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November 13, 2019

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Columnist Jeff Haney: How poker player and inventor Henry Orenstein’s miniature cameras made the card game a growing spectator sport

Jeff Haney's sports betting column appears Monday, Friday (gaming) and Wednesday (poker). Reach him at (702) 259-4041 or [email protected]

When Henry Orenstein first envisioned a miniature camera that could be installed in a poker table to show a player's hidden, or "hole," cards to the audience, televised poker games were little more than a novelty act.

Sure, you could find poker on cable TV in the mid-1990s, but it was usually relegated to a time slot in the middle of the night, alongside wild turkey hunting or the lumberjack competition.

With his invention -- sometimes called a lipstick camera or a "pocket cam" -- Orenstein cleared the way for subsequent TV poker coverage, which much like Secretariat continues to gallop ahead like a tremendous machine.

"It's the reason we see poker the way it's presented today," Orenstein said during a recent visit to Las Vegas.

Viewers have taken the miniature cameras for granted for at least a couple of years. Orenstein's technology, which makes it easier and more enjoyable for the audience to follow the action of the game, has driven the expansive coverage of the World Poker Tour, the World Series of Poker and other made-for-TV events.

The innovation met with a lot of resistance at first, Orenstein said. A decade ago players would tell him that hole cards represented hallowed information that they would never willingly reveal.

But Orenstein, an accomplished inventor who created the Transformers action figures, which are among the best-selling toys in history, knew he had a winner.

Although he couldn't have foreseen the cameras earning a sponsorship from Milwaukee's Best Light -- which happened this year on ESPN's poker coverage -- Orenstein said he always believed his invention would change the way the public perceived competitive poker.

"I remember telling people about the great potential it had," Orenstein, 81, said. "Poker is an exciting game, but without the hole cards, you can't see what's going on. It becomes boring, and not many people were watching it."

Orenstein was in Las Vegas because his production company was filming a new show at the Golden Nugget called "High Stakes Poker," which features well-known professional poker players, along with some celebrities, competing in a no-limit Texas hold 'em cash game.

Miniature cameras, of course, will reveal the players' hole cards.

Most televised poker shows -- including Orenstein's "Poker Superstars Invitational" -- center around a tournament where players pay an entry fee and then compete to win cash prizes by advancing as far as they can. Once they lose all of their chips or "bust out," they're finished. In a cash game, they can reach into their pocket and buy more chips.

The no-limit cash game format -- players had actual Golden Nugget casino chips as well as banded packets of hundred-dollar bills on the table -- should appeal to poker fans when it debuts in January on GSN, The Network for Games (Cox cable channel 344), Orenstein said.

"Remember, when you're watching a poker tournament and see a $200,000 hand, the buy-in (to enter the tournament) was only $10,000," Orenstein said. "Here, it's $200,000 of their real money."

Eight players at a time competed in the no-limit game on a specially constructed set at the Golden Nugget. Included were top professionals Daniel Negreanu, Barry Greenstein, Jennifer Harman, Ted Forrest and Doyle Brunson.

The minimum buy-in was $100,000 for each player, with no maximum. Negreanu, perhaps trying to intimidate his opponents, brought $1 million to the game.

"When you see one of these guys go all-in with $100,000, the question is, 'Can he keep his head on straight if he loses' " said Mori Eskandani, a professional poker player who was coordinating production of the show. "That's 10 times the buy-in for the World Series of Poker."

Orenstein, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, not only develops poker TV shows, but also fanatically watches them. A successful tournament and cash-game player, he participates frequently in big Atlantic City games.

"Poker is a game that has more components, more factors, than any other game," he said. "You have to have patience and not go crazy after a loss. You have to have a good memory and be a good mathematician. You have to know how to handle your money.

"But the most important factor is reading people. There's one player in Atlantic City, just by looking at him, I almost always know exactly what he's holding."

And there's not even a camera in that table.

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