Smart poker players know that they have to play the other players, not the cards, and Doyle Brunson, at 69, is probably the smartest poker player there is. A two-time winner of the World Series of Poker, Brunson literally wrote the book: His Super System, first published in 1979, is the bible of poker pros all over the world. More a tome than a book, its dense pages are filled with Brunson’s obsessive technical analyses of how to play the hand you’re dealt.
But watching Brunson play—as you can on the Travel Channel’s World Poker Tour (Wednesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT, Saturdays, 2 p.m. ET)—you notice he only looks at his own cards after he’s watched the other players look at theirs. His cards aren’t going anywhere—but the reactions of his opponents will be gone in the blink of an eye. And the way a competitor’s eye blinks (or doesn’t) may be the crucial “tell” that indicates the strength of his hand and makes the difference between Brunson’s winning or losing one of the six- or seven-figure pots that quickly build.
You don’t have to be all that interested in poker to be fascinated by how the pros on World Poker Tour play—and play with—each other. They’re all smart, so they’re all watching each other watch each other and then some, navigating and manipulating the Heisenbergian uncertainty of it all. If you can’t imagine making any kind of intelligent decision in such a dizzying situation, let alone one with massive amounts of money at stake—well, now you know why you’re not a world-class, high-stakes professional poker player.
World Poker Tour’s two-hour episodes focus on the final rounds of tournaments held in casinos in locales ranging from the expected—Vegas, Reno—to the exotic—Paris, Costa Rica, Aruba. (Hence the Travel Channel tie-in.) The game played on the World Poker Tour is “No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em.” A variation on seven-card stud, it distills poker to its essential elements of bluffing and psychological aggression. Players are dealt two cards, face-down (which hidden cameras allow us to see); the rest of their hands are drawn from up to five “community cards” dealt face-up in the middle of the table. All the players can use these cards to build their best five-card hand. Because there is so much overlap among the cards, differences among the hands tend to be small. Hence the importance of big bluffs backed by big bets to bully other players off the table fast.
Poker matches at this level can go on for hours and days, with long stretches of monotony punctuated by sudden bursts of game-altering action. But skillful editing on World Poker Tour keeps the pace brisk, and up-close-and-personal segments humanize the players. The play-by-play of Mike Sexton and the color commentary of “Hollywood Home Game Master” Vincent Van Patten can swerve in an instant from giddy enthusiasm (think Fred Willard in Best in Show) to hushed solemnity (think Bill Murray in Caddyshack). But they …