Sport on TV: Remembering where mind games stop and sport begins

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The Independent Culture

Poker is the new rock 'n' roll, the new black, the new comedy. It is in fact the new rock 'n' roll black comedy. It's all over the shop. When Shane Warne elects to miss Australia's Twenty20 Cup campaign this year in order to play in the World Series in Las Vegas, you know poker has become whatever's the polar opposite of a busted flush.

There were several opportunities this week to dip a toe in the tidal wave. Celebrity Poker (C4, Monday) wasn't really one of them. They chatted too much, for a start. Too many jokes. "I'm a broken man," said Stephen "Green Wing" Mangan on his departure following an ugly all-in head-to-head with Dave "Googlewhack" Gorman. "With therapy and the love of my family there may be some hope for me. But right now it's just blackness, and I feel empty and violent. So, you know, watch it."

Victoria Coren's commentary added perky overtones – "The narcotic Tommy Cooper is all in!" she yelled as Howard Marks went for broke. "These nancy celebrities hold no fear for him – he's been locked up with American murderers!" Mr Nice, who learnt five-card stud doing 25 in Indiana, came third, with Cleo Big Brother Rocos second behind Gorman, whose eyes betray the glint of the fanatic.

Wednesday's heat from the Women's World Open (Five) was a more serious affair.

"These women are all similar," commentator Jesse May said. "They're all tight and they're all aggressive." And in 90 minutes, one rueful smile and one slightly bewildered "what's happening to me?" grin marked the extent of the giddiness.

It developed into an astonishing heads-up endgame, (heads up is when there are two players left, although these days there are tournaments devoted to it, poker's equivalent of Twenty20). It often doesn't take long with only two left. Someone goes all-in before long and soon it's over.

On Wednesday, though, once Katie "daughter of Barry" Hearn had been burnt off, only Brighton's Debbie Rogers and Bronwyn Campbell, from Vancouver via Glasgow, were left. There had been around 100 hands up till then. By the time Campbell prevailed they'd played another 200. I'm not sure records of such things are kept, but May was in no doubt. "Never before and never again," he marvelled.

But poker isn't sport, you complain. So you'll also be griping about the presence here of The Mentalists (Five, Thursday), an account of last year's Mind Olympics in Dubai. But then there's the likes of Ed Cook, No 17 in the world memory rankings. One of the 10 disciplines in Dubai was "spoken numbers", in which 100 digits are read out, one per second, and then recalled. Cook got a perfect 100.

"That doesn't happen unless you train at altitude," he said, "it doesn't happen unless you spend time in the gym and the strategy room over the course of the year."

It sounds a lot like sport to me.