Thursday, March 18, 2010

Raising the Stakes for Poker on TV: “High Stakes Poker”

All New High Stakes PokerFound time yesterday to catch up on the first five episodes of “High Stakes Poker” of 2010. These mark the start of the sixth season of the Game Show Network series which first aired in January 2006. The format of the show has remained essentially the same from past seasons, although with a couple of changes this time around.

The show returns to the Golden Nugget where it began in Season 1 and had returned for Season 5. One big difference is the removal of A.J. Benza who had previously joined Gabe Kaplan in the commentary booth. With Benza gone, Kara Scott has joined the show to host short segments and interview players.

The removal of Benza from the show garnered a lot of reaction on the forums, including a still-ongoing “Online Petition to bring Back AJ Benza for HSP” thread on Two Plus Two. For those joining that cause, the thinking is the “HSP” hosting/commentating formula had worked well for the first five seasons, so there was no reason to muck with it.

I, too, liked Benza’s contribution to the show. Despite being a funny guy himself -- Benza’s initial appearance on the Ante Up! show (in June 2008) was one of the funniest episodes of that podcast I can recall -- Benza mostly played the straight man to Kaplan on “HSP.” The pair (both Brooklyn natives, actually) seemed to have great chemistry and added a lot of flavor to the proceedings, both with the poker commentary and the humor.

So I wasn’t necessarily happy either when I’d heard Benza wouldn’t be returning, although that doesn’t mean I’m not glad to see Kara Scott on the show. When I first saw Scott at the 2008 World Series of Poker Main Event, I’d known she’d been a presenter or host on a couple of different poker shows in Europe, having worked on “Poker Night Live” and with the European Poker Tour. Scott made a deep run in that year’s WSOP ME, finishing 104th. I remember writing a little about her in a recap about one of the Day Twos here and having written a post about her late in the day over on PokerNews.

Kara Scott interviewing Antonio Esfandiari on 'High Stakes Poker'Scott does well, I think, in her somewhat limited role on “High Stakes.” I was surprised, actually, at how little screen time the producers give her, though in the short interviews both her poker knowledge and ease before the camera serve her well. This week, Jennifer Newell and I wrote a new “He Said/She Said” column for Woman Poker Player in which we discussed the subject of women and poker shows, and we both ended up remarking on how we thought Scott was underused on “HSP.” You can read those pieces here: He Said / She Said.

Meanwhile, Kaplan still gets to crack wise often enough. There do seem to be a few more quiet stretches with Benza gone, but Kaplan carries it well enough, and I remain a big fan of his humor and his poker commentary.

There are a couple of other small format changes to note. I’m noticing the frequent use of a graphic now and then to update us on stack sizes at the table -- a plus. (The minimum buy-in for the game is $200,000, with two players, Phil Ivey and Tom “durrrr” Dwan, having bought in for $500,000.) Also, Daniel Negreanu is hosting a brief “Did You Know” segment that is interesting enough, I guess.

What remains most interesting -- and the biggest reason why the show tops my list of faves on teevee -- is the poker. Many fascinating hands already on these first five episodes. I’m not gonna rehearse them here, both because I’d rather not spoil ’em for those who haven’t watched and intend to, and because I can’t hope to provide real analysis, but just share the reactions of a poker player/fan.

The first episode was dominated by Phil Hellmuth’s swift downfall, a rapid sequence that kicked off the season with a delicious sampling of schadenfreude. Although Kaplan says something about prop bets being forbidden this season, there have been several discussed already, including that big one involving Phil Ivey going vegetarian for a year. Meanwhile, Ivey once again shows his incredible acumen at the table, Negreanu struggles once again on the show, and other players come and go.

This most recent episode (the fifth one) was probably the most entertaining to watch so far. There were several all-in hands, though with a couple of exceptions most were not caused by the stacks being short but rather were consequent to a series of postflop decisions. One especially interesting hand took place between Jason Mercier and Ivey, a hand which Mercier recounts in an article from yesterday over on PokerListings.

Of course, the big highlight was the hand between Phil Ivey and Tom “durrrr” Dwan that concluded the fifth episode -- kind of a jawdropping hand on the order of the one from last year involving Dwan, Barry Greenstein, and Peter Eastgate. Ivey starts the hand with over $1 million, and Dwan with around $750,000. Watch and enjoy yourself:

I was saying last week how I hadn’t had a lot of time for watching poker on teevee. But if I’m only going to watch one show, this has got to be the one, yes?

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Blogger Otis said...

Wife went out for a bit last night and left me to my own devices. I needed a break from work and found I still had HSP on the DVR (although only the the past two weeks).

Unsolicited opinions:

1) I don't miss Benza. In fact, I think it was the right call to let him go.

2) Kara is very good in the role. I'd marry her but for the whole me already being married thing and the her being beautiful and famous thing.

3) The best part about the Ivey and Dwan hand was the lack of an edit. The editors could have cut the hand down by three minutes, but didn't. They let it breathe. Even my wife (who had made it home by that point) was interested in the hand and said she actually felt tense during the waiting.

4) I sort of wish they didn't waste time with Daniel's explanatory spots, but I guess it is what it is.

3/18/2010 10:55 AM  
Blogger Lucypher said...

HSP is, without a doubt, the best poker show on TV.

3/18/2010 12:26 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Barry Greenstein has said the hand took nearly 15 minutes to complete, so there was some editing that was done.

For those that do want Benza back, head to and play the AJ soundboard during the show.

3/18/2010 2:36 PM  

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