An episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation appeared last week on CBS in which an entire serial-killer plot is built around a single hand of Texas Hold’em.
Set in Las Vegas, CSI has predictably featured a few plots involving gamblers and occasionally poker players over the course of its 13 seasons.
For example, an episode from 2002, “Revenge Is Best Served Cold,” saw the team investigating the death of a poker player who collapsed during a high-stakes game.
But poker players and/or fans of televised poker might find this new episode interesting in the way it creatively imagines a complicated revenge scenario emanating from a cheating incident at a WSOP Main Event-like poker tournament.
Tom Schneider Appears in Short Cameo
A major point of interest to poker fans is the appearance of two-time WSOP bracelet winner Tom Schneiderin a non-speaking cameo role.
Schneider plays Glenn Heidbreder, a dealer at the 1997 Palermo Poker Classic who in fact is involved in the cheating scheme that ultimately leads to the string of murders years later.
Last month Schneider was contacted by the show’s producer whom he’d met at a golf tournament a few years ago.
The producer asked Schneider if he knew anyone in Los Angeles who could serve as a technical director for poker on an episode, and as it turned out Schneider himself ended up filling the role.
Schneider and his wife, Julie -- who some may know is an accomplished player herself, having earned a third-place finish in a WSOP event in 2009 -- read the script, then traveled to L.A. to meet with the producers to discuss it.
“There were a few things the writer didn’t change that we think our poker-playing friends are going to criticize us for,” Schneider told PokerListings, including the fact that a player at the 1997 PPC final table is shown eating chicken wings.
Perhaps the makers were inspired by a real-life WSOP-related incident, namely Tiffany Michelle’s infamous plate of fries at the 2008 Main Event.
While there as a consultant, Schneider was recruited to play the role as a poker dealer.
“I have some special skills from learning magic a long time ago,” Schneider explains, and in fact his handiwork is both shown and becomes part of the plot as his character turns out to be in on the scheme.
It sounds like the experience was a lot of fun for Schneider, if not overly profitable. “They spent four hours on my scene that will probably be on air for 20 seconds. After receiving my paycheck for four days’ work, I have a min buy-in for a tight $20-$40 mix game.”
A Playing Card As a Murder Weapon
David Cassidy of The Partridge Family fame does a quick guest turn on the episode, too, as Peter Coe, a professional poker player, unfortunately murdered in the show’s opening sequence.
Killed while alone in an elevator, his death provides a momentary “locked room” mystery that the CSI team swiftly solves by first determining his jugular vein was severed by an item containing cellulose acetate, then further reducing the possible weapons down to... a playing card!
Sounds incredible, sure. Even more fanciful, the team decide the killer threw the playing card through the closing elevator doors.
“In the right hands, a playing card is a lethal weapon, thrown up to 80 miles per hour,” explains David Hodges (Wallace Langham), the team’s Trace Technician. “I once saw a magician slice a carrot in half with one.”
“That’s absolutely absurd,” responds CSI Level 2 Morgan Brody (Elisabeth Harnois), likely articulating most viewers’ thoughts.
Of course, for poker fans, we immediately recognize the reference being made, one of several in the episode that evoke the world of professional tournament poker and the WSOP.
CSI Borrows Elements from Poker World
Those of us who watched ESPN’s coverage of the WSOP during the “boom” era from a decade ago well remember the feature showing Chris “Jesus” Ferguson’s card-throwing exploits. His slicing of various fruits and vegetables with playing cards no doubt inspired the plot device and dialogue for the writers of CSI.
That’s just one of several story elements we might call “tells” indicating the show’s writers’ awareness of tournament poker, particularly as it has been covered and shown on television over recent years.
In this episode bodies continue to appear and it turns out all are linked back to the final table of the 1997 Palermo Poker Classic won by Peter Coe.
Poker fans will instantly recognize the tournament as a version of the WSOP Main Event.
A character refers to the “PPC” as the “Vegas Super Bowl,” perhaps also alluding to Amarillo Slim Preston’s old Super Bowl of Poker that ran from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.
Meanwhile, the 2013 PPC is currently playing out, with one of the final players, Ava Rendell (Becky O’Donohue), being described as the “last woman standing” (the episode’s title).
“Mildly condescending,” says Night Shift Supervisor D.B. Russell (Ted Danson) of the phrase, one we recognize as frequently used in tournament poker.
Rendell actually runs her own poker instructional website -- hotpokerbabe.com -- and later when talking to a CSI investigator speculates that the police force is “just as much of a boy’s club as poker.”
Another character -- a friend of Coe’s who becomes a suspect thanks to his being the card-throwing magician referred to earlier -- talks about how he used to play poker with Coe.
“We played together,” he says. “Texas hold’em... before it was spoiled by frat boys and gongoozlers.”
Again, there’s an understanding shown here of differences between poker of the pre-“boom” era and the game’s subsequent explosion in popularity, especially with regard to tournament poker and the WSOP.
Extreme Hand Analysis
By show’s end, the victims are ultimately connected one by one to the community cards Schneider’s character deals in that 1997 PPC hand, with the killer and motive finally discovered thanks to the CSI team’s meticulous analysis of the cards’ connections to the murders.
As mentioned, between Schneider’s cameo, the imaginative association of murders with individual playing cards, and other allusions to tournament poker and the WSOP, poker players should find the episode interesting.
The episode also perhaps helps show poker’s continuing resonance in mainstream popular culture, even if the game’s popularity and growth have slowed over recent years.
One disclaimer... CSI has earned a lot of criticism over the years for its boundary-testing depictions of graphic violence, with the blood-soaked “Last Woman Standing” providing several more examples of such.
Still, if you’re a poker fan and can stomach the gore -- and suspend your disbelief -- this week’s CSI might be worth investigating.