Twenty years ago, television producer Steve Lipscomb introduced to the American audience a poker tournament show called the World Poker Tour (WPT). Two decades later and the WPT is still thriving and remains a fixture in the poker community.
In 2002, Lipscomb hired poker pros Mike Sexton and Vince Van Patten, a tennis star and the son of actor Dick Van Patten, who hosted the World Series of Poker (WSOP) on ESPN from 1993-1995, to offer commentary. Together the dynamic duo helped put poker on the map at least a TV audiences were concerned.
Legends of the Game
Sexton, who in 2017 left the WPT broadcast booth after 15 seasons to return to his roots at partypoker, passed away in 2020., but Van Patten is still commentating on WPT events, and he has no plans to retire any time soon.
“I will always love poker,” Van Patten, 64, told PokerNews during a Steve Aoki home game event last week. “I don’t know exactly where I’ll go with the commentating and hosting down the road and all that, but I just love the game and the World Poker Tour, and am excited that it grew like this.”
When Van Patten and Sexton were hired as the faces of the WPT, the game of poker still hadn’t gone mainstream. The community was much smaller at the time than it is today and the tour’s first episode aired a year before Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event.
“That would be a one out of 52 out of the deck long-shot,” Van Patten said when asked if he thought in 2002 the WPT would still be around 20 years later. “Neither one of us thought it would last. Mike always believed in the game and thought it was going to be big. I loved the game, but we had no thoughts that we wouldn’t be doing three shows and that would be it.”
Van Patten praised his original boss, Lipscomb, for introducing hole cards (not “hold cards,” Joe Stapleton) to the U.S. poker market. Many credit the WPT founder’s innovative mindset for the early 2000s poker boom as much or more so than Moneymaker.
“The genius of Steve’s idea to show the cards was correct. He made a game out of it.”
Van Patten has been partnered with poker pro Tony Dunst in the broadcast booth for WPT events on Fox Sports and now Bally Sports since 2017. Dunst, who began working for the WPT in 2009 as the host of the “Raw Deal” segment, understands he’s had some big shoes to fill replacing a legend like Sexton, a Poker Hall of Famer and one of the game’s greatest ambassadors of all-time.
But he’s handled that role marvelously, and the viewers seem to enjoy his commentary and chemistry with Van Patten. He promotes the WPT in the same manner in which Sexton did for so many years.
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Creating Poker Super Stars
Much like the WSOP, winning a WPT title is one of the most prestigious honors in poker. The top events over the years have been televised and many of the tour’s champions have become poker legends.
The first-ever WPT event, the May 2002 Five Diamond World Poker Classic, was won by none other than Gus Hansen, who quickly became one of the most popular players during that era. The “Great Dane” beat out a field of 146 players in the $10,000 buy-in tournament, the biggest field of any tournament at that price point ever at the time, outside of the WSOP Main Event.
Winning a World Poker Tour title has never been easy, and only 40 players have won multiple events. Hansen is one of three individuals to win three WPT tournaments. Darren Elias, who has gained notoriety because of the WPT, is the only four-time champion. He also holds the record for most final table appearances (12).
The WPT has evolved over the years, but the same basic concept still applies — appease the casual audience and attract a mix of top-notch pros and recreational players. Demand to compete in the WPT’s Main Tour events (and also the WPTDeepStacks tour) has gotten so high that nearly 2,000 players are signing up for some of these events.
In January at the $3,500 buy-in WPT Lucky Hearts Poker Open in Florida, Alexander Yen beat out a field of 1,982 players to win $975,240.
Up next for the tour is the $3,500 buy-in Seminole Hard Rock Poker Showdown in April at the same venue — Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. There’s a high probability that this event will have a similar sized field as the Lucky Hearts.
Future of the World Poker Tour
World Poker Tour Season XX only has three events on the US schedule, thus far, but WPT CEO Adam Pliska told PokerNews that additional events are on the horizon. It’s all about locking up some dates and times with partner venues.
The WPT made a splash among the house music crowd last month when they signed celebrity DJ Steve Aoki as a brand ambassador. Aoki, as Pliska explained, helps the WPT reach out beyond the poker community to attract new fans and viewers.
We caught up with Aoki during his WPT home game at his Las Vegas “playhouse.” He made it clear he isn’t just collecting a check and is passionate about promoting the World Poker Tour.
It’s that sort of passion that’s kept the WPT going strong for 20 years!
*Images courtesy of WPT/Joe Giron.