Remembering Poker Pioneer Henry Orenstein

WSOP bracelet winner defied the odds during the Holocaust, lived to revolutionize TV poker
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Televised poker can be divided into two distinct eras: before the introduction of the hole-card camera, and after the introduction of the hole-card camera. The former was defined by its mind-numbing dullness and appeal only to the most hardcore of poker enthusiasts. The latter saw the game explode in popularity and become a staple of every network from ESPN to NBC to Bravo.

And that distinction is owed largely to Henry Orenstein, the inventor and entrepreneur who died last week at the age of 98.

When I interviewed Orenstein in 2012 for the oral history that would become The Moneymaker Effect, the then-octogenarian explained the genesis of his brainchild, which would go on to make poker a viable spectator “sport.”

“It was about 30 years ago, maybe 1981 or ’82,” Orenstein recalled. “They had a poker show on ESPN and there were six hands in a row where the player didn’t call the bet, so we couldn’t see what happened! I was sitting there for 10 minutes and I couldn’t see anything. It was boring. And then suddenly, the thought struck me that if we put a camera in [the table], and we were able to see the pros’ cards, that that would make the thing much more interesting. So I called my engineers in, and within about four weeks we had a working model. I got the patent around ’84, ’85.”

It took nearly two decades before the hole-card camera was implemented with regularity. A British broadcaster tried it first, and it made its U.S. debut when the Travel Channel launched World Poker Tour in 2002. The following year, ESPN utilized it for the first time in televising the World Series of Poker Main Event, and in combination with the availability of online poker and an amateur online qualifier named Chris Moneymaker winning the tournament, the “poker boom” was underway.

“The opinion among the top poker players is that without my invention, there would be no poker TV,” Orenstein, a 2008 inductee of the Poker Hall of Fame, said. “And without poker TV, there would be no growth.

“When the whole thing started, there were 500 poker rooms in this country,” he said in 2012. “Now there are 5,000.”

Tragedy and triumph

That Orenstein lived to be 98 is especially remarkable when reflecting upon how close he came to not making it out of his teens.

As he detailed in his book I Shall Live, Orenstein, born in Poland in 1923, nearly met his end in the Holocaust. In September of 1942, he hid in a ditch, bribed an armed guard to let him make a temporary escape, and later bluffed his way into a Jewish “kommando” unit of scientists and mathematicians run by German professors who were looking to avoid fighting in World War II.

Protected in that unit, Orenstein, along with two of his brothers, survived five separate concentration camps. Their parents and two other siblings were killed by the Nazis. Orenstein once estimated his odds of making it out of the Holocaust alive at 14,000 to 1.

After the war, Orenstein emigrated to America, settled on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and got into the toy business. Among other dolls and toys he created, Orenstein was one of the key brains behind Transformers action figures. So it’s safe to say he was on solid footing financially long before he got himself U.S. Patent 5,451,054 and started collecting royalties from poker TV shows.

Orenstein also made his mark as a poker player: He finished 12th out of 231 in the WSOP Main Event in 1993, improved on that by reaching the final table and finishing eighth out of 273 in ’95, and won a bracelet in seven-card stud in ’96, turning his $5,000 entry into a $130,000 first-place prize by outdueling the great Humberto Brenes heads-up.

He reached another WSOP stud final table in 2014 at age 90, and remained a regular until late in life in cash games at Atlantic City poker rooms.

Orenstein is survived by his wife of 50 years, Susie, and one son.

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