Ask the average player in any US poker room what started poker’s boom in popularity in the early 2000’s and most will give you just a single name.
It’s certainly true that the story of Chris Moneymaker captured the collective imagination of the country at the time. An accountant and amateur poker player from Tennessee beat the pros at their game. He qualified for the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event through an online satellite at PokerStars. Then he went on to win a world title.
It is a gripping story, without a doubt.
Igniting the poker boom
It’s even fair to say that ESPN‘s outstanding coverage of Moneymaker’s historic win ignited the boom.
Producers 441 Productions went further than most sports broadcasts ever do. They told the interesting story behind the story better than anyone had before. Plus, they used hole-card cams, taking poker coverage to new heights. It remains must-see TV.
Of course, if you were anywhere near a TV at that time, you couldn’t miss it. ESPN appeared to fill every available time slot the network had with WSOP coverage. It was everywhere, all the time.
The next thing anyone knew, every red-blooded American male 21 and over was suddenly chasing that dream. A dream that just months earlier, none of them even knew they had.
But there’s more to creating a boom than just igniting it. Yes, Chris Moneymaker, ESPN and 441 Productions lit the flame. But something was needed to keep that fire burning. Collectively, they grabbed America’s attention. But something was needed to hold on to it.
Keeping America’s attention
They call that something the World Poker Tour.
The idea of the WPT began in 2001 when attorney and TV producer Steven Lipscomb met successful Wilson Leather retailer turned casino mogul Lyle Berman.
A longtime poker player, Berman had been pushing for poker TV productions to use hole-card camera technology since the mid-1980s. TV audiences had shown very little interest in poker. Berman was convinced hole card cameras could change that. The only problem was he couldn’t convince anyone else.
Lipscomb had run a couple of small one-off poker TV productions and was convinced that an audience would be there for televised poker tournaments produced in a unique and entertaining way.
Both were sold on each other’s ideas, but getting a TV network to buy in presented a whole new set of problems. TV executives figured at best, poker was a flash in the pan that few people would be interested in watching over the long haul. Plus, gambling had never really worked on television before.
With financial backing from Berman, Lipscomb persisted. Eventually, he struck a deal with the same cable network he’d produced coverage of a cruise ship poker tournament for in the past.
The WPT started airing in the Spring of 2003 on The Travel Channel, just in time to grab the heat created by Moneymaker and run with it.
Broadening appeal and keeping the momentum going
The Moneymaker story soon began suffering from inevitable overexposure on ESPN, but the WPT was there with fresh episodes, fresh faces, and new characters all the time. It helped broaden the game’s appeal and keep poker’s newfound momentum going.
If Moneymaker started the boom, the WPT sustained it. The online poker industry was built out of all that buzz. The live poker and poker broadcast industry has grown into what it is now because of it.
The WPT Honors Award
On May 22, the WPT will award both Lipscomb and Berman with its WPT Honors Award.
The award is meant to represent outstanding contributions to the WPT and the greater poker community. Obviously, there are few if any who deserve it more than these two.
Lipscomb and Berman are legendary visionaries that helped make the game of poker, and the industry surrounding it, what it is today.
This latest honor probably won’t stop the average player in poker rooms across the US from continuing to think Chris Moneymaker started the poker boom all by himself. But it may mean one or two realize Lipscomb and Berman have been an integral part of poker’s growth as well. And that’s sometimes how our collective minds are changed. One or two at a time.