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POKER nation.

Byline: Aled Blake

It is a game that has drawn some of the most famous faces in Britain to an obscure industrial estate in Cardiff. Now, In a classic case of 'selling coals to Newcastle', Americans will be able to watch a late-night sport popularised by a Welsh television company. Aled Blake examines how Late Night Poker has come good for both Wales and Channel 4

HOW many television programmes broadcast after midnight can boast audiences of more than one million viewers?

Made by Cardiff production company Presentable, Late Night Poker has enhanced its status with a special celebrity edition of the programme, filmed with actor Stephen Fry, author Martin Amis, actor and comedian Keith Allen, poet and critic Al Alvarez, royal author Anthony Holden, journalist Victoria Coren and comedian Ricky Gervais.

The company also created a programme called Celebrity Poker Club, for Challenge? TV starring celebrities from the worlds of sport, art and entertainment.

Before Late Night Poker came along, the game was not considered exciting enough for television.

But the show changed all that using a transparent table and under-the-table cameras showing each player's hand.

Expert commentary from the American former professional poker player Jesse May gives viewers insight into what is happening in the game.

US sports channel Fox Sports has bought the rights for the show and will broadcast 38 half-hour programmes coast to coast.

It will bring a game to the place the makers see as the game's spiritual home.

The programme's director, Sian Williams, has been busy editing the shows for the US audience, and is continuing with the job as the first set are broadcast next week.

She has been working on every Late Night Poker show since the beginning, in 1999, with 53 shows being recorded and six series.

Ms Williams said, 'It has grown from strength to strength.

'The basics of its success are that it is a great game, it's a game of intrigue with a huge amount of psychology involved.

'And it is a fantastic way of getting to know your friends, it exposes people's vulnerabilities, their strengths and how well you perform under pressure. You can see all that on the television.'

Although she had never played poker before making the programme, Ms Williams quickly became addicted after researching for the show and going to poker tournaments to watch professionals. She said, 'I had to learn quickly and now I know every trick in the book.

'It is very exciting for us to see poker coming home to America, reaching 80 million homes.

'Fox absolutely love it. The network is dipping its toes in the water in terms of television poker, and they are very keen to promote poker as a sport on their network, so Late Night Poker is a natural thing for them to want to transmit.'

It all means Cardiff, and indeed Wales, have become renowned in the poker world, with some of the top players being attracted to play on the show, which is filmed in Splott - arguably the least glamorous sounding part of the city.

Ms Williams added, 'Cardiff is very firmly on the map, it is known through the poker community across the world.'

The prospect of filming the series in America has not been ruled out by Presentable, but all efforts are, for the moment, focused on making the run of shows a success.

Presentable's creative director Chris Stuart is part of the team that has made the show a success - it is also broadcast in other countries around the world.

He could not hide his delight at selling the programme to on of America's big sports channels.

Mr Stuart said, 'This is a series that breaks new ground by using under-table cameras that allow television viewers to see the cards the players are holding.

'There is something particularly pleasing about selling poker programming to the game's spiritual home.

'We came up with a solution to the problem of letting viewers know who was bluffing, whose hand was strong with the glass table which allows the real story of the game to be told.

'It is fantastic to think it is going to the states where poker is such a huge part of their culture.'

American viewers will see poker professionals playing Texas Hold'em, described by Presentable as, 'The sexiest and most dramatic form of poker.'

The poker tournament is spread over nine programmes, with 49 players each bringing pounds 1,500 of their own money to the table. The winner walks away with pounds 50,000.

Mr Stuart said, 'Turning the programme into compelling viewing was the work of our director Sian Williams, who directed Late Night Poker from the word go.

'Sian's skills as a director have been critical to the success of the programme, which has evolved as time has gone on.'

The company can also rightly claim a part in the increasing success of poker.

Mr Stuart explained, 'It is becoming more and more popular, people realise it is a game that requires all sorts of qualities, including bravado, a kind of psychological perception with intelligence the critical thing.

