Late Night Poker
Sunday, August 29, 1999 by Jack Kibble-White
The TV sport phenomena of the ’80s was snooker. Previously touted as cheap schedule filler material, TV execs gradually realised the game was built for the small screen. The playing area is TV shaped, and the static nature of the participants meant that TV cameras could graphically capture the conflicting emotions twitching across the faces of the competitors.
This was sport as soap opera, where we were invited to care for our favourites. As is true in all sports, the nation took to their shared bosom those exponents who wore their waistcoated hearts on their cuff links. Dennis Taylor’s memorable 1985 victory over Steve Davis, is only so because of the contrast between Davis’ impassivity and Taylor’s ebullience.
On the surface then, Channel 4’s Late Night Poker would seem to have been cut from the same green baize cloth: the playing area picked out by spotlights, the tense close ups on players calculating their next move. And yes it was engaging, and tense and very snooker-like. The gushing Paul Gambacinniesque commentary was informative, yet – like all minority sports – insistent upon reminding you just how great a spectacle, it was (anyone remember C4’s stab atReal Tennis a few years back?) Like horse racing one found oneself backing the filly whose name or demeanour most appealed. So, the respectable gent who I was initially shouting for (I always seem to favour those kind of people who go out of their way not to be cool), was soon discarded as a wanker when he made the comment: “So only eight cowboys left.” This was really the fun of it. Like all good sport, Late Night Poker allowed you to revel in arbitrary unsubstantiated prejudice. Much enjoyment was derived from urging on Peter “The Bandit” Evans (whose cap I didn’t approve of) to stick one over that prick Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott (with his stupid beard and moustache and tinted specs). Yet in real life Devilfish could be a perfectly nice geezer (although with a nickname like that you have to think he’s a bit twattish). TV sport not only sanctions these kind of knee jerk reactions, its success is based on it.
Late Night Poker touched other buttons for me. There was a palpable sense of aspiration sat around that table. The cool mystique of poker meant that for one night these 10 social miscreants (okay I’m being a bit sweeping here) could be James Bond, or Steve McQueen, or maybe Robbie Box. Poker’s the type of game that in truth is played professionally by men with great kung-fu film collections and CB radios. The snatches of patois banded around talked of masculinity and bravado, and the unctuous commentary afforded each player a status only achieved when at the table. This was a spectacle played out by the likes of you and me.
Is there a future for televised poker? Well, the mechanics of the game aren’t as transparent as – say – the rules of football, and the arbitrariness of all card games requires a little getting used to in a TV society wherein cause and effect are usually so obviously connected. However, as Devilfish reveled in his victory I could picture him in his little bedroom in his mother’s house (Dad died five years ago and Devilfish has never had the heart to leave the old dear, besides it’s cheap rent innit?) replaying his victory on his state of the art video, posturing shirtless with his imitation samurai sword, and I decided I should like to see his kind again, up there under the bright, foreign lights.