I joined Lipscomb in the control room for the tournament at Foxwoods last November, which aired as part of the third season of the WPT this past spring. With more than 600 entrants, it was the largest field ever for a $10,000 buy-in event, the standard price on the WPT circuit and for world-class tournaments. Here I saw how the magic happens. More than a dozen cameras, including the six "hole-card cams," which reveal the players' down cards, cover the action from every angle as Lipscomb relentlessly calls for zooms, pans, and fades from his bank of TV monitors. The final table tournaments - so familiar to loyal viewers as two-hour affairs - can actually run eight-plus hours, so they're edited down for maximum drama.
Back in Los Angeles, at the Commerce Casino, I got to experience the other side of the lens. Several camera crews roamed the floor of the tournament (which started with about 30 tables) trying to capture moments of high drama - especially those involving celebrities. Every time an "all-in" bet was called, the dealers yelled for a cameraman. The lights were in my eyes and the tape running as both Tanya Roberts and Ray Romano made their exits alongside my seat.
The reason I found myself playing with so many famous entertainers and poker professionals is the same reason poker has become so hot: Anyone can play. Lipscomb has been aware since day one that his advantage over all other sports leagues is that anyone who can pay the entry fee can play head-to-head with the top pros. There are plenty of avid amateurs who would drop $10,000 to come to the plate in Yankee Stadium in the World Series, but they can't. They can, however, play in poker's biggest events, on equal footing, perhaps sitting between Ben Affleck and repeat WPT champion Gus Hansen. And even if you don't have $10,000, you can enjoy the same kind of tournament experience: Casinos across the nation have added low-priced tournaments at a staggering rate, and these are typically offered daily, sometimes even several times a day, with entry fees as low as $20. Simply sign up and experience the same kind of format playing No Limit Texas Hold 'em that you see all over the airwaves.
What's it like? I had played poker for a long time, but I quickly learned that the tournament experience is a world apart from a cash game. I couldn't sleep the night before. Several times during the event, I felt my heart beating to the point that I thought it might explode out of my chest. And the fatalism of tournament No Limit play quickly became apparent: Make one wrong move, and you're out. There's no reaching for your wallet or heading to the ATM. When Chris Bigler, one of the top pros in the world, raised me "all-in," I had to make a do-or-die decision and folded, choosing (correctly, as it turned out) to fight another day. Eventually, you have to call a bet like that, and I found out how much pressure you're under when someone puts all your chips at risk. Whether you're just an average Joe, a movie star, a journalist, or a professional poker player, one mistake is all you get, as 235 of us found out the hard way.
Book smartsThere's a rash of new poker books on the market, and these are a very good way to learn the sport's ground rules. For all-around information and newcomers, the best bet is the new Poker: The Real Deal, by Jonathan Grotenstein and Phil Gordon, an entrepreneur software millionaire turned professional player who is a WPT champion and a cohost of Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown. For strictly no limit tournament play, the latest tome is the just-released Shuffle Up and Deal: The Ultimate No Limit Texas Hold 'Em Guide, by World Poker Tour expert host Mike Sexton.