Looking Back on the Visionary Mind of Henry Orenstein and His Importance to the Poker World

January 6, 2022
Looking Back on the Visionary Mind of Henry Orenstein and His Importance to the Poker World

The world of poker lost a legend in December. This isn’t a Hellmuth or a Brunson or a Negreanu. Henry Orenstein may not be a household name, but certainly left an indelible mark on the game.

Orenstein died on Dec. 14 in New Jersey at age 98 and invented the hole-card cameras that would help launch the poker boom in the 2000s. A poker visionary, he believed that showing players’ cards as they bet and bluffed could transform the game into a spectator sport. The longtime poker player was right.

“Henry Orenstein was beloved in the poker world, and he loved poker as well,” 16-time poker World Series of Poker bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth told USPoker. “Especially his favorite game: Seven Card Stud. 

“Henry invested $700,000 of his own money in the late 1990, in creating hole card cameras, and that changed the game forever. Suddenly, the worldwide public could see what we all know to be true, Hold’em takes five minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master.”

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A poker industry titan

To say Orenstein was a visionary would be quite an understatement. At the time he foresaw televised poker, rooms around the country were closing. Poker on television probably seemed like a joke to most.

To viewers, the WSOP on ESPN was a bunch of guys just staring at cards. Viewers (not many) were in the dark as to the hands each player held. But Orenstein persevered and changed the perception of the game he loved.

The idea to add hole-card cameras came after watching an event on TV. The inventor believed the game came across as dull without knowing what each player held.

“He said, ‘This isn’t the game we played,’” PokerGO President Mori Eskandani recently told the New York Times. “‘If everyone can see the hole cards, they’d see how great it is.’”

He first sold the idea to producers of the World Poker Tour in 2002. The series featured major buy-in events from around the world and was an instant hit for the Travel Channel.

Success followed with the WSOP and Orenstein also produced some of his own poker shows such as the Poker Superstars Invitational and High Stakes Poker. At the table himself, he even won a WSOP bracelet in a Seven Card Stud event in 1996.

Televised poker may be par for the course nowadays, but at one time it was seen as quite the gamble. But Oresnstein saw something new for the game as well as a new form of entertainment.

He passed away from COVID-19 and Orenstein’s loss was felt by many in the poker world. There’s no denying his importance to the game and he was elected to the Poker Hall of Fame in 2008.

Survivor, inventor, entrepreneur

Born in Poland in 1923, Orenstein survived the Holocaust during World War II. In total, he spent time in five different concentration camps.

“Orenstein spent the Holocaust hiding with his family before a lack of food and water forced them to turn themselves in to the Nazis,” the New York Post noted. “His parents were subsequently murdered, and Orenstein and his brother transferred to a German concentration camp where he managed to survive by pretending to be a scientist.”

One brother also survived, but another brother, sister, and his parents didn’t make it. Orenstein moved to the US in 1947 and began a highly successful career in the toy industry.

His first company, Topper Toys, manufactured dolls, race cars, and other toys. Later Orenstein helped create the Transformers toys for Hasbro, which became a massive success and spawned cartoons and films.

Orenstein produced and sold numerous toys throughout his career and held more than 100 patents.

For poker fans, the hole card cam may be the most important of those. Seeing a player make a big bluff with a 9-5 or shipping it all in with pocket Aces is now commonplace.

Viewers take for granted the ability to see those cards. But Henry Orenstein saw how big that could be when no one even considered it. His mark on the game should never be forgotten.

NBC Sports Group President of Programming Jon Miller rightly told the Times: “He revolutionized the game for a whole generation of poker fans who would not be able to see it as it is without Henry’s creativity and ingenuity.”

* Photo courtesy WSOP/Melissa Haereiti

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