I've spent the last several months trying to figure out why poker is suddenly the “in” thing. I mean, poker is great, but why the sudden flood of poker-based TV shows? Why is it now the cool thing for celebrities—everybody from Ben Affleck to Tobey Maguire—to be spotted at the poker tables of Vegas?
Well, Hollywood does love a trend, and poker is a game that rewards luck, money and acting ability (three of Hollywood's favorite attributes). But you wouldn't think that watching people play cards would make for very interesting TV. Surprisingly, it does. Poker's actually got a lot of built-in drama. There's $30,000 riding on the next hand. If the next card flipped over is an ace, one person wins. If it's not, somebody else takes control. What ... will ... it ... be?
Arguably the best of TV's pokerfaced series is “Celebrity Poker Showdown” on Bravo. The show, which just kicked off its second season, combines the tension of high-stakes gambling with the thrill of gawking at movie and TV stars.
Unlike ESPN's “World Poker Championship” or Travel Channel's “World Poker Tour,” Bravo's show is made up of mostly amateurs playing the popular Vegas staple of Texas Hold-em (two cards hidden in each person's hand, five communal cards flipped over on the table). Although some of the players (Ben Affleck, James Woods) claim to be experts at the game, no one here makes their living on it. Watching hardcore professionals play poker can be a little dry: It's all business to them.
This season of “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” which started dealing it out last week, already feels like a great improvement on the entertaining last season. For starters, there are more women in the rotation. Rosario Dawson, Wanda Sykes and Mena Suvari were among the players in the first round, and the unbelievably lucky Dawson ended up on top. Future celebrities include James Woods, Danny Masterson, Star Jones, Norm MacDonald and Michael Ian Black.
Host Phil Gordon, a world-class poker player, was last season saddled with comedian Kevin Pollack as co-host. Pollack was OK, but tried too hard with his color commentary. This season, the co-host chair has gone to “Kids in the Hall” member Dave Foley, who has a far more laid-back style. All around, the show seems more fun. The players are still battling it out for $250,000 in prize money (which will go, of course, to the charity of their choice.) But guests seem more relaxed, happy to banter with one another (and to sling the occasional insult) between hands.
Sure, you may not have any stake in the hands, but you may be surprised at how entertaining poker-watching can be. I'm not saying “Celebrity Euchre” is anywhere on the horizon, but you never know.