Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Do you have what it takes to play...

For the past few years I've enjoyed watching Poker on television. From the ground breaking World Poker Tour coverage (the first televised tournament circuit to use "hole cameras" to look at players hidden cards) to the World Series of Poker on ESPN and a few others. It's a fun time, to be sure, but I was always suspicious that I was missing the bigger picture.

Enter the Game Show Network. Their program, High Stakes Poker, blows all the other poker shows away by far. It is not tournament Poker, where players frequently risk their "tournament lives". This is a cash game. Players are putting their own actual money in jeopardy. The minimum buy in for the High Stakes game is $100,000. The most a player will buy in for in a typical WPT or WSOP event is under $10,000.

In tournaments, especially WPT events, the blinds and antes escalate at a tremendous rate; artificially generating excitement and putting the onus on luck for a player to win. In High Stakes, the blinds and antes stay the same, granted you'd still lose $1700 every round of play, but even so the players are able to really use their poker skills, as opposed to automatically going "all in" when they get short stacked. This show really is a poker clinic, a showcase for some of the best in the game.

Interestingly though, since tournament players are the pros we all know, they are the ones who are mostly in the High Stakes TV show. Cash game champs, like Todd Brunson, are fewer in number; although players who are proficient at both like Daniel Negraneu or Barry Greenstein do fill out the field. Especially hilarious this last season was tournament great Phil Hellmuth finding out that he didn't have nearly the cash game prowess he thought he had.

Best of all though, is commentator Gabe "Welcome Back Kotter" Kaplan, who mixes just the right amount of sharp wit and sarcastic humor with insightful poker brain power. He makes watching the show a real joy.

And speaking of joy, when watching High Stakes, it becomes evident that there is a noticeable lack of joy around the table at key times. I absolutely think this is the biggest and most brilliant element in High Stakes.

In the somewhat sanitized realm of the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker, we never get insight into the dark side of the game. When people bust out they've lost their entry fee. Very rarely they blow up (i.e. notorious hot heads like Matisow or Hellmuth) but you never get a visceral sense of the gut wrenching pain that poker can deliver.

I have played in enough low stakes home games where things got testy, to know that Poker can be utterly brutal and merciless. Guys (regrettably including myself on occasion) get angry over losing $20. High Stakes gives us more than a glance at this truth. When a player gets clobbered, we really get to see the pain, and what some would call the unsavory side of poker. Tension, angst. It's all there. And I think it is an absolutely crucial part of the game that has been all but lost through the white washed lens of television.

When I day dream about making it "big" in poker, High Stakes is the program that keeps me grounded in reality, and I enjoy it that much more for it's utter honesty. It shows that those who are truly successful at this game can take the good luck with the unbelievably brutal bad luck - and persevere.

So, if you are at all a fan of Poker on TV, you must, must, MUST watch High Stakes Poker on the Game Show Network. It's poker, for real.

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