'The people who play it are often the most thoughtful and bright.

'Late Night Poker has been created to shed the game of its seedy image, it is now thought of as a skills game.

'We like to think we set the ball rolling, there is no question its popularity started here.'

He emphasised the attraction of the game as something that is exciting and action-packed.

'It is something that grips people and action is very much a word poker players use and it is a word associated with gaming and gambling.

'Poker is action packed, it is a dramatic game which works on television because it has drama.

'There is a story and an outcome, there is a risk involved, you see people taking decisions, upon which the outcome depends.

'You know whether or not people's decisions are right or wrong because you know what their cards are.

'The top players were slightly anxious about whether the table cameras revealed the way they play.

'The reality is that since they took the plunge they have discovered three things.

'First, that there is not really enough information to form permanent conclusion about the way players play.

'Secondly, the profile of the game has increased hugely, and the third thing is that they have become personalities in their own right.

'I think once we began to see what it was possible to do, we felt we were on to something.

'You are always a little bit nervous to see whether people like it, we were supported in those early programmes and the audiences came with us.

'There now seems to be poker on the television almost continuously.'

Having the programme being bought by an American network is a feather in the cap for Presentable.

Mr Stuart added, 'Being shown in America is a real breakthrough, we hope this is the beginning of a productive relationship between Fox, one of THE sporting brands, and Presentable.'

Late Night Poker's slot after midnight has given it something of a cult following, something Presentable see as a positive.

Mr Stuart said, 'It is a late night product and there are substantial audiences to be had.

'We don't think of it as a graveyard slot.'

Victoria Coren, a journalist for The Observer newspaper, is one of the regular faces on Late Night Poker, along with inventor Sir Clive Sinclair and London's Burning actor Ross Boatman.

She has been playing the game for 12 years and said, 'I think it is fantastic they have sold this show to the US.

'It is a very big day that the Americans come to a company in Wales to buy a television show about poker.

'To me, poker is the perfect combination of being grown up, because it is played late at night with gambling and sometimes alcohol, and yet it is incredibly childish because you are staying up late and eating sweets, playing a game.

'The show gives an opportunity to see some of the best players at work and learn something about the game.

'It is exciting and competitive and I think Late Night Poker has helped the game's popularity; the game is more popular in Britain than ever before.

'I would describe myself as a keen amateur, people use the word addiction but actually poker is a game of skill.

'Last year I came fifth in an event at the British Open and won pounds 3,500, and I do compete in international events. But it is more of a hobby for me.'

Presentable hopes to start work on a new series later this year.

Fox Sports Network will broadcast the Welsh-made Late Night Poker to a potential 80m homes in the USA.

George Greenberg, executive vice president programming and production for Fox Sport, described the show as 'unique'.

He said, 'This is a successful British series with a unique presentation that I know will play well in the US on Fox Sports Net.'

Unlike American productions of poker that use lipstick cameras to view the players' cards, Late Night Poker has under-the-table cameras so viewers can see the cards throughout the entire hand.

Fox Sports has a network of 20 regional sports channels and is based in Los Angeles, producing more than 4,500 live events each year.

In addition to home team games, Fox Sports broadcasts a wide variety of American sports events and programming.

THE air of intrigue surrounding poker is heightened by the fact that few people agree on the origins of the game.

Referred to in 1834 as 'a cheating game' played on Mississippi riverboats, poker is thought to derive from either the French game Poque, dating back to the 1400s, or the German game Pochspiel.

Played in practically every saloon bar in America's Wild West, the game has evolved with the help of a host of colourful characters from the backroom to the modern casino and the latter day World Series of Poker tournament.

The game can be played in several different ways varying from Three Card Manila to Texas Hold 'Em, the seven-card game played in Late Night Poker in which two cards are dealt face-down to each player, followed by another five face-up.
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 17, 2004
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