Poker is bigger than it has ever been before. The game in all its variants is being played by unparalleled numbers of people across the country. Even a conservative estimate says that the game is at least ten times as popular as it was a decade ago. It turns out that we, the poker-playing public, essentially have one man to thank for the enormity of the poker boom. But you’ve probably never even heard his name – Henry Orenstein.
You might know him for his single World Series of Poker Bracelet (Seven Card Stud in 1996) or for his appearance in the 2005 National Heads-up Poker Championship, which aired on NBC. He even created the Fox Sports Network’s Poker Superstars Invitational, but that’s not his chief claim to fame either.
Henry Orenstein developed the technology that enabled poker to become a true spectator sport. That’s right, Mr. Orenstein holds the patent for the mechanism that allows millions of viewers to see a player’s hole cards – the pocket camera, also known as the hole card camera.
In addition to being the primary, although indirect, instigator of the poker boom, Mr. Orenstein was also the person who convinced Hasbro to start producing Transformer Toys in the eighties. In case you weren’t a kid then, Transformers were the toy robots that could turn into cars, animals, and other things. So you can see that his mechanical credentials are top-notch. Most of the now college-aged poker crowd (who probably owned Transformers when they were kids) has the same person to thank for both poker and Transformers.
But why is Mr. Orenstein so important to the sport of poker today, anyway? Ten years ago, nobody had gotten a chance to see the hole card camera in action. He had applied for his patent (Number 5,451,054 – you can even look it up at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website https://www.uspto.gov/) in 1994, and it was granted on September 19, 1995. Even though this was a momentous date in poker history, nothing really happened for a couple years. Nobody picked up on Orenstein’s innovation, until the British show Late Night Poker used it in 1997.
Of course, nobody was watching poker in those days, so nobody really noticed. The hole-card cameras continued to be used on a few European poker shows for the next several years. But the cams’ debut appearance in the United States was at the 2002 World Series of Poker Main Event final table, where Robert Varkonyi came out on top.
This was the watershed moment in TV poker history. Everything changed after people saw that broadcast. It wasn’t new that the WSOP was being broadcast on ESPN. Almost every Main Event final table since 1979 had been filmed and shown, although usually to very little fanfare. There were a couple highlights, like Johnny Chan getting Erik Seidel to bluff off his whole stack (you may have seen that in the Matt Damon poker film Rounders) or, Scotty Nguyen’s quip at the 1998 final table to runner-up Kevin McBride, “You call and it’s all over, baby!” By the way, he called and it really was all over.
Despite these moments of excitement, TV poker was by and large an incredibly boring affair. If you’ve ever been the first person to bust out at your home game, then you know how awful it can be to just watch people play poker. If you don’t know what a player’s down cards are, then you don’t know why he or she is betting a certain way. You need it to be that way when you’re at the table – that’s what the game is all about. But when you’re not in the game, you want to know what’s going on. And that’s what Henry Orenstein did. He made it possible for people who aren’t at the table to know what’s going on. Poker wasn’t a spectator sport before he and his pocket cam came along.
ESPN knew they were on to something with the 2002 event, so they seriously upped the amount of airtime they dedicated to it the next year. Rather than just covering the final table, they filmed the whole event, starting from day one. It turned out to be a great Cinderella story, with internet qualifier (and aptly-named) Chris Moneymaker beating 838 other players to win. Next year’s champion, Greg Raymer, had to come out on top of a field of 2,576, more than three times the number of people the year before. The tournament had already been around for thirty-three years, and 839 had been the biggest turn-out ever. When they started using pocket cams, attendance suddenly skyrocketed.
Part of the reason that pocket cams are so useful is because they can be learning tools. Amateur players can watch and see how pros perform when their pocket jacks get raised before the flop – or any other interesting situation that happens to come up. Of course, this has changed the game for the pros, too. Players who used to have a well-defined style of play suddenly have a record of their play available for their competitors to analyze. Of course, any pro that gets upset about that has to remember that the poker boom also brought with it thousands, if not millions, of relative amateurs. That means that poker players’ paydays have gotten that much bigger as well. For example, Joseph Hachem, the winner of the 2005 WSOP Main Event, took home 7.5 million dollars.
When you are able to see a player’s hole cards, you are able to tell how incredibly skilled some of the pros are. For example, the time that Chris Ferguson (2000 WSOP Main Event champion) was in a heads-up match with some young gun for circuit event. Ferguson gets quad aces while his opponent is sitting on aces full of kings. Almost any player would absolutely lose their mind in that situation, but he was cool as a cucumber and he ended up getting almost all of his opponent’s chips in that hand.
No one could have predicted the extent of the impact that pocket cams would have on the popularity of poker as a sport. Without pocket cams, there’s no way that hundreds of cable networks would have their own poker shows today. There wouldn’t be such a widespread interest in the game, and there wouldn’t be so many people playing online. And we have Henry Orenstein to thank for all that.