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Phil Hellmuth Explains How the “Hole Card Cam” Changed Poker Broadcasts

By creating more knowledgeable audiences, the previously controversial intention has helped poker grow

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Phil Hellmuth holds some of poker’s greatest records: most World Series of Poker bracelets (14); the only player to ever win the WSOP Main Event and the WSOP Europe Main Event; formerly the youngest WSOP Main Event champion. But Hellmuth hasn’t just affected poker by sitting at the table — he’s also helped change the way the sport is broadcast.

In 1989, when Hellmuth won his first Main Event at the age of 24, "hole card" cameras had yet to be introduced to the game. Hole card cams show TV audiences the cards each player receives after they’re dealt — something announcers on prior broadcasts could only guess at.

"When you have somebody in the booth that’s great at reading people, you can really draw the audience in because your reads are going to be so accurate," Hellmuth said on the Against All Odds With Cousin Sal podcast. "[They’ll] be like, ‘I’m pretty sure he has this hand,’ and that hand is revealed, ‘I’m pretty sure he has that hand,’ and then that hand is revealed. Then it’s more exciting. But [with the cam], it really is like night and day."

The camera was patented in 1995 by Henry Orenstein, and its goal was to give the viewer a better understanding of strategy and the tendencies of players during each hand. Hellmuth was first exposed to it in a Late Night Poker show filmed in Cardiff, Wales (the cam was used abroad before it was brought to U.S. tournaments in the 2000s), and he says he immediately thought the camera was going to be "great for our game."

While it’s been well-received by audiences, some players were initially skeptical of the change.

"There were a lot of the top professionals that were against it," Hellmuth said. "They’re like, ‘It took us 15–20 years to have this proprietary information — [about] how we play poker.’"

But after his experience in Wales, Hellmuth became a fervent supporter and advocate of the cam and the growth potential it offered the game.

"We like to say No Limit [Texas] Hold ’Em takes five minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master," Hellmuth said. "With no hole card camera, people aren’t bothering learning the rules. With the hole card cameras … [the game] really took off."

Hellmuth attributes a portion of that growth to more knowledgeable and invested audiences, something made possible by the hole card cam "turning a light switch on" to the game.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.