Poker on TV: Interview with James Hopkins of the Poker Channel
Our correspondent recently had the pleasure of visiting the London headquarters of The Poker Channel to talk with James Hopkins, Head of Programming about this exciting TV development for poker enthusiasts.
The Poker Channel was launched in the United Kingdom on 23rd March 2005 and is the world's first TV channel dedicated to poker. The Poker Channel is available to all Sky TV subscribers in the UK, as a free to air channel, and is located under the Entertainment section Channel Number 265.
PN: First of all, James, thank you for taking some time out for this.
JH: That's OK.
PN: Perhaps you can just tell us a very brief bit about your background and how you ended up in your current role at The Poker Channel.
JH: I was formerly with Sky Sports (a News Corporation company) for just under nine years producing Poker and Rugby Union programmes. I first produced poker at the Poker Million in the Isle of Man in 2000. That was certainly the first time that poker had ever been filmed live.
JH: Absolutely. Not all of the programmes in the subsequent Poker Million The Masters series' were live, certainly the finals were, but the Isle of Man was a particularly challenging Outside Broadcast being that it was the first time we had filmed poker at Sky Sports.
During the last three or four years, poker has taken off. I saw an opportunity within poker and resigned from Sky in December (2004) and, along with Crispin (CEO, Crispin Nieboer), set up The Poker Channel.
Crispin is the founder, the channel is his concept. I said to him - this is what I can bring to the table; programming, production, tournaments - give you a production arm to your channel.
PN: Can you explain a bit now about what you now do particularly with regard to the British Poker Open (BPO) which was The Poker Channel's first major tournament?
JH: I would divide my roles up into (a) tournaments and (b) other programming. The BPO, our flagship tournament, was really our first big production. Initially, we had to get some commissions under our belt to fill the schedule, but, we had to go off with a bang and that meant a big tournament. So we really, from scratch, designed the British Poker Open.
We looked to do poker live and on a regular basis We wanted to try and improve poker coverage and include more statistical data- in the Poker Million, we used to cut under the table and not see all the cards. We thought, well, what no-one's really doing is getting all this information onto the screen and the BPO's objective was to achieve this.. Without ever cutting under the table we see all the players' cards as well as the winning percentages for all hole cards. Specially designed software works these out automatically, taking into account the chances of split pots. Doing this also enables the viewers to see which cards the players choose to fold as well as play. The British Poker Open graphics are very advanced as they need to be for live poker. After all, poker coverage is all about getting information across to the viewer.
One thing these graphics have enabled us to do is to have fewer pauses between hands. With no full frame graphics we don't have to pause the deal between hands. Therefore for each blind level we get many more hands in. This is particularly popular with the players.
The BPO was our first big tournament and attracted some of the biggest names in the game from America and Europe, Howard Lederer, Gus Hansen, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and the 2004 World Series Champion Greg Raymer. It has been a stunning success.
PN: Did they enjoy it?
JH: Yes, they did and they loved the live aspects. The short-handed six player format is very different to the American tournaments the big players are used to playing, and they loved the challenge. They are keen to come again next year.
We saw every hand these guys played! When you watch the WSOP highlights, or the World Poker Tour, you don't get this. You only see selected highlights. Seeing every hand gives you a much better idea of how the players play, and what their strategies are. That's unique and that was the BPO!
We have just filmed the PokerStars.com World Cup of Poker finals which is an annual heads-up tournament - the four finalists were Austria, Costa Rica, Norway, and Scotland. We did it in the same venue as the BPO, again with fans and team mates watching in the bar on big screens. The atmosphere was great at the event and this comes across well on screen. Our comprehensive statistics are particularly relevant for heads up play.
We are pitching for many new tournaments. Sponsors love the branding, and that we can film for hours and hours due to having a dedicated channel. We are looking at new formats and are looking to have regular tournaments; heads-up, six-table and eight or nine table formats as well
PN: There's a program called "Barny's Home Games" which is an interesting feature where Barny Boatman (a top European Professional) goes to people's homes and joins in their home poker games. Do you want to give me some background about how that came to be?
JH: Well, it is very important to us to address grass roots poker so, although our tournaments might have a lot of statistical information on screen and the coverage is quite sophisticated, we want to make sure we don't alienate newcomers to the game. One of the ideas that we developed with Barny Boatman was to send him to people's houses to play with them in their home games.
PN: Yes, he's the perfect man for that role!
JH: Barny was quite keen to work with us on the series and has plenty of interesting programme ideas. It is a very exciting format. I think it is great that anybody who has a home game can have a poker professional come round and play with them and teach them a few tricks, and Barny is a great face for the show.
PN: Is there a waiting list for that now?
JH: I think there is and (laughs) personally I've been inundated with requests asking if Barny can come and play at their games! It's important for us because it is not just about spending masses of money on buying in big American productions. It's important to us that we have other programming apart from the BPO and other big tournaments. With regard to documentaries and other programming, we want to make sure that we still address "grass roots" poker and teaching people the game.
PN: Does Barny enjoy his role?
JH: Yes, he does. Home games are a big part of what poker is all about. Barny used to play home games with the other Hendon Mob players (fellow UK professionals Ram Vaswani, Joe Beevers and Ross Boatman) and still does. He has said it himself, it is where he came from, and it's great meet people and enjoy the different games they play. He loves it because it's something a bit different from the regular tournament circuit.
PN: Well, James, it's been a pleasure and thank you for your time.
JH: Thank you
Ed Note: The Poker Channel recently aired the Party Poker World Open. Another televised tourney is qualifying on Party Poker now. Join the fun.