King Henry.Who would’ve known that the man who concocted die-cast race cars is a poker enthusiast who changed the way we see the game?
Inventor and poker player Henry Orenstein single-handedly spearheaded the poker boom when he figured a way to putting a TV camera inside a poker table. Suddenly poker was a fascinating spectator sport and the machinations and subterfuge of the high-stakes professional poker player were laid bare for all to see. Now he’s got together with NBC on a mission to further revolutionize the TV poker format with Poker Superstars and the NBC National Heads Up Championship. A world-class player himself, Orenstein won the WSOP 7-Card Stud bracelet in 1996. Gambling Online Magazine caught up with the modest octogenarian who helped transform poker into a mainstream American sport. We chatted from his spectrum of inventions to his poker playing history. The following is what he had to say.
Tell us about your professional background.
I’m an inventor. I have concentrated most of my life on making toys. I’ve invented many toys that have been popular all over the world: the Johnny Seven OMA toy gun was a best selling toy around 1965 or so. I also invented Johnny Lightning cars, the Dolly Surprise Doll and I did the first Sesame Street line too. And then later on, I invented the poker table where you could view the hole cards for TV.
When did you start playing poker?
I started in Poland where I was born, playing for a few pennies with my friend. But then I didn’t do anything until about seventeen years ago. I was playing chess and getting headaches from thinking too much, so my wife suggested I play poker and that was that.
Tell us the story about the lipstick camera.
I was watching an old ESPN show from the Horseshoe, but of course you couldn’t see the closed cards. Many hands were played in which the cards were not shown at the end at all, so it was actually very boring, and it struck me that if I could develop a table where the audience could see all the cards, it would be very, very interesting. The rest was easy. I had a table done in a couple of months and I took out a US patent on it, and that was that.
My invention includes all cameras in poker tables, not just the lipstick ones. The World Poker Tour uses lipstick cameras and they’re paying me royalties. Others put the cameras in different locations, but it’s the same method.
Do you think it was your best ever invention?
Let me think… I invented so many things… I would say it was one of them, but I invented so many things in toys that set the standard at the time. When I did the first Sesame Street line, I had a walking lettuce, which actually walked down a ramp. The Johnny Lightning racing car set was the first ever toy car set to use electricity. The Dolly Surprise was the first ever doll that grew hair – they were all very popular, and there were many, many others.
Which has been the most profitable invention?
This was something that I actually didn’t invent myself, but I was responsible for the whole thing – Transformers. Hasbro, the company I licensed it to, have shipped about a billion and made about $300 – $400 million. That was by far the most profitable line. I didn’t invent the original, but I was responsible for putting the whole thing together.
How did you get involved with NBC?
Well, we had the Poker Superstars. They showed the finale on February 6th this year, which was based on the 12 hours that was on Fox Sports. And this year we have 36 hours on Fox Sports and another finale coming up with NBC at next year’s Super Bowl. And also my company and I have been working with NBC and producer Jamie Horrowitz on the National Heads Up Championship – developing the format, and so on. And they also suggested I play in it.
How does it differ from other poker shows?
Well, it was all Jamie Horrowitz’s idea - to get the best players in the world together, put them head to head and just play elimination. They used my table, but we made it especially for two players. They had a main table equipped with the special camera, and that was beamed onto a big screen, and the main table was surrounded by outer tables that were very close to the audience, so they had a very good view. Many matches were shot with the camera, so it will be extremely interesting to see how they turned out. The match that Johnny Chan had with the actor James Woods was very interesting. Another one was the match between Howard Lederer and Antonio Esfandiari. There were a lot of extremely good match-ups. My round one match was with Chip Reece.
How did you do?
Well, I can’t tell you, because it won’t be shown until May. That would spoil it. But you can see me play on Sunday 1st May at 12.00.