By: Jason Lake
Henry Orenstein is a fine poker player. He won a bracelet at the 1996 World Series of Poker, beating 64 other players (including TJ Cloutier) to win the $5,000 Seven-Card Stud event. Orenstein also cashed in twice at the WSOP Main Event, and two years ago, he made the final table in another WSOP Stud tournament – at age 91. Not bad.
But that's not half the story. Orenstein, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, was a toymaker with over 100 patents to his credit; he invented the Johnny Lightning line of diecast model cars (and sponsored the life-size version that Al Unser rode to victory at the 1970 and 1971 Indianapolis 500), and he introduced Hasbro to the prototypes that would eventually be sold as Transformers.
However, if you look at Orenstein's list of patents, one stands out: No. 5451054, granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office on September 19, 1995. Filed under the name “Poker tournament,” this invention would later be known as the hole cam. Poker would never be the same again.
Televised poker was already starting to develop a following in the late '70s, but these programs were few and far between, and they were produced by the casinos. The shows were more like documentaries; the results of a few hands would be shown, but most of the emphasis was on telling the stories behind the players themselves.
Orenstein found all this pretty boring, so he invented the hole cam. It first popped up across the pond in 1999, as part of the UK show Late Night Poker on Channel 4. Dave “Devilfish” Ulliott won the first season and became a minor celebrity in the process. Sensing a good business opportunity, filmmaker Steven Lipscomb got together with Mike Sexton and others to start the World Poker Tour. Their first broadcast, which aired in March 2003, made even better use of the hole cam to bring the viewers at home into the action.
Here Comes the Boom
Which brings us back to the World Series of Poker. ESPN had started televising the WSOP again in 2002 after a hiatus, with limited use of the hole cam. They took notice of what the WPT was doing successfully, and incorporated it into their coverage for the 2003 Main Event. Then some guy named Chris Moneymaker won the whole thing. Presto, poker boom.
As for Orenstein, he went on to create the Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament that aired on Fox Sports Net for three seasons, and he produced High Stakes Poker, arguably the most successful poker show from the boom years. Orenstein was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in 2008. We have RFID technology now to identify hole cards, but we might not even be watching poker in the first place if it hadn't been for Orenstein's invention.