Commentary

Prioritizing poker history

Updated: December 8, 2008, 3:11 PM ET
By Gary Wise | ESPN Poker Club

From a pundit's vantage point, every major triumph or honor must be celebrated. Achieving Poker Hall of Fame status seems to trump all that came before it because it's a collective celebration of the great moments that have made a great career.

Or, it could all just be a game. It depends on your perspective.

Henry Orenstein is the creator of the hole-card camera, which shows players' face-down cards to a televised audience. He and Dewey Tomko became the 36th and 37th people to be inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame on Nov. 9. Orenstein was subdued in his excitement over the honor. "I was glad to hear they'd recognized me, no question," he said.

You can hardly blame him.

[+] EnlargeHenry Orenstein
Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.comHenry Orenstein's invention changed the poker industry forever.

Orenstein's legacy has touched millions. The hole-card camera is one of almost 100 patents held by the man who was inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame two years ago, but is hardly the most established. That honor would go to Transformers, the robot toys that transform into vehicles and other contraptions.

"Tens of millions of kids all over the world played with Transformers," Orenstein said. "Those toys helped kids learn a lot of dexterity and imagination."

Orenstein first played poker as a child, but it wasn't until after he'd found his success in America when he started taking it seriously.

"A friend invited me to go play at his house out in California, and it went from there," he said. "It's a fascinating game, I think. I used to play chess, but chess was very purely mathematical. Poker has so many more aspects to pay attention to."

Innovation and creativity were natural to Orenstein. Used to looking at things and pondering how to improve them, he remembered clearly the process that led to the creation of the hole-card camera.

"I was watching the WSOP on ESPN, and for five hands in a row, the final player folded and you never saw the hands," Orenstein recalled. "It occurred to me, 'This is boring. Wouldn't it be more interesting to show the down cards?' From there, it was easy; I called my engineers in and they put together this table. I went to Vegas and talked to some players, and they said, 'It won't work.' I asked why, and they said, 'Because the top players will never want to reveal their secrets.' I said, 'I think their desire to be on TV might be greater.'"

He was right. That table is now a part of history, displayed during November Nine weekend by the WSOP with a permanent spot pending in the Poker Hall of Fame.

"I didn't think the hole cards were a good idea," admitted Eric Drache, himself a crucial poker pioneer and consultant on many Orenstein projects. "Back in the old days at the WSOP, we'd ask a player to show their hands for the cameras, and they always refused. Henry was very enthusiastic, but what separated him was that he came with an idea and a bankroll. He was ready to risk his money on his idea. He did risk it … in the millions."

The risk paid off. Although the players were slow to come around, Orenstein was right about the lure of fame, a judgment call that changed the very nature of a game whose credo was once "keep your cards close to your chest." Orenstein's invention urged players to share their once-secret holdings with the world.

"I don't think a single person agreed with him that players would be willing," said Mori Eskandani, Orenstein's co-producer on assorted televised poker productions. Eskandani had nothing but praise for his partner.

"He's a true businessman," Eskandani said. "He can be as charitable a person as you can imagine, but then he'll turn around when he's doing business and count pennies like no one I've ever seen. He doesn't forget anything. Sometimes, you think he's old enough to slip one by him, but he'll always catch you."

Both Drache and Eskandani credit Orenstein with their gainful employment. Rooted in that statement is Orenstein's true measure of the hole-card camera's success.

"I think the hole-card camera created something like 150,000 jobs," Orenstein said, mindful of the massive increase in exposure that the camera provided the poker industry. "There's no question the hole-card camera was the catalyst. There are maybe ten times more tables now. The combination of TV and my invention caused poker's explosion."

It's a long way to have come for a man who survived the Holocaust when he was young. Orenstein was just shy of 16 years old when the Germans invaded his native Poland in 1939. "The men from my family escaped to the Soviet side of Poland for two years," Orenstein said, referring to the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland.

Germany attacked the Soviets in June 1941, and thereafter, Orenstein's family, which is Jewish, went from city to city trying to avoid being killed by the Nazis. His family was taken to its first concentration camp in July 1943 and worked there until early 1944 when something unusual happened.

"The Germans announced they were looking for Jewish scientists," Orenstein said. "In previous days, we'd heard they were liquidating -- meaning killing -- all of the Jews in nearby camps, so I took a chance. I enlisted myself and my three brothers as scientists, even though we were not. Gambling for time, you could say."

Orenstein and his brothers went to work immediately at an aircraft company where they constructed wings for German planes. Orenstein's gamble paid off when it turned out that those rallying the scientists were dodging enlistment as well; the work for the scientists they'd meant to enlist didn't exist, allowing 19-year-old Henry to pull off his small part in the masquerade. On Oct. 2, 1945, Orenstein and his two surviving brothers landed on American soil, liberated.

The Hall of Fame induction recognizes how Orenstein, as a player, producer and pioneer, irreversibly changed poker. Even still, his triumph honors someone who has seen millions die and millions more touched, so you can hardly blame him for keeping things in perspective.

Doesn't mean the pundits should appreciate him any less, though.

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.

Gary Wise has contributed to ESPN.com since 2007. He is well-studied in the history of poker and presents a unique tableside view of the goings-on in the poker community. Google author profile

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