02/15/2006 12:00AM

Credit 'Devilfish' for getting fans hooked

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When people hear I've written about poker, invariably they ask me, "How did poker get so popular?" There isn't one simple answer, but I do think that the critical moment can be traced to one place and time - even one idea.

It's worth noting the event that triggered the U.S. poker boom didn't happen on our soil, but in Britain.

In 1998, a new TV producer with a background in experimental theater named Rob Gardner was searching for a different kind of TV show.

"I was trying to come up with some kind of game show where the people taking part actually had to invest something of themselves in it," Gardner said. "And in a very roundabout way - one late night too many perhaps - I just realized that poker was a game that did that very successfully."

Televised poker to that point had wallowed in obscurity - sure, there were great moments like Johnny Chan's trap at the end of the 1988 World Series of Poker, made famous 10 years later by the movie "Rounders," but by and large, televised poker was watched by the hardcore fans. Gardner sought and eventually found a solution.

"There's a huge amount of drama around a poker table, both in terms of what the players are saying to one another and also in terms of everything that's hidden," he said. "So the real trouble was trying to express that drama to an audience who knew about poker through films like 'The Cincinnati Kid' but knew little else really. So the obvious thing that needed to happen was we needed to be able to see the cards. And the solution to that was if we could shove some cameras under the table, then all will be revealed."

In the fall of 1999, "Late Night Poker" debuted, and along with it, "the shot that launched a million bluffs." But the show wasn't a hit right away. "It wasn't until the end of the first series really that people realized that there was perhaps something in it," Gardner said. "It was on Channel 4 in the U.K. on the graveyard shift, very low-budget experimental TV. There was a very forward-thinking commissioning editor, who had this pot of money and anyone with an idea that doesn't fit into anything would try and make it happen for as low a budget as possible and try and see what happens. So the series was on at half past midnight on a Thursday or something, and we're getting very good feedback but nothing amazing."

All that changed when the show got to the final table and fans got a good look at the winner, English poker pro Dave "The Devilfish" Ulliot.

"What really hooked people was they really got into the characters," Gardner said. "And the Devilfish was the greatest character that could have won the first series. And he was bluffing and crazy and the audience were being let in on the bluffs. It was the first time a lot of people realized how audacious some of these moves are. And the final of the first series attracted a ridiculous number of people. It attracted somewhere in the region of one million viewers, which was kind of unheard of for that time of night."

"Late Night Poker" may have been the first place to show the exposed hole cards to the viewers, but like a lot of good ideas, this one had more than one source. Unbeknownst to Gardner at the time, an American renaissance man named Henry Orenstein had put out a patent two years previously for the hole camera, which gave him the exclusive rights to detect and display hole cards for U.S. broadcasts. Orenstein himself is a fascinating story. Now 80 years old, he is a Holocaust survivor, a World Series of Poker champion, and the creator of FSN's Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament as well as an inventor. (Orenstein's other notable invention was the 1980's toys called Transformers, and he holds approximately 100 other patents as well.)

Orenstein's technology was first used when the Travel Channel showed creator Steven Lipscomb's World Poker Tour in 2002. And with a much higher budget and larger potential audience, the idea was taken to a new level in terms of the slickness of the production. But with all due respect to Orenstein and what the World Poker Tour accomplished, since "Late Night Poker" came first, it should get the lion's share of the credit.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is co-author of "Six Secrets of Successful Bettors" (DRF Press).