I remember last July attending a press conference at the Bellagio with Jen, my “He Said/She Said” colleague. The conference was announcing the ninth season of the World Poker Tour, and since the WSOP Main Event was still ongoing there was a sizable crowd of poker media and others in attendance.
Mike Sexton kicked things off with a few words, then WPT CEO Steve Heller came on to explain their intention “to put more show in the show” with “more information, more context, [and] more entertainment.” Others then spoke further about plans for Season 9, including WPT President Adam Pliska, Executive Tour Director Matt Savage, the show's new anchor Kimberly Lansing, and finally Vince Van Patten.
It was Van Patten who was given the task of introducing one last addition to the show, something Jen had told me about prior to the conference -- the Royal Flush Girls. I remember Jen’s eye-rolls during the introductions of the four attractive women, part of a team of six who would also be appearing on the upcoming season of shows.
Over lunch at the Cafe Bellagio afterwards, Jen and I speculated some about the significance of the Royal Flush Girls’ addition to the WPT show, and ultimately we made it the topic of a post-WSOP set of “He Said/She Said” columns late last summer.
In her piece, Jen concluded that the addition of the “RFGs” -- described as “event ambassadors” on the WPT site -- ultimately signified the WPT taking several “steps backwards” as far as countering the typical objectification of women one often finds in the culture at large and especially in poker.
And in my column I agreed that the addition seemed to “reaffirm the centrality of the male perspective” for poker TV shows, adding that such a move perhaps wasn’t altogether surprising given the show’s new home on the Fox Sports Network (since season 7), a channel for which the viewership is much more male-dominated than was the case when it previously aired on the Travel Channel and the Game Show Network.
In February the new shows finally began airing on FSN, giving us a chance to check out all of the additions and changes described to us last summer, including seeing once and for all the role of the Royal Flush Girls. So what, exactly, are Melanie, Michelle, Melyssa, Sunisa, Jennifer, and Katrina doing on the new WPT?
To date, five hour-long episodes have aired, covering the Bellagio Cup VI, the Legends of Poker event at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles, and the first part of the Borgata Poker Open in Atlantic City. As WPT CEO Heller promised, the new shows indeed present the viewer a lot more information and context than was the case previously, with reports from the days leading up to the final table, interviews of players by Lansing, Tony Dunst’s “Raw Deal” segment analyzing hands, and more, including information about preliminary events and other stats constantly scrolling at the bottom of the screen while action from the final tables are shown.
Amid all of this the Royal Flush Girls do surface now and again, most often as part of the “bumpers” taking us to and from commercials. “Welcome back,” they say in unison, standing before charming scenes such as the Bellagio fountains or by the pool at the Borgata, functioning not unlike “ring girls” at a boxing match who hold signs announcing which round is about to begin. Other times they travel away from the casinos, such as at the L.A. stop where we find them bikini-clad and in full frolic at the beach.
Occasionally we are allowed more extended glimpses of the women, such as in the first episode when Melanie -- whose name inspires analogies with the Spice Girls -- is given about 40 seconds to relate her dating strategies to poker. “If I’m dating a guy, I would love to play poker one-on-one and find out about his personality,” she says. “If a guy doesn’t know when to fold, that’s, like, a turn-off for me.” And so forth.
However, despite frequent references to the RFGs by Sexton and Van Patten, their role on the show appears largely ornamental -- “eye candy” strategically positioned to keep a certain segment of the audience from flipping channels in between (or maybe even during) the less-visually-stimulating poker.
They occasionally are seen cheering along with the audience, very much like cheerleaders at a sporting event. They are also central to the ceremonial delivery of the cash to the table when play reaches heads-up. But for the most part their role on the show is decidedly minor, not at all integral to the information or context being conveyed, though possibly adding marginally to the entertainment provided.
As mentioned, Sexton and Van Patten do draw attention to the women, reminding viewers of their participation -- and, perhaps, their purpose -- on the show. For example, as we watch them bringing out the cash and trophy to set on the table for the heads-up portion of the Bellagio Cup VI, the hosts instantly devolve into caricatures of construction workers, unable to allow the images to pass without comment.
“Tell me the truth, Vinnie,” says Sexton. “What’s prettier, the Royal Flush Girls or all the cash?” Van Patten chuckles through his response: “They both can get you in a lot of trouble!”
Other exchanges between the two about the RFGs come up in the context of advertising the Club WPT website, which apparently contains a “Members Only” section allowing special access to the Royal Flush Girls’ video diaries, chats, photos, and more. Once when reporting on this feature, Sexton asks Van Patten if his wife lets him visit that section of the Club WPT site. Again with a laugh, Van Patten answers “no comment.”
While obviously meant in fun, I can’t help but imagine how Jen or other women might cringe at the less-than-subtle suggestiveness of some of the comments, including those alluding to the delights of traveling from stop to stop with the RFGs on the tour.
It remains obvious to me that the addition of the Royal Flush Girls is part of a carefully considered marketing strategy both for the show and the Club WPT site, one that aims squarely at the mostly-male target audience for both. As part of that group, I can’t say their addition especially affects my choice to watch the show -- as a poker fan, I’m watching anyway -- although I’m not rushing to join Club WPT in the hopes of gaining “Members Only” access to the RFGs.
We’ll see how the season progresses and whether the Royal Flush Girls’ role on the show changes in any significant way, although it seems unlikely it will. In any event, these first few episodes certainly do serve to remind us how men and the “male perspective” still tend to dominate in poker. And for those trying to bring poker to the mainstream via a network like FSN, it’s hardly astonishing to see a show’s producers looking for ways to play to that bias in their coverage.
Poker obviously doesn’t really need cheerleaders, but I can see how those producing a poker show for a major sports network might think it does.
Also see: She Said: A New Look at the Royal Flush Girls