foxwoods tournament, which is open to all comers for a $10,000 contribution to the pot, the number of players grew to 313 from 89 the previous year. The tournament, which ran last week, averaged 1.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The attention helps boost ratings for other shows on the Travel Channel, which is owned by privately held Discovery Communications Inc. World Poker Tour is 80% owned by Lakes Entertainment Inc., the Minnetonka, Minn., casino operator. Last month, Lakes announced it was looking to raise $20 million in an initial public offering for WPT shares.

Besides his role as World Poker Tour's chief executive, Mr. Lipscomb until recently also ran a subsidiary of the tour that looked for sponsorship deals for some players. However, the tour now is breaking off of
the subsidiary as an independent business. Some observers had noted the potential for favoritism in Mr. Lipscomb's joint roles, but WPT Senior Vice President Audrey Kania says that wasn't a factor in the spinoff decision.

Producing a WPT event costs about $350,000. The day before one recent tournament, Mr. Lipscomb showed the free-lance cameramen hired for the event how to crouch down between players and told them to remember a cardinal rule -- always catch players shuffling their chips before deciding on a big bet. "The dribble down the court is the shuffling," he said. He reminded them to zoom in on the guy who loses so the audience "can experience that emotion."

During the rehearsals, one of the cameramen was always falling one second behind the action. He was gone by the end of the run-through. "I've fired more people in the last year than I had in my whole life," Mr. Lipscomb sighs.

Meanwhile, the announcers -- poker pro Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten, a rugged-looking son of the actor Dick Van Patten -- rehearsed one-liners. They debated which is funnier: "He has more chips than
Famous Amos," or "more than Frito Lay." Mr. Lipscomb joked that both would have to be scrapped because neither was an advertiser. "More chips than Intel" fared better. Mr. Sexton also practiced some oft-repeated lines about Texas Hold 'Em. "It's the Cadillac of poker," he intoned. And, "it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master."

Although the tournaments are televised as if they're happening live, in fact they are months old by the time they're broadcast. After a tournament, Mr. Lipscomb retreats to his Los Angeles office and spends
six weeks on postproduction. The announcers tape much of their dialogue long after the games end. In theory they don't even have to show up for the tournament, except their presence is part of the draw for the crowds. At Foxwoods, people were lining up four hours before the action started.

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