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  Poker not your game!
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No Bracelets, Just Benjamins on GSN's
"High Stakes Poker"

By Paul Kammen
January 24, 2006

High Stakes Poker made its debut on Monday, January 16th on GSN.  The game played is the one millions of Americans are now familiar with: no-limit Texas holdem, but the format is completely different.  There is no trophy, no platter with wads of hundred-dollar bills placed on the table when action is heads-up, no champagne toast to a champion.  Instead, itís all about the Benjamins.  The show is open to pros and amateurs alike.  The only rule?  It costs you $100,000 to get a seat.

Long before the World Poker Tour made its debut on TV, it wasnít no-limit tournaments that generated the most excitement, but cash games.  In 1949, crowds watched a weeks-long heads-up game between Johnny Moss and Nick "the Greek" Dandalos where millions were won and lost.  The most famous poker movie scenes, as in The Cincinnati Kid and Rounders, werenít of tournaments with buy-ins, but high-stakes cash games.  Even today, some of the best stories are those where real money, not tournament chips, is won and lost in cash games played on poker night around the country.

The show's producers decided to go with something new for TV: a cash game.  They teamed up with Henry Orenstein, the inventor of the in-table poker camera and seasoned producer.  High Stakes Poker will run over the course of 13 episodes.  Players featured include Daniel Alaei, Doyle Brunson, Todd Brunson, Dr. Jerry Buss, Fred Chamanara, Johnny Chan, Freddy Deeb, Eli Elezra, Antonio Esfandiari, Sam Farha, Ted Forrest, Barry Greenstein, Jennifer Harman, Phil Hellmuth, Dr. Amir Nasseri, Daniel Negreanu, Mimi Tran, Sean Sheikhan and Bob Stupak.  Announcers include A.J. Benza, former New York gossip columnist turned author, and Gabe Kaplan, once known for being TVís "Mr. Kotter" but now known for his poker expertise.

According to Kevin Belinkoff, vice president of programming for GSN, the idea emerged as a combination from GSN and Henry Orenstein.  The two had been kicking around ideas, and the idea for a cash game emerged, as it was something that had not yet been televised.  A high-stakes game has been played at the Bellagio for years, but is not open for the public to watch.  GSN and Orenstein knew there would be an interest in seeing such a game, so decided to create the series.  Belinkoff said the Golden Nugget was chosen as the venue for the show, as GSN has had a previous relationship with the casino, filming the World Series of Blackjack there.

The show: You wouldnít know you were in a casino.  The game is played in what seems to be a living room; in the background are couches and people watching the game.  In the first episode, Gabe Kaplan referred to these folks as "sweaters," people who were sweating out the swings with the players as they included friends, family members, and backers who had staked some of the players.  This setup is noticeably different from other poker shows, where an impersonal audience usually watches the action.  According to Belinkoff, "We wanted a much more exclusive feel than you get on the World Series, where you have a big audience."

While each episode is only one hour, the actual game is much longer.  Shooting, Belinkoff said, was for three days with eight hours of poker each day, so in all 24 hours of poker were on tape, then edited down for the 13 episodes.  (Interestingly, Belinkoff admitted that at the end of the taping sometimes the game would continue at another location.)  Players could come and go as they pleased, and there was no shortage of players, according to Belinkoff.  Players could also re-buy into the game at any time; Ted Forrest did this in the first episode, when getting a set cracked by a larger set.  This creates the uniqueness of the show and a very different feel.  It's "true poker," Belinkoff said, "the game people have been playing for years and years."

Belinkoff said it was fascinating to see the level of play: "Youíll see them win big pots on bluffs, play cards youíd normally never play and make big lay-downs."  And the mindset of the players is different, he said, than in a tournament.  In a televised tournament "Youíll see these guys kicking and screaming going all-in but ultimately itís just the buy-in.  Here, youíll see in one bet they push out a $25,000 bluff.  Throughout the run players win and lose hundreds of thousands in a few hands.  Itís a totally different strategy and different mindset.  When you are limited to the tournament chips they are played differently.  These people donít sweat. Greenstein loses $100,000 on a bad-beat, and big deal, itís just another day at the office."

The commentary is excellent.  Itís great to see Gabe Kaplan back behind the mike.  Belinkoff described Kaplan as "an incredible poker resource," and I couldnít agree more.  He gives solid analysis of the hands played and of the players, noting in the first episode a possible tell given by one of the amateur players that may have been picked up by another player at the table.  Benza is also solid as Kaplanís partner.

High Stakes Poker also has brief segments away from the game, with comments from players previously taped and a glimpse into their lives.  In the first episode there was a segment featuring Daniel Negreanu at a contest for his upcoming videogameStacked.

High Stakes Poker will air on Mondays from 9-10 p.m.  It will run new episodes until Monday, April 10th.  Canít be a railbird on Monday nights?  No problem.  The episodes repeat at 2 a.m., and again on Fridays at 10 p.m. until February 3rd, when Friday repeats will take place at 9 p.m.  More information on High Stakes Poker can also be found on GSNís website, www.gsn.com.


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Paul Kammen is an avid low-stakes poker player from the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He has played regularly at the Canterbury Card Club since it opened in 2000, playing primarily in low stakes Stud and Holdem games.  Since then,  he has played at various other casinos in Minnesota and Las Vegas,  and also plays regularly at the low-stakes tables on PokerStars.  He is the author of two books on poker, How To Beat Low-Limit 7-Card Stud Poker  (2003,  Cardoza Publishing) and How To Beat Seven Card Stud Eight-or-Better  (also available at ebookmall.com)  and available soon in print.

 

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