“Poker Night in America” — Behind the Scenes (Part 1)
“Poker Night in America” promises to feature our game as it has never been shown before.
Following an extensive four-day shooting schedule at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Upstate New York (what a place!), I’m confident in announcing that we’re on to something new that’s fun and exciting. Here’s just a glimpse at what’s happened since the television cameras have been rolling on location where the Empire State Poker Classic has been taking place. This is Part 1:
Thursday, August 9th
I’ve learned time and time again that trying to organize poker players is like herding cats. Make that wild tigers.
Well, this time the poker players all had their shit together, and I’m the one who blew it. I almost missed the flight because I couldn’t find the right terminal.
Eighteen of us were scheduled to fly on a private jet from Las Vegas to Rome (New York). Plane was scheduled to leave promptly at 10 am. Wouldn’t you know it? All the poker players made it on time, except me and one more (we’ll get to that in a moment). Somehow, I wrongly guessed that the terminal we were to depart from was in a different area of the airport. So, at 15 minutes until takeoff, there’s a mad scramble around the runways with me in a Volvo squealing my tires trying to find the right hangar and aircraft.
So, with 15 minutes to “spare” a head count is finally taken. One player is missing. Guess who?
At that instant, a loud rumble is heard off in the distance. It’s the hellraiser himself, Gavin Smith rolling into the executive terminal in his ass-kicking Harley-Davidson.
Keeping in mind now, that we’re going on a four-day trip. The following conversation takes place:
ME: Where the fuck is your luggage? Didn’t you bring any bags?
GAVIN: It’s here.
ME: Where, you mean in that tiny knapsack?
GAVIN: Yeah. Do you think I brought too much shit?
ME: Seriously, please tell me you have a bag, that you have luggage coming. This is a joke, right?
GAVIN: No, this is it.
ME: How many underwear do you have packed in there?
GAVIN: I don’t know. I didn’t count.
GAVIN: Whatever I’m wearing. That’s it.
ME: So, that’s all you are bringing with you?
GAVIN: Yeah, this plus $4 in my pocket.
The passenger list reads like party central: Gavin Smith, Phil Laak, Layne Flack, Mike Matusow, David “ODB” Baker, Kristy Arnett (from PokerNews), Lauren Billings (former Comedy Central writer), Greg Mueller, Shawn Buchanan, Eli Elezra, David Levi, David Williams, Tom Schneider, Marco Valerio (from QuadJacks), myself, Todd Anderson, and a camera crew.
The plane isn’t off the ground yet before Eli Elezra is already stuck a few thousand playing that demon game, Open-Face Chinese Poker. In fact, there are two games going. At this rate, half the flight will be busted by the time we’re at cruising altitude.
Fortunately, Todd Anderson had the foresight to bring a couple of bottles of Grey Goose Vodka for the flight — one for Gavin Smith and one for the other 17 of us. Both get polished off just about by the time we’ve crossed over the Mississippi River. By this time, Gavin is plowed worse than a cornfield, while mild-mannered Tom Schneider unbuckles his guitar and serenades the plane with some wonderfully sentimental, but ill-timed country music. Gavin latches on to a few of the catchy verses and murders the song, leaving poor Tom shell-shocked.
Turns out, Gavin is pissed as hell that Tom was allowed to bring the guitar, but he couldn’t bring his own 60-poound set of golf clubs. So, Tom simply won’t be allowed to do his thing in Gavin’s company.
Funny moment happens when pilot somehow slips past the entire group and the inexplicably exits from the rear bathroom. Layne Flack notices the pilot coming up the aisle and yells, “If you’re in the shitter, who’s flying the fucking plane?”
Pilot is apparently a huge poker fan and starts high-fiving all the players he recognizes from television. He announces that Eli Elezra is his favorite poker player, which pisses everyone else off. Pilot also says he’s going to hang out at the casino the next four days with us and will come by and check out the action. Meanwhile, Flack and Co. are still wondering who in the hell is flying the plane while the pilot is up here chatterboxing and sharing bad beat stories. Apparently, there’s a co-pilot, by the way. There’s your answer.
Some other great stuff happens, which I’ll keep under wraps until the television broadcast. Let’s just say it was a lightening-fast four hours that literally “flew by.” Never been on a cross-country flight before where the time went so quickly.
We land in a tiny airport in Rome, NY. Like we are the only plane. On the approach, the thing that’s most spectacular — especially to those of us who live in the desert year around — is how green everything is. Tall trees. Green pastures. Lakes and rivers. We land and it’s 74 degrees — about 30 notches less on the thermometer than the forecast for Las Vegas. It’s a nice summer break for everyone.
A really cool moment is standing out on the tarmac for 20 minutes waiting while the luxury bus comes to pick us up. Beats the hell out of walking through airports and trying to find baggage claim. So, this is how the “1 percent” lives? I can sure live with this.
Stewardess gets tipped like $300 and even the pilot gets a few hundred for getting us there safe (you should have seen the look on their faces as players are fishing out $20s and $50s for the flight crew). Hell, I think the fleet service man made a hundred for unloading 15 bags.
We all board the bus and then Gavin decides to play stand-up comedian for the entire 30-minute ride to the casino. One word: Torture. Even David Levi, who is the quietest person on the bus and never gets pissed about anything wants to drop kick Gavin off the motorcoach. After witnessing his “act,” I’d strongly suggest that Gavin keep his day job, that is — if only he had a day job.
We checks into their hotel room and freshens up for a bit. Poor Gavin’s credit card bounces at the front desk so someone has to forage a charge card for him so he can check in. Plus, he’s apparently got no ID other than an expired Canadian passport. Somehow a credit card surfaces and order is restored. We are to meet for a seat draw on the television set at 9 pm, which will be the first actual shooting at Turning Stone. In the meantime, I try to find a good restaurant.
Everyone knows my maniacal obsession with good food and proper restaurants. By this time of day, I’m a grizzly bear with a growling stomach in a horrible mood because I haven’t eaten in 22 hours (sans three vodka greyhounds on the plane, poured by Gavin).
Turning Stone has a nice Italian bistro right on property, which is my calling card for culinary reliability. Two spots that are almost always reliable — Thai and Italian. I walk in — and to my surprise — I see eight of the poker players already sitting there at a table that looks like Nero’s last supper. Bottles of this, glasses of that, plates everywhere, silverware falling off the table it’s so full. A chair is summoned and (to my outrage), they won’t let me order my own meal. I feel like a child.
“Nolan, we got plenty of food,” Shawn Buchanan shouts, “take what you want!”
I don’t fucking like eating after other people. Period. I want my own food. I want my own plate. I don’t care how good the food supposedly is, if it’s not served straight out of the kitchen to me, I won’t eat it. For instance, I won’t touch leftovers. Ever!
Well, the players don’t know any of this and don’t understand my phobias, and so they pretty much start piling mounds of food onto my plate like I’m a Great Dane. By the time the plate gets back to me, the plate looks like a disposal. Lasagna is mixed with fetticini, which is mixed with salmon. And the food is touching!
I don’t like my food touching!
I gingerly attempt to scarf down a portion of lasagna that hasn’t been contaminated with salmon flavor. Remember, I’m starving. I maybe get three bites that I can stomach. The waitress comes by and asks if we want more bread. Entire table is stuffed, and I scream “Hell yes!” She brings the bread and I wolf down an entire loaf, plus a stick of butter, washed down by a full bottle of Pellegrino. That’s my “dinner.”
Bill comes. For ten people in this casual Italian restaurant, it’s $999.00 (to the penny). Credit card roulette is played and (I think) Eli Elezra gets stuck with the entire bill. Too bad. I think he had two small slices of cheese pizza and an iced tea and got whacked for a full fucking dime.
Nine o’clock rolls around and it’s seat draw time for the high-stakes cash games. Here, I’ll also remain coy and leave it at that. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun both on and off the set.
After that, we head to the bar (surprise) where a strategy session is summoned. Oddest thing the rest of the outside world doesn’t understand is that here’s where the real decisions often get made. I’ve been in plenty of “board meetings” in the real world around walnut tables in dull office buildings made of glass. Trust me when I say that ideas get much more creative when you’re in a bar or restaurant talking business. First of all, no one wants to leave. Second of all, the ideas just tend to be more outside the box. Third, it’s just more fucking fun that way.
Past midnight, I’d walking up to my hotel room when I see Matusow, Baker, Buchanan — plus Shawn Deeb who has joined the traveling circus. A few others, too. They’re all playing Chinese Poker in the lobby of the hotel. Cards are spread out all over the place — probably the first time I’ve seen higher stakes gambling going on the lobby of a hotel than out on the casino floor.
What was most funny was seeing the regular tourists checking into the hotel, glancing over at a game they didn’t understand, playing for stakes they couldn’t fathom. Let’s just say there were quite a few confused blue hairs.
The day ended nearly 3,000 miles from where it had begun. The following morning our first full production day was to start. Most of us had no idea what would happen, or even what we were doing. But the television cameras were sure to be rolling, there to capture every thrilling and terrifying moment.
Photo Below: Here I am with Todd Anderson, President of Rush Street Productions. I receive far too much of the credit for many of the things going on, when it’s Todd and the fine people who work for him who are pulling the most weight. I’ll write more about these terrific people in the next few chapters.