11:00 am and my alarm goes off for the fifth time in an hour. I’m jet lagged. My body is still on west coast time while my mind is trying to shake a food coma triggered by a potent cocktail of tryptophan and empty carbs. Allowing my Thanksgiving hangover to get the best of me, I forego my morning routine of breakfast and the gym only to be sucked into a shit storm of reality TV. Not my proudest moment. But after an hour with Les Stroud battling the elements and turning urine into purified water I realized how invested I had become in not only his survival, but in his overcoming each obstacle along the way. It dawned on me, televised poker is doing it all wrong.
For so many years poker has been packaged as a sporting event, where the focus lies on the action. The introduction of the hole card cam, coinciding with a booming infatuation by a mostly ignorant audience, appeased viewers for the better part of a decade. But as the game matured, so too did the casual viewer. No longer do they commiserate with the well-known pro losing as a 3 to 1 favorite, nor do they berate the amateur who shoved Ace-Queen only to get lucky against Kings. People became numb to individuals winning large sums of money, and moreover uninterested in the nameless faces that all play the game fairly competently. The action has become a mere means to an end, shifting the spotlight to the game’s intricacies, ultimately alienating the casual fan.
A divide has resulted between those in the know and those on the outside looking in. Average Joe Schmoe is no longer your local auto mechanic busting his hump, fantasizing over what it’s like to drag a five-figure pot and take a vacation. Average Joe Schmoe is now scratching and clawing to keep food on the table and doesn’t have time “…to chase cards and action, or fucking pipe dreams of winning the World Series on E-S-P-N.” When he does find an hour to go comatose in front of the boob tube he seeks a way out, a tough way to make an easy living. Moon shining, duck call production, and gold prospecting are just a short list of carrots on strings. When gambling no longer garners the same interest as moon shining and gold prospecting (all prolific activities during eras of economic decline) red flags should be raised. Televised poker needs a face lift, rebranded as an insight to a small, inviting community where the rags to riches story is all too common.
Poker Night In America may provide the first glimmer of hope. They are branding themselves as a one of a kind TV poker experience and I must say I was as wide-eyed as a kid on Christmas morning when I read Nolan Dalla’s pitch:
“…Yet Poker Night in America isn’t really a show about poker. It’s a show about people.
We’re flying a Gulf stream jet filled with poker players (and possibly you) from Las Vegas to Upstate New York. We will be filming what goes on around the clock. Listen up — you won’t see the usual poker coverage that’s pretty much dominated the way the game has been portrayed over the last decade. This is just as much a show about the chaos that goes on behind the scenes, at the bars, in the restaurants, out on the golf course, getting there, leaving there, and all the ups and downs and fun and games that take place during a major poker event. There’s actually much more to it than this, but that’s all we’ll say for now. If this all sounds interesting, than great. If it turns into a disaster, well that’s okay too. We’re going to be there to film it…”
I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of such a promising concept. Without hesitation I fired off an email expressing my interest in being apart of a show that is finally getting it right.
“…I’m not interested in being a character of the show because I seek any sort of poker stardom or crave tv time. What I do want is to help grow this game that has been so good to me throughout my career. I feel this behind the scenes concept is a great way to paint poker in a fun, social, welcoming light,and I would relish the opportunity to be apart of it…”
Unfortunately, they were full. Upon learning the 3rd stop would be in Pittsburgh over Thanksgiving weekend, I immediately followed up:
“We had spoken prior to the first poker night in America about me potentially playing in the cash game. When I saw that your third stop would be in Pittsburgh I felt inclined to follow-up. I’m originally from the Pittsburgh area, born and raised 20 miles north of the city… If nothing else I’m certain my hometown presence would be a compelling back story to the show… Most of all I, more than most, have an extreme interest in seeing the River’s poker room grow. I started my career playing underground games in the city and would love to see a resurgence of that action in a place so near and dear to me…”
Again they were full, but I was assured I would be at the top of the alternate list (fingers crossed a spot opens up). In the meantime a spot had come open in the Reno stop, which I had the pleasure of being invited to. I say pleasure not because I’m in the business of shaking hands and kissing babies, but because as a traveling poker professional I can honestly say I’ve never been treated as well as I was by The Peppermill Resort. Poker room manager, Jimmy Horikawa, deserves a raise, or at the very least a medal. This man ensured we didn’t want for anything during our stay at his casino, and worked tirelessly at organizing cash games large enough to keep our interest. So far so good…
The taping itself went off without a hitch. Between the production crew’s endless hours of work, Nolan constantly making himself available to players, and Todd Anderson putting a vision in motion while fronting the bill, I can without hesitation say they have the framework for a successful show. As for the product itself, a lot remains to be seen. From my vantage point the shoots seemed to deviate from this behind the scenes concept. Little to nothing was done to introduce players to the audience. And to my knowledge I don’t believe much emphasis was put on the back stories and local culture that comes with the Peppermill legends chosen to play in the game. I fear by shooting mostly poker, PNIA will pigeon-hole itself into a niche market where only poker enthusiasts watch. Granted, I was a late arrival so I missed out on the extracurricular activities shot the night before, as well as the private jet footage. But the idea of putting a bunch of poker pros in a fun arena and taping them interact isn’t revolutionary…it’s classic B-roll footage seen on any WPT broadcast and it’s extremely manufactured. I have hope that PNIA will flip the script, letting the actual poker itself take a back seat to the human interest stories that arise from examining the inner workings of a specific community; staying true to the initial concept.
Individually the players are as generic and as uninteresting as a random bearded man making duck calls. It’s unreasonable to expect that to change by merely turning the cameras on and encouraging them to let their personality shine through while playing a few hands of cards. It comes off as forced and inauthentic. However, provide the direction for each individual to explore what has gotten him to this point and the audience will be captivated by some certain candid moments. To those in the community we all know what Tom Schneider has accomplished, but to the casual viewer he’s just the guy with the colorful clothing. There’s a massive disconnect. Viewers want to know Tom on a first name basis. The fact that he is a 4-time bracelet winner, a former WSOP player of the year, and that he can quiet a room with his karaoke performance of Garth Brooks’s The Dance should become common knowledge. The goal is to get the audience personally invested, to have them suffer through the $10,000 swings with the hero, to root against the villan, to empathize with the martyr. Put a spotlight on the people, the relationships, the inner workings of the poker community. Transparency is interesting. Conflict is interesting. Successes and failures are interesting. Ultimately, the people drive the plot, poker is merely the vehicle.
It’s quite possible Poker Night In America will achieve all of this and more, the proof will be in the pudding. I just know my involvement was exclusively poker. Speaking of the poker, it’s imperative to the success of the show to cast upstanding members of the community who are comfortable in a live setting. Day 1 of the Reno shoot missed the mark slightly on the latter. Few of the players had brushed elbows on more than one occasion, and moreover there was a distinct age gap. The atmosphere was that of an awkward first date, quiet aside from forced small talk. The overall lineup appeared uncomfortable; the game seemed too big for some and for others No-Limit cash wasn’t their game of choice. I’m sure it’s a daunting task to cast something like this, but finding people who primarily play No-Limit cash at comparable stakes seems like the best starting point.
The crew at Turning Stone, by accident or design, nailed the chemistry. The whole group was very familiar with each other, generally close friends away from the felt, and overall great ambassadors of the game. The poker was very uninteresting compared to the banter which provided glimpses of the intricate details that make these individuals who they are. Then it happened, a perfect storm of events. Matesow had just lost the biggest pot of the session and was quietly doing all he could not to blow up. Still trying to shrug off the $40k pot he runs his jacks into quads…and is slow rolled. In the past his polarizing personality made him a villain to most, making his pain entertaining. But in recent years Mike has worked on reshaping his image to that of a time-tested veteran; a man who has battled demons on and off the felt, coming out a better person and player for it. His revamped image casts himself as the martyr when Shawn Deeb slow rolls him. To those in the know, it is what it is; borderline unethical but ultimately just another hand. But to the rest of the audience (the bulk of the target audience) this young kid is all but spitting in the face of a man who can’t seem to catch a break, a villan is born. The audience empathizes…they’re hooked.
Unfortunately, we can’t rely on the poker itself to constantly provide these must see tv moments. The results of a hand, a tournament, or even an entire career are completely uninteresting without context. Fortunately the show’s concept is rooted in the people providing the story lines. The real content comes once we open the doors and invite the world in to see what it is to play a game for a living, through the eyes of seasoned pros. I think through trial by fire, Poker Night In America will find a formula that allows their original vision to come to light, which is something poker has thirsted for since Black Friday